Sugar Santa Baby: Holiday Memories of Calista Flockhart and Michael Bublé
I’m still waiting for my golden moment to exploit my youthful appearance for presents, or at least someone who PayPal me a bunch of money to pay off my credit card debt, which I will use half of to frivolously spend on that Taschen coffee table book of Tom of Finland or invest in starting a podcast so I can coquettishly perform ads for MailChimp and Casper mattresses. In the meantime, I return to the legendary sugar baby Christmas song: “Santa Baby”.
It wasn’t the first version of “Santa Baby” that I heard growing up, but one of two versions that most stuck in my mind was a version Calista Flockhart sang on her hit show Ally McBeal. I was not privy to the show’s history or what it was even about, all I knew was that my mother watched it and mostly liked it for the music. She owned most of the soundtracks from the show on CD, which often pictured Flockhart smirking, trying to have it all in the vein of Murphy Brown or Mary Tyler Moore, next to the show’s resident singer, Vonda Shephard. She, too, was blond, looked like she knew how to have a fun time at a bar in Boston, smiled like she was living the dream as the featured singer on a television show soundtrack. She was, so I am told (by my mother and Google), on the show as the house singer at the bar that the cast would go to on the show, making featured appearances in the background, the way that recurring singer/actors would on ’90s television shows. It’s hard to know between the two of them who was having a better time.
In November 2000, a Christmas album called A Very Ally Christmas was released, featuring the likes of Jane Krakowski, Ms. Shephard, and Robert Downey Jr. And while Shepard’s throaty, singer/songwriter is burned into my memory (her version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is sopping wet), it is Flockhart’s performance of “Santa Baby” I will always recall around the Christmas season. It brings me back to Connecticut, albeit in a straitjacket, carted off into the northeast.
As aforementioned, I never watched Ally McBeal growing up, and quit three episodes in when I tried watching it a few summers ago, so the only thing I know about Calista Flockhart is that she is married to Harrison Ford. I have always been happy for them, a silent cheerleader in po-dunk suburban Connecticut or, now, in bougie Brooklyn. Whatever makes Harrison Ford and Calista Flockhart happy, I’m happy. And here is where I reveal my own horrific prejudices: as happy as I am for them, the two seem made for each other because neither of them actually seem like they are what I conventionally read as fun-loving. As opposed to going out on a cold winter’s night to the office holiday party in Dumbo, they seem like my kind of people in that they would have stayed home by the fireplace, sipping tea and reading Charles Dickens to one another, topping off the affect with an oil lamp and a refusal to answer any phone calls not directed to their rotary phone. I am constantly surprised to hear Harrison Ford is fun on set. He looks grizzled, and he’s earned the right to be not fun. Calista Flockhart does not look grizzled, but she looks like she suffers no fools. I can picture them in a joint interview staring down a journalist who asks stupid questions, like, “Who are you wearing?” or “What was your workout regime like?” or “Will I ever see my family again?”
It was of equal surprise to me to learn that Flockhart’s performance of “Santa Baby” was in the show. I’m not a journalist, or particularly active, so I have deigned not to research the context of this performance. I think I once saw it on YouTube several years ago, and it is like what every performance of “Santa Baby” is like: sexy and ironic but also kind of earnest. Except, this one had Calista Flockhart. She’s got a little vocal fry, and she tiptoes on every word, and though the performance of sexiness is obvious, it is strangely convincing. It has a very “that librarian who takes off her glasses” kind of effect. It’s soft and sly, but dances around a self-consciousness that is cute in a way that, however often “Santa Baby” is covered, is rarely successful. The fact that Calista Flockhart tries so hard to own the sexiness of the song becomes sexy in its own right, because at some point during the second verse, its well worn cliched qualities fade and become genuinely enjoyable.
What I remember is sitting in the car, snow blanketing the winding roads and the lights from the car trying to stretch beyond the length of the vehicle, and thinking how funny it was that this actress was transparently trying to sound like she was having fun at that kind of affect was more fun than the rest of the album. It’s like if I tried to wear a sexy blazer with fancy underwear. It doesn’t compute exactly, but it’s nonetheless endearing. Good for Calista Flockhart, you ask Santa for those things!! Even though you’re a lawyer!!!
“Santa Baby” was written by Joan Javits and Philip Springer in 1953, and was first performed by Eartha Kitt, singer, Broadway star, Catwoman. Her slinky way of wrapping around words in song like a purr would solidify “Santa Baby”’s classic status and usher in a billion of terrible imitators. It’s a Sugar Baby song that pre-dates “Material Girl” by Madonna and “I Don’t Want It At All” by Kim Petras, and who knows what else. “Santa Baby” is hard to make good because there’s an uncomfortable, quasi-incestuousness embedded in the lyrics. Santa is perceived as paternal or maybe avuncular, and the request of material things (a duplex, a 54 convertible, etc.) for implied “niceness” is a mildly transgressive. Or, at the very least, it takes the transactional nature of sex and the holidays and makes them mutually inclusive. Eartha Kitt did it well, keeping in there a wink to ward off any grossness, and so did Calista Flockhart.
Which brings me to my second “Santa Baby” memory. Michael Bublé’s version of “Santa Baby”.
It’s truly one of the most “no homo for the holidays” song I’ve ever heard. Just look at some of the lyrics:
Santa baby, slip a Rolex under the tree
I’ve been an awful good guy
Santa buddy, and hurry down the chimney tonight
Santa buddy, a sixty five convertible too
I’ll wait up for you, dude
Santa buddy, and hurry down the chimney tonight
I don’t remember when I heard this, but the album on which it appears, Christmas, was released in 2011, and yet that still feels too soon for the world to have endured such strange, tacit gay panic. It is both homoerotic and devoid of eroticism, barely a wink. It’s like having your straight cousin make a gay joke and then nudge you in the ribs with a chrome dildo or something.
In this cover of “Santa Baby”, Michael Bublé addresses Santa with the following pet names: “Baby”, “buddy”, “pally”, and “poppy”. (Sounds like “poppers” to me, but okay.) Put “Santa” in front of those and they sound no less wrought of trying to get someone you’re trying to fuck to buy you things than the original lyrics, only with an added sense of deep embarrassment. Desperation.
It sounds like desperation. Like when the irony of serving fruitcake swings back and forth between irony and earnestness. In Bublé’s mumbly, fake easy listening, mom pleasing voice, the new song goes,
Think of all the fun I’ve missed
Think of all the hotties that I haven’t kissed
Next year I could be just as good
If you check off my Christmas list
I just want to know who said it was okay for Michael “Pier 1 Imports” Bublé to call anyone a hottie? Something about this makes me want to vomit. Also because I can’t imagine a bunghole like Bublé willingly remaining abstinent so he could fake flirt with Santa for expensive shit. The tempo is slowed down so that you can just imagine Bublé leaning on the bar, using saliva to polish his Canadian eyebrows. The tempo is slowed down as if to give water torture a run for its money.
I grew up listening to Michael Bublé because it was something where my mom’s taste and mine could overlap; he was easy listening for her, and mediocre contempo approaches to classic jazz standards for me. His version of “Sway” is still one of the best, admittedly. In 2011, I was straight, and in high school, and this song made me pity straight men, so I jumped sides as a result, and stopped trying to hide that I was masturbating to gay porn every evening. If sex was going to be transactional, if my identity was going to be transactional, then I was not going to veil it under the guise of smarmy fake hetero bullshit like tickets to a Canuck game. I don’t even know what that is.
The comments for the YouTube video for the song include: “This is basically the ‘5ft apart cause they’re not gay’ vine ”, “Michael Bublé declaring he isn’t gay for Santa is somewhat of a Christmas tradition now, thanks Mike ”, and “Don we now our STRAIGHT apperal [sic]”. To call the song a monstrosity would be unfair because, without it, we would have never gotten those comments.
Part of the appeal of “Santa Baby”, in its original form, is undoubtedly the speaker’s self-infantilization. Which is not to say that men can’t do that, which I know because I am on Grindr. But Michael Bublé cannot do that. I mean, he looks like a man baby dressed up for “take your son to work day”, but even so.
What am I, what are all of us to take from this inane journey? What can we learn about the power dynamics between the singer and Santa, whether that singer is a woman or a man? What can we learn about queerness from this? When will this essay end? I said I wanted to write something about Michael Bublé’s “Santa Baby” like three years ago, and now I’m finally doing it, and most of this essay is dedicated to Calista Flockhart. It just goes to show that the only worthy way to respond to Michael Bublé’s ill-begotten cover for Dads who frequent hotel rooms to meet up with boys ho ho ho-ing it up is just with slack-jawed disbelief. And isn’t that what the holidays are all about anyway?