Full confession: I’ve never really liked the song “Baby, it’s cold outside”. I always have found it a bit creepy, and I’d certainly like to keep my children from hearing it enough to start singing along with it on the radio. In other words, I won’t miss it if it goes to the cultural guillotine, as many are calling for.
Still, I have to say, I’m a bit surprised: When did we start caring about song lyrics?
We didn’t seem to worry about them much this April, when Lil Dicky got a number 1 hit for musing about what it would be like to have other people’s genitals, their lists of hoes, and their freedom to throw the n-word around. Where was this outrage when Robin Thicke was making non-consensual assumptions about a “good girl” in “Blurred Lines”, or Ben Harper was crossing State lines to follow (also known as stalk) a girl who apparently didn’t want to see him, so that he could “Steal My Kisses”? And these guys are just normal. I recently noticed that more than half of the top ten songs on iTunes were marked as explicit. Once, on State-sponsored RTÉ radio, I heard a news report about Ireland’s deepening drug problem, followed immediately by a song called “My Happy Little Pill”. Seriously.
And we’re outraged by “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”?
Maybe it’s just a song I don’t like. Maybe I won’t miss it. But I do think this cultural moment marks something much bigger than any song in itself. There’s a corner being turned in the western world, and around the bend is a road we’ve been on before: censorship.
But this new censorship is different from the old variety. The old censorship was based on a logical moral system, and whether you agreed with it or not, it had a kind of consistency to it. Obviously, many of its proponents were hypocrites, and the system in Ireland was corrupt, but what of the new censorship? What is its logical foundation? Now that we are beginning to allow speech to be censored again, how will we judge what kinds of speech make the cut? I’m asking because so far, it seems fairly inconsistent. The outrage falls unexpectedly, destroying one song and leaving other (obviously worse) songs unscathed. What is our standard? What kind of new conformity are we aiming for, and how strictly are we willing to enforce it?
Without any universal standard to go by, the only foundation left for the new censorship is the shifting sand of popular opinion, shaped in large part by those powerful enough to make their voices heard. If this is how we’re going to do things now, there will certainly be a chill in the air over free speech. I’m beginning to think maybe it is cold outside.