Saturday, 25 December 2010

Santa Baby: How not to do it

Merry Christmas everybody! Instead of romping about in the snow, I'm here, snarking about festive songs. Start as you mean to go on...

As Christmas songs go, 'Santa Baby' is one of the best known, and certainly one of the most covered. So why can't anybody other than Eartha Kitt get it right?

For those unfamiliar with the song, 'Santa Baby' takes the form of a flirty letter to Saint Nick requesting presents, but not so much toys and sweets as convertibles, jewellery and all manner of mercenary sundries.

Only Eartha Kitt brings so much more to it than simply flirting. Less coquette and more drag-a-licious villainess, she winds her very adult voice around such fantastic lines as "I want a yacht and really that's not a lot" and "Forgot to mention one little thing/a ring./I don't mean on the phone..." She's not trying to pull Santa - she's trying to con him out of his boots. And she's succeeding.

The song brings to mind Kitt's equally camp and morally dubious classic, 'Just An Old Fashioned Girl', in which, in a similarly gold-digging vein, she states that she wants for very little in life - just an "ooooold-fashoned millionaire" - and claims "I'll ask for such simple things when my birthday occurs/two apartment buildings that are labelled 'Hers and Hers'." She throws herself into the character of the unapologetic femme fatale, stating her requirements, rather than begging and showing a little ankle.

And that's the difference between Kitt and those who cover her work. There have been various terrible attempts, but this Christmas I sat and watched swingdoor pop group Sugababes do nothing short of garotte this fantastic song. Like every other contender for Kitt's crown, they writhe and giggle like Ann Summers 'schoolgirls', smirking and trying to act 'sexy'.

Bear in mind, please, that the Sugababes are three pretty girls in their twenties. It's quite an effort to make them unsexy, but apparently all it takes is for them to try to be sexy! That and inject a sultry song with as much genuine playfulness and character as a musty toupee.

And pretty much every other version does the same. The artist (or their choreographer) looks at the lyrics of the song, has a vague recollection of it being quite slinky and goes, "OK! Sexy! Why didn't you say? I'll wear a fur bikini and wiggle while giving myself a Lolita voice! Instant hit!" (pedants will tell me that Lady Kitt is scantily clad in the video, but bear with me)

They'll carry on covering 'Santa Baby' ad infinitum, and missing the point all the while. I guess at least performance royalties may make their way to Kitt's estate, but it's upsetting to think that so many people will look no further than the Kylie or the Pussycat Dolls, and won't go listen to that magical original. Genuinely intriguing and engaging performance requires character. Character, more often than not, requires experience of conflict or having overcome difficulty. And by difficulty, I don't mean a whole 12 weeks of singing for a bunch of billionaires. You can read aspects of Eartha Kitt's amazing life story on wiki, or read her biography in order to find the key to her trademark Catwoman purr, but perhaps it's best simply to enjoy her music.

In fact, don't listen to me extoll her virtues when she can do it perfectly well herself. Enjoy and have a good holiday!

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