Bringing sexy back: Santa Baby is the most unappreciated Christmas song

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Every year on November 1, in what has become a bizarre holiday tradition of sorts, Mariah Carey takes to her social media and releases a new spectacular video, declaring “It’s time!” Halloween is over, and the Christmas season has begun. Is November too early? A debate for another time. But Carey’s declaration means exactly one thing: get ready for Christmas music. Lots of it.

Everyone has their favourite Christmas songs. Everyone has Christmas songs they can’t stand. There is one song that has all too often fallen in the latter category, arguably the most misunderstood and unfairly ridiculed Christmas song of all time: Santa Baby.

Since its release by Eartha Kitt in 1953, Santa Baby has become a staple of Christmas compilation CDs and playlists. Yet despite its ubiquity, it is often derided as one of the worst popular Christmas songs there is, routinely voted onto lists of the silliest, most annoying or most hated Christmas songs ever.

Santa Baby is a great song!

Not only is Santa Baby nowhere near as annoying as other holiday staples like I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Clause or Little Drummer Boy, it’s genuinely brilliant.

For the uninitiated, in Santa Baby our protagonist (usually a woman) sings her Christmas letter to Santa, asking for a list of increasingly extravagant gifts as, shall we say, “persuasively” as possible.

The common complaints lobbed at the song are that it is shallow, brazenly materialistic, and overly suggestive for a holiday song.

But… like, that’s the point.

She asks for a sable, an expensive Russian fur. She asks for a convertible. She asks for a yacht. It’s “not a lot”, she says. She asks for the deed to a platinum mine! And she delivers each request in a tone laced with a devilish sensuality that suggests she has every intention of getting what she wants.

Santa Baby is meant to be sexy. And it’s meant to be funny. It’s a burlesque-style tongue-in-cheek takedown of capitalist extravagance and materialism, and an empowered anthem of female sensuality and desire.

The worst versions of the song are the ones that don’t realise that. Eartha Kitt delivers the track with a worldliness and subtlety that belies the superficiality of the lyrics. In contrast, Taylor Swift’s country-pop version (released way back in 2007, just after the release of her first album) lacks the maturity and allure necessary for the song’s true meaning to shine. And then there’s Michael Buble’s take, which commits the double sin of being both ostentatious and boring, and is virtually unlistenable as a result.

The best versions, on the other hand, are the ones that dial up the sex appeal and relish the barbs. The most iconic version, as far as this writer is concerned, is by Australia’s very own Kylie Minogue. It’s sultry and cheeky, a worthy tribute to the original that weaponises Kylie’s slinky vocal delivery to create a tantalising Christmas masterwork.

American R&B singer Tamar Braxton’s version is the very concept of yearning set to music, breathy and seductive. No desperation, just unapologetic want. Meanwhile, RuPaul’s dazzling version is typical of the drag show titan – deliciously saucy and playfully acerbic, peppered with quips and reminders to ‘not forget the cash’.

The criticisms of Santa Baby are no doubt rooted in the kind of puritanical moralism and socially ingrained misogyny that renders any song about female desire provocative by its very existence. Santa Baby is Christmas’ Like A Prayer by Madonna or WAP by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion.

Those who suggest Santa Baby misses the point of Christmas by being too suggestive or too materialistic are actually the ones missing something. No secular Christmas song better defends the spirit of the season. By stretching the extravagance and entitlement to the brink of ridiculousness, Santa Baby shines a glaring spotlight on the greedy corporatisation of Christmas that has transformed the holiday into a celebration of things, rather than people.

Phillip Roth once said, “Satire is moral outrage transformed into comic art.” And that’s Santa Baby. It’s more than a funny, sexy bop. It’s gosh darn art. This Christmas, let’s embrace the spirit of the best holiday song there is. We’re in for a hot summer – why shouldn’t Christmas be a little steamy?

Tom W Clarke’s Shoulda Been Higher: A Celebration of 30 Years of Triple J’s Hottest 100 is out now.

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