Madonna, “Santa Baby” (1987)
There are legions of out-and-proud bears out there who will disagree with this statement, but to me there’s nothing erotic about a fat old man in a red velvet suit. In my mind, Christmas and all its attendant trappings conjure up images of elderly relatives, gaudy sweaters, obligatory church attendance, and lower back pain from sleeping on the sofa bed at Mom’s house, all of which are basically the opposite of sex. Santa Claus in particular is a myth designed to appeal to young, innocent children, and mucking that up with jingle-bell jock straps and fur-trimmed red bikinis just seems wrong.
In fact, the only thing less sexy than Santa Claus is a cloying little-girl voice, which is why hearing “Santa Baby” on the radio always gives me less of a warm holiday glow than a disgusted shudder. While positively sophisticated compared to later versions, Eartha Kitt’s original 1953 recording is barely tolerable, her expertise as a jazz vocalist only enhancing sonically nauseating phrases like “a ’54 convertible too, light blue.” But each subsequent cover—and there are plenty of them—is more saccharine than the last. And Madonna’s version, arguably Patient Zero for this infantile trend, is the ickiest of them all.
A postgraduate paper could be (and probably has been) written about the sugar-daddy sexual politics of the lyrics, but this was a few years after “Material Girl,” so whatever. No, the truly offensive part about Madonna’s cover, released in 1987 for a charity Christmas album, is the cutesy-wootsey way it’s sung. By taking the vocals up half an octave and adding pouty baby-talk flourishes—you can practically taste the paste when she coos, “I don’t mean on the phone”—Madonna somehow manages to produce a vocal performance that would make Betty Boop barf. It would be admirable, almost, were it not so viscerally repellant. So leave “Santa Baby” off the turntable this Christmas, and save the sexy role-playing for Halloween. Please?