It’s been said that “Santa Baby” is one of those songs that never needed to be re-recorded after its original Eartha Kitt version in 1953. How could anyone ever top it? Of course, that was shot to shit with 1987’s somewhat offensively titled Christmas compilation with Keith Haring album artwork created to benefit the Special Olympics, A Very Special Christmas. With song staples of the Christmas canon re-worked by 80s icons of the day, including “Winter Wonderland” by Eurythmics, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” by The Pretenders and, of course, the song that has spurred the entire reason behind this defense, “Santa Baby” by Madonna.
Let us first take stock of Madonna’s incarnation at this time. Who’s That Girl had just come out in August (see footage of the premiere in Times Square for proof of its vague initial promise of box office success). Also misunderstood and under appreciated for its camp value for the same reason as “Santa Baby,” Madonna’s “shtick,” as some might cynically refer to it, was to take on a sort of combination Carole Lombard/Judy Holliday/Marilyn Monroe intonation and persona for the perfect blend of innocent screwball meets sex symbol. But audiences of 1987 simply weren’t having it. And neither are they today, apparently. Even with the trend of “ironically” loving something that has bled out of Brooklyn and beyond, “Santa Baby” is still consistently cast aside for being too grating, vexing, etc. Accordingly, you’re never going to see it re-charting on a yearly basis the way, say, known Madonna shade-thrower Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” does. In this one bizarre regard, society can’t get on board with a non-conventional, non-traditional version of a remake, preferring the sultry vocals of the original to the baby-voiced tone of Madonna’s offering.
Yet, as usual, her recording of the track paved the way for the barrage of holiday covers (including others of “Santa Baby” by the likes of Kylie Minogue and Gwen Stefani) that would become popular in subsequent years and decades–herself, however, never deigning to record a full Christmas album because she is the 24-karat woman she plays in the song, demanding yachts and mines and a duplex (yes, just one). She’s not the sort to ever need to be a shill for the royalties of a pandering Xmas record. And then there is the layer that original writers of the song, Joan Javits and Philip Springer, never accounted for: Madonna in the 80s was no better representation of the decade of materialism and excess. Though the 50s was a natural time for a song advocating for the commercial side of Christmas to flourish (that post-WWII economic boom and all), the 80s was the American nightmare (as the dream is now called) turned up to full blast, when hedonism and yuppie culture was so pervasive that it eventually had to inspire the caricature of it all, Patrick Bateman.
So yes, Madonna was tailor-made to record “Santa Baby” when she did. Even if it never has gotten the appreciation of very many listeners other than devoted and die-hard fans who subject everyone they can at the Christmas parties they hold just to play it. But, at the core of the lack of love for “Santa Baby”is this: anyone who has beef with Madonna’s work always has it for the same roadblock reason: they have no understanding of her camp value and the associated tongue-in-cheek humor that comes with it (which most prefer to write off as being a bitch). And isn’t a little tongue-in-cheek humor what we all need during the holiday season of dysfunctionality? Think about that next time you listen to the straightforward fluff of “Jingle Bell Rock” with that specific Mean Girls scene playing on a loop in the background.