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Christmas Songnerd: Santa Baby

2011 December 7

It’s December.

I have no idea how that happened so fast, but either way you can’t now enter the local shopping centre without being bombarded by Now That’s What I Call The Best Xmas… Ever! (Vol.64). In honour of the season, I thought, time allowing, that I’d do some little case studies on some of the songs currently assaulting your ears as you shop. You may hate all Christmas music, or you may love it – personally I’ve never minded it much – but pop singles are like miniature time capsules, so examining their gender politics, and what happens to these when new artists cover them, is one way to divert your brain into a state of broad feminist contemplation rather than all-out anti-consumerist rage in the queue at HMV1.

Um. I said contemplation. But I can’t guarantee that every vid embedded in this series I’m proposing won’t have you reaching for a pretty stiff drink.

Been an Awful Good Girl

Anyway! Cast your mind, readers, back to the postwar baby boom – specifically 1953. Elizabeth II ascends the throne here in the UK! Everest is climbed and DNA discovered! And the volume of the Kinsey Reports titled Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female, an attempt to research women’s sexual appetites and desires, is published to great controversy and brouhaha. And in December, this guy called Hugh Hefner launches some magazine or other and sells over 54,000 copies. The cultural melting pot for the sexual revolution of the Sixties is neatly bubbling away.

Christmas novelty smash hits have become a Thing since the War – White Christmas came out in 1942. And into this arena slinks Santa Baby, recorded by Eartha Kitt and penned by Joan Javits (a Republican Senator’s niece). It sashays onto the airwaves with a ba-boom-ba-boom of barbershoppy backing vocals, tongue shoved firmly in its cheek.

These days it’s been heard so often and covered enough times that people seem to have forgotten that it’s witty, that it actually stands out as distinct from more earnest fare like White Christmas. White Christmas is about a generation of people longing for their loved ones during the War. It dreams of idyllic peacetime Christmases. Santa Baby, on the other hand, is a playful and sly kick in the tender area for rising peacetime consumerism, as well as a tale of a trophy wife who always wants more stuff, from yachts to platinum mines to rings (not on the phone). In 1954 Eartha re-recorded a version called This Year’s Santa Baby, the lyrics of which reveal that the yacht wasn’t all it was cracked up to be and our heroine still isn’t satisfied.

Come And Trim My Christmas Tree / With Erotic Capital From Tiffany

For the feminists in the queue at HMV, especially those being subjected to the Pussycat Dolls version, this is naturally not unproblematic, not least because the kind of woman the song portrays appears to be exactly what Catherine Hakim, in her book Honey Money, wants women to aspire to be like. Without any tongue in cheek about it. And Honey Money only came out this year, despite the fact that it appears to be the product of what happens when you take Eartha Kitt completely literally. The gold digger the song portrays is a popular stereotype, and the song’s contemporary with the postwar rise in popularity of the “male breadwinner” family model, which wasn’t economically feasible across all social classes. More generally, of course, it’s a riff on a whole social trope around women’s bodies and feminine sexual allure as a source of transactional power.

I think for a lot of people, being exposed to the versions Kylie, the ‘Dolls et al have come out with has somehow managed to dampen our sense of the irony within the original – which makes more sense within the context of more ‘wholesome’ Fifties Christmas music, which it does snerk at, and class politics of the time – perhaps because newer versions are contemporary with many songs that aren’t particularly ironic in their appreciation of Worldly Stuff?

Shame, really, because Eartha had this sending up the golddigger stereotype thing pretty down. Check out her recording of Old Fashioned Millionaire, which is similar to Santa Baby but ever so slightly more acerbic, ably sending up cliches of postwar consumerism, patronising Empire-era South Pacific-style racism (which as a mixed race performer she was certainly no stranger to) and middle class pretensions around social properness and upward mobility with lines like “I want an old fashioned house with an old fashioned fence / and an old fashioned millionaire” and “I like Chopin and Bizet / and the songs of yesterday / String quartets and Polynesian carols / But the music that excels / is the sound of oil wells / as they slurp-slurp-slurp into the barrels…”

Some Very Different Covers

There are a lot of other covers of the song out there, like the bratty pop-punk stylings of the DollyrotsWikipedia lists loads. Most notable for me, in very different ways, are these two.

RuPaul’s 1997 cover takes precisely no prisoners, announcing “Been an awful good queen”, and adding in caustic asides like “Now honey, Miss RuPaul has been so good, it just hurts, and now I want you to reciprocate… by givin’ me a few ITEMS, you know…” and the wink-nudge reply to “come and trim my Christmas tree…” of “Honey, you ain’t trimmin’ nothin’.”

Surely after that glorious effort there was nowhere else the song could really go, right?


Santa Buddy

From the sublime, dear readers, to the ever so slightly ridiculous.

For lo, Santa Baby has just this year been covered again by – wait for it – Michael Bublé, god-emperor of bland, whose official site bio at the time of writing boasted frankly awesomely reality-disconnected statements like “his essence remains solid as a rock”, and “like Elvis”. But let’s not stare into that particular abyss too long – back to Santa Baby, for which Bublé’s version has completely rewritten the lyrics to recast the entire song as being about… um… a straight dude who likes presents.

That’s it.

No erotic funny business round here; Michael’s after CARS and FOOTBALL TICKETS and he’s going to MAKE PLATONIC MANLY BRO-FRIENDS with Santa until he gets them. Clearing all that flirting out the way – presumably to make room for all the “decorations bought from … Mercedes”, because I have NO idea how you hang a car bonnet on a Christmas tree, after all – he cracks out “Santa, buddy” at one point, and makes sure to stipulate that the convertible needs to be “steel blue”, since presumably “light blue” wasn’t quite macho enough. Though I’m not sure it really works, it’s fascinating – and the complete opposite of what RuPaul does with it. He even throws in a fastidiously heteromanly “I’ll wait up for you, dude“, to avoid looking too camp.

Of course, in this, as with nearly everything else Michael Bublé attempts to accomplish that isn’t looking like every photo of him would be marvellously improved by the addition of hungry velociraptors, he fails hilariously.

Mind you, to be fair to Michael, for every alteration he makes to keep the conversation with Santa strictly platonic – “Santa pally” (?!) – he also adds in “been a sweetie all year” rather than Eartha Kitt’s original “been an angel”, and where Eartha has “think of all the fellas that I haven’t kissed”, Michael’s got “hotties”, which is pretty gender neutral, the writers clearly being aware that in the marketing niche he belongs in, squarely between Ronan Keating and Will Young, for every five straight middle aged women buying his records, there’s also a pretty significant gay following – he mentioned it himself with some enthusiasm in an interview.

And really, for all the “women like jewellery and men like… CARS” binary implications in there… there’s something about the way he goes “forgot to mention one little thing / cha-ching!” that just isn’t really all that macho after all. It’s almost rather sweet. Or maybe I’ve been looking at all those images of him being stalked by raptors just a bit too much and started feeling sorry for him.

It only seems right to end such a string of different treatments of a song about femininity and consumerism with the ultimate scion of both: Miss Piggy. I truly believe that she is perhaps the only one who’s almost on a par with Eartha herself. Think of all the froggies she hasn’t kissed!

Enjoy your Christmas shopping as far as possible. I’m contemplating tackling Christmas Wrapping by the Waitresses next. AREN’T YOU EXCITED. I BET YOU CANNOT WAIT.

  1. NB: for the record I’m inclined to think said rage quite justified, but at the same time, you probably can’t afford a criminal damages bill in these pressing times of recession and tinsel. []
5 Responses leave one →
  1. wererogue permalink
    December 10, 2011

    Ooh, I’m going to enjoy this series.

  2. December 10, 2011

    Wow. That’s… amazing. In Buble’s mouth, all the… kinda icky kinda sorta kinky kinda ageplay-ish stuff is really accentuated: I had visions of him here as some small subby boy. With Kitt’s version, the main theme seems to be the gold digger: it feels like the subbiness, virginity, and ageplay elements are just so normal that they’re not noticed.

    Buble raptors! I couldn’t read the Buble bits out to my lover for crying with laughter too much : )

    • Miranda permalink*
      December 11, 2011

      I’ve listened to it a few times now and I’m still bemused by it, but I love bemusing covers so in a way I’m glad it exists.

      In the original sexual undertones are heavily implied because the listeners are already steeped in the idea of feminine beauty as a source of… economic bargaining power? The heroine reminds me of a few cinematic characters; I was chatting to our Sarah J yesterday and she mentioned Marilyn Monroe’s character in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (released the same year as Santa Baby) who at one point says “Don’t you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty?”.

      Anyway, this whole discourse is woven so heavily through the song’s entire lyrical structure that when Buble’s version tries to remove all that stuff and replace it with “good clean boy’s fun”… it just sort of leaves a suggestive void which immediately had me listening all the harder for the implied flirty bits!

  3. December 19, 2012

    Just rediscovered this post via a Twitter link. Amusingly, we have The Muppets’ Christmas album on in the office right now, so I’ve just heard Miss Piggy’s version. Loved it! I had no idea that RuPal had done a cover though :-)

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