Dylan Jones: If You Ask Me

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The Independent Online

If you ask me, "Baby, It's Cold Outside" is the greatest seduction tool known to mankind. Or at least an alternative to three or four pints of Wife Beater, half a dozen flaming sambucas, a rented kebab (let's face it, they're not often kept for long) and a night in the cells. I was reaquainted with it a few weeks ago via a YouTube clip of a breathtaking performance of the song by Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Shore from Shore's own TV show in 1959. It's regarded by many aficionados as one of the greatest jazz performances ever, and the duo's vocal dexterity is something to behold.

The song is a double hander written by Frank Loesser (think: "Luck Be a Lady", "Two Sleepy People" and "Slow Boat To China") in 1944, starring a dinner-jacketed chap ("the wolf") smitten with a gal ("the mouse") who's got to get home by curfew (real or imagined). It's a classic case of insincere pleading and indecisive protests and is consequently extremely sexy.

Most seduction songs envelope you in swirls of either maudlin or libidinous instrumentation, or tug at your heart strings with melodramatic lyrics (and if we're honest, the best do both). But few simply plonk you down in the middle of a cocktail party, stick a martini glass in your hand and let you fend for yourself. This is what gives Loesser's song such depth, and like a lot of other Cole Porter-style-white-tie-and-cigarette-holder tunes from that era, it reinforces the fact that frivolity can be so moving. To wit: "The neighbours might think ... Baby, it's bad out there / Say, what's in this drink ... No cabs to be had out there / I wish I knew how ... Your eyes are like starlight now..." etc etc.

In 1948, after years of informally performing it at parties (the writer had premiered the song at a housewarming party, singing it with his wife), Loesser sold the rights to MGM, which inserted it into the 1949 film, Neptune's Daughter, earning Loesser an Oscar in the process. When the song was at its most popular (and in the 1950s it was covered as often as "Angels" is now sung by drunk secretaries on karaoke evenings) it was usually only played around Christmas, due to its wintry lyrics – although as popular culture increasingly thrives on incongruity, I'm lobbying for it to become an ironic summer standard.

Take care out there: wear a coat.

Dylan Jones is the editor of 'GQ'

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