Mychal Wilmes: Mind your words as well as manners

December 26, 2018
Mychal Wilmes

Angelic artists painted trees and fences white on a Christmas card morning bathed in fog. Meanwhile, holiday songs by Sandi Patti, Burl Ives and Tony Bennett wafted through the house.

Dean Martin, he of the smooth voice and “when the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore,’’ sang the duet “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,’’ a tune with origins dating back to the 1940s. The song’s lyrics involve a man trying to convince a reluctant lady friend that she should stay longer.

A classic it is, but it has become mired in controversy. Critics argue that it should be dropped from playlists because its lyrics and theme amount to nothing less than a date-rape anthem. Others argue the controversy is the latest example of hyper-sensitivity run amok.

Artists and songs have offended sensibilities since the first 78 rpm record was spun.

The black population — ignored and overtly discriminated against during the Jim Crow era — were appalled when white Eddie Cantor crooned in black face. Elvis’ swiveling hips threatened the virtue of a generation of young women; Beatles songs played backward contained messages from the dark side; and rap songs glorified gun violence and sexual abasement.

Some once-popular songs are particularly cringe-worthy. Among those high on my list is Paul Anka’s “Having My Baby,’’ which shot up the charts in 1975 even as the women’s rights movement flowered. I was initially tone-deaf to its offensiveness until educated by a spirited college classmate.

The lines that most offended her and others were “Having my baby, what a lovely way of saying that you love me … What a lovely way of saying that you’re thinking of me.’’

The antidote to this banality is Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman,’’ which was a smash in the early 1970s.

It might well be that as a society we are too easily offended, but few of even the most offended would support censorship like that practiced in the movie industry for most of the 20th century.

The Motion Picture Censorship Code was enforced in the movie industry from 1934 until 1968. The code — created in response to scandalous behavior among Hollywood stars and starlets and out of concern that the offenses could influence public behavior — banned a litany of things deemed too offensive for public viewing, including child birth, nudity, drug use, ridicule of clergy and sexual acts, discussions or deviations.

Daring directors and independent filmmakers pushed the limits to the breaking point. The code was eventually ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court due to protections in the First Amendment.

While true that lyrics and words can offend, they can also uplift.

Well-crafted words — be they spoken to inspire like President Kennedy’s “ask not what your country can do for you’’ or Ronald Reagan’s “Mister Gorbachev, tear down this wall’’ — have an enduring quality.

Words spewed in anger can damage an individual or an entire race.

Simple sentences can have lifelong impacts. I’m certain it has happened to you. A parent who insisted you could do it despite your inner doubts; a boss who stressed positives; and a child who said, “I love you’’ can lift us to reveal our better nature.

Words gave me hope when I otherwise found none.

Mother insisted I could be a good speller with more practice at the supper table; a professor who said that wasted talent was a great sin; and the clergy who recommended that it is much better to be yourself than to pretend to be someone else.

We all have choices in the words we use, listen to and heed. Every day I hope I make better choices than I did the day before.

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