Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby” was perfect, then Madonna got a hold of it

Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby” was perfect, then Madonna got a hold of it

The A.V. Club loves the holiday season, and we also love opening small doors and eating the stale chocolate lurking behind them. We’ve found a way to combine those things with our love of pop culture, and we’re hoping you’ll join us through the holiday to open one of our virtual doors and find out which holiday-themed entertainment we’re covering that day. This week’s theme: having fun at holiday time.

There is no Christmas song more polarizing than “Santa Baby.” When it plays at the mall or an office party, people generally perk up with delight or roll their eyes and theatrically groan. Chances are good that you either consider it a fun alternative to traditional carols, or you believe it’s the living, breathing embodiment of everything that’s gone wrong with our modern holiday season. You’d think that volunteering to write this piece would mean I’m one of the delighted, but you’d be wrong. I can’t count how many stores I’ve run out of the second I hear the dreaded opening “ba doom”s, how many iPods I’ve taken hostage at parties in a desperate attempt to change the song, or how many friends who’ve caught a withering glares once they admit to thinking it’s “cute.” There is no halfway when it comes to “Santa Baby.” You’re either in or you’re kicking and screaming your way out.

One, the song unabashedly fawns over the commercial aspect of the holiday. The singer lists off the extravagant presents she wants, ranging from a sable to a convertible to a yacht. And she doesn’t just ask for these things, she demands them. After all, she adds with a smirk, that’s really not a lot—at least not for someone of her caliber. With the implication that she is as good as it gets, baby, the song reveals its other, more sensual half. Eartha Kitt originally recorded the song to great acclaim in 1953, but it was Madonna’s version for a 1987 charity Christmas album that cranked the sex appeal up to 11, even as it was simpered through a thick New York-ish accent. Madonna’s voice is almost unrecognizable as she raises it half an octave to reach the aggressively cutesy “baby voice” that the song has come to be associated with today. Kitt’s vamping version was popular, but Madonna’s infantilized-Lolita take was the catalyst for the explosion of covers and parodies that followed, not to mention my kneejerk disdain.

Looking into the many, many versions of “Santa Baby” feels a little like falling through the looking glass. Once you tumble end-over-end past Kitt and Madonna, you find Kylie Minogue channeling Madonna with her inner pin-up girl. Then you whip past a laundry list of country debutantes alternately swapping their cowboy boots for Jessica Rabbit sultriness (Leann Rimes, Kellie Pickler), or trying their damnedest to clean it up (Taylor Swift). You’ll veer past the Pussycat Dolls’ eschewing of nuance with their fur-trimmed bikinis and thrusting hips and wonder if maybe they just took Mean Girls’ parody of sexy Christmas carolers seriously, before stumbling into Macy Gray’s take for Mona Lisa Smile, which owes more to Kitt than the Material Girl. Then, suddenly, Zachary Levi’s telling you Shakira’s here to “heat things up,” and so she is, covered in diamonds and echoing Madonna’s raised pitch so there’s barely any hint of her own throaty caterwaul left. Halloween has the sexy black cat; Christmas has Santa babes.

Tumble a little further, and you’ll hit some fictional performances that entrust their leading ladies with this most sacred of sultry tunes. Maybe you’ll catch the deleted Glee scene with Santana Lopez (Naya Rivera) charming a jewelry store into giving her discounts, or the slapdash music video starring the telegenic cast of One Life To Live and the white-walled studio every ’90s family of four used for their mantelpiece portraits. But you’ll definitely see Ally McBeal (Calista Flockhart) shocking her cohorts with a performance that drips with sex, inspiring her boss to stick a dollar in her dress as her voice echoes that of a third-grader. The most revealing part is Ally’s friend Elaine (Jane Krakowski), mouthing the words as she beams with pride. She’s the one who convinced Ally this was the song to sing; what other song gets you into the Christmas spirit with the thrill of the tease?

Then, just when you think you have the lay of the aggressively sexy lady land, you crash into one of the more confusing parts of your journey—the dudes. This genus of “Santa Baby” covers swaps out sex appeal for self-referential winks, perpetually acknowledging that, yes, these are men covering this feminine song, and isn’t that something, wink wink? Michael Buble’s Christmas album features one of the purest forms. Santa’s not Buble’s baby, but his “buddy,” his “pal-ly,” his “dude.” He would even rather have a “steel blue” convertible than a “light blue” one, and really, won’t Santa think of all the “hotties” that he hasn’t kissed? Everclear asks Santa to slip a guitar under the tree, but otherwise lets its male singer carry the brunt of the gender-swapped irony. If you go deep enough, you’ll hit country’s own Homer And Jethro asking Santie to get them guitar picks so they can stop using their toenails. And no dude cover is more simultaneously jarring and wonderful than Run-DMC’s version from 1997, which ruminates on inner-city Christmases with help from Snoop Dogg, Salt-N-Pepa, Keith Murray, and Puff Daddy (or possibly P. Diddy).

If you don’t have whiplash by the end of this tumultuous journey through pet names for an elderly paternal figure, you’ll be rewarded with the woman who started it all.

I had heard Kitt’s version, but its cutesy successors were already firmly ingrained in my Christmas consciousness. Yet I had never actually seen it. So when I sat down to watch a Kitt performance from 1953, it became immediately obvious that it’s nothing like the “Santa Baby” I had come to know and loathe. Kitt is electric—not in the neon sense, but in a way that makes you sure that if you got too close, you’d feel the thrill of a static shock merrily buzzing through your fingertips.

Watching this performance, it’s no surprise that Kitt took great pride in performing “intimately,” as if she were singing to an audience of one, and that’s exactly how it feels when you lock eyes with her, even through a computer screen in 2013. In fact, she would later rail against a generation of “entertainers” who had driven “true artists” into extinction, including those who would include “Santa Baby” in their repertoires. “I used to have a lot of fun with this song,” Kitt once told an audience as the plunking bass line started up, “and then Madonna sang it.”

It’s easy to forget that Eartha Kitt’s first purred “Santa, baby” was an immediate challenge to the myriad wholesome Christmas songs that sought to make jolliness a December state of mind. Those songs are the musical equivalent of hot cocoa; Kitt’s “Santa Baby” is a deceptively strong cup of eggnog. Her lightly gravelly voice lends Joan Javits and Philip Springer’s song an earthiness that had never before belonged to Christmas. Bare-shouldered, eyes heavy-lidded, Kitt entreats Santa to realize just how good she’s been, how good she is, and hurry down the damn chimney already. It’s a burlesque show that dares to make its stage out of a hearth.

Kitt was 26 when she first performed “Santa Baby.” It was also the year she recorded her album That Bad Eartha, which included her hit single “C’est Si Bon,” but, more importantly to this discussion, the electrifying “I Want To Be Evil.”

It starts with an innocent girl waiting for her presents underneath the Christmas tree, as she turns to the camera and croons, “Prim and proper, the girl who’s never been kissed.” Then, with a cock of her head and a wicked glint in her eye, Kitt unleashes the id that lies dormant in “Santa Baby”: “Well, I’m tired of being pure and not chased.” “I want to be evil, I want to be mad / But more than that, I want to be bad.” In an interview with NPR the year before her death, Kitt watched her younger self in “I Want To Be Evil” and let out a bemused cackle. “When I listen to it now,” she said fondly, “it’s that little girl who had the desire to be wicked and kicking up her heels and saying I want this, I want this.” But Kitt was quick to add, “She wanted to earn it.” It sounds like the exact opposite of the consumer-driven “Santa Baby,” and in the same interview, Kitt agreed. But she also admitted that “Santa Baby” helped her learn a valuable lesson:

“Every time I sing ‘Santa Baby,’ I laugh more at myself… The song says, ‘Santa Baby, slip a sable under the tree.’ Well, all the men who have done that with me never stayed with me. So I realize everything that I want in life I have to pay for myself, and I really love that because then nobody owns me but me—and my public, of course.”

So no, Eartha Kitt never really needed Santa, baby. But like it or not, she was the smirk that launched a thousand willing checks in Santa’s naughty column. There will always be girls and boys who want to be a little wicked, and Kitt was the first to tell them that’s okay—even during the holidays. She might not have loved the cover versions, but by the time she died in 2008 on Christmas Day, she could at least know that no one had ever come close to owning her.

Tomorrow: The album that launched a million Advent Calendar entries.

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