In 2018, Miley Cyrus lit up the Internet when every headliner called Zera Keith’s rewrite of “Santa’s Baby” “feminist.” On Tonight’s show, he explained that the Christmas classic was uncomfortable with the original 1953 lyrics, in which Kitt lists all the extravagant gifts he wants. “Say if he buys me all this, I’m going to hang out with Santa?” Cyrus asked before performing an updated version where she asked Santa to stop men talking over her and grabbing her ass because she can shop for her own stuff, thank you very much.
Feminist Publication Miss magazineon the other hand, Julia Cornick added Keith’s great tune to her list of the 10 best feminist Christmas songs of 2020:[Kitt] When it came to sex positivity in the 50s and 60s, he was ahead of the time when he adopted the persona of the “gold digger who turns men into helpless little boys with his sexual power.”
A recent poll by polling website YouGov America ranked “Santa Baby” as their least favorite Christmas song, perhaps because research shows that money is one of the most uncomfortable topics for Americans. It’s certainly important to “Santa Claus,” who is still controversial nearly 70 years later.
“Santa Baby” wasn’t Keith’s only Christmas song, and it takes on more life context and nuance when heard alongside his other holiday tunes.
It is important to note that money influenced Keith’s life and career from the beginning. The South Carolina native rose from poverty to stardom after advancing in Kathryn Dunham’s dance company, which took her to the glamorous social scene of Paris. In his 1989 autobiography Confessions of a sexy cat, Kitt remembers that legendary player Rubirosa wanted to take him to dinner at Maxim’s. When he complained that he had nothing to wear, he sent his assistant to take Kitt shopping for clothes. At dinner, he presented her with an additional pearl.
As a performer, he often dealt with cash flow issues, but luxury goods often came up at shows. “Usually these were older men sitting alone, but they would inevitably make some kind of move to introduce themselves,” Kitt wrote. “An older gentleman who had gone through this exercise sat down with a black ribbon box on his desk and clearly said ‘Cartier,’ and I wondered who this second show was for.” A single senior gentleman kindly brought him into my dressing room and said, “I’m an old millionaire and I want to give you this gift, it’s not much, and I want to give it to you too. A document issued to a yacht docked in the port of San Francisco. She is made of Japanese teak and has a crew of seven.’ He kept the bracelet in a box but, wary of the repair costs, gave it to the yacht.
Wealth and sexuality were the subtext (if not the entire text) of many of his songs, including Monotone. New faces of 1952, the Broadway show that launched Keith. In it, she complains about her poor life when rich people buy her elegant, expensive gifts: “I met a very interesting fool on my way to Istanbul / He bought me the Black Sea for my swimming pool. Monotonous.”
“Snowman” fits that artistic profile perfectly. Songwriters Philip Springer and Joan Javitz wrote it for Keith in 1953 at the request of his RCA Victor record label. Springer had a hard time equating the gentle image of Keith with Christmas, but he was just a mellow guy, and when lyricist Javitz suggested the title “Snowboy,” they knew they had something to work with.
Javits’ lyrics were the same as the rest of Keith’s songbook until now, and according to Kitt Shapiro, Keith’s daughter, they were closer to the truth than Javits realized. In Shapiro’s memoir of his life with his mother Jerah and Kitthe tells of Zera’s multiple sugar daddy relationships, including one with a bank heir who “showered her lavish gifts, including an emerald ring encrusted with diamonds and stealing her first mink.”
The book also links the singer to Revlon founder Charles Revson, who is 20 years Keith’s senior and who lavished her with expensive gifts. When it became clear that he would never be more than her owner, the relationship broke down. “My mother didn’t want to be anyone’s boss,” Shapiro wrote. “She wanted to be important enough to be someone’s wife.”
As Kitt explained in a 2007 interview with NPR, “The song says, ‘Sleep under the sable tree, Santa.’ Everyone who did this to me was never with me.”
Still, it’s easy to hear what “Frozen” has gone too far. Although it was smart and simple, it presented a self-contained black woman who was open about her desire for the finer things in life. With no lip service to romantic charm, Kitt instead portrayed the relationship as a power play.
“Although it was smart and simple, it presented a self-contained black woman who was open about her desire for the finer things in life. With no lip service to romantic charm, Kitt instead portrayed the relationship as a power play.»
Like burlesque, The Snowman feels more scandalous than it is. Kitt promises very little in words, but his delivery means a world of subtle pleasure. The song angered politicians, and Springer said some southern radio stations banned it because it was too thought-provoking, but it didn’t hurt its chart performance. “Santa Baby” peaked at No. 4, and Billboard He reported at the time that “Unlike many other Christmas tunes, it has broken the DJ sound barrier of ‘We don’t play Christmas music in November’ and is already getting a lot of airtime.”
“Santa Claus” asks many questions, starting with who is Santa Claus in the song. Is Kitt singing to St. Nicholas or his sweetheart and using “Santa Claus” as a holiday pet name? How important is this list? Is a complete, detailed list of extravagant desires (convertible car, yacht, duplex, etc.) the most important thing — an excuse to reach for a ring? Was the song a way for a woman to ask a man to marry her, something that was considered a violation of gender roles at the time? Philip Springer thought so.
“Do you remember when it was ‘Santa, you forgot to mention one little thing, the ring’?” It was my luck,” he said Deseret News in 2018. “I’ve always believed that my line made it clear that she was saying, ‘Santa, if you want to be in this relationship, I want to marry you.'”
“Frozen” left those questions hanging, but a year later, we’ve learned that things aren’t going as planned for our quirky hero.
“Santa Claus” was so successful that RCA Victor requested an additional tune, which Springer and Javitz delivered in 1954 with “This Year’s Santa Claus.” Javits put new words to Springer’s music to update the story, and if any marriage was as Springer suggested, it would never be mentioned. What we do know is that the gifts Kitt requested either failed or did not live up to their promise.
Kitt sings about the 1954 sequel: “Santa Baby, this Cadillac is falling down, won’t start.” “A private jet would be smart / Santa Baby, so hurry up the chimney tonight.” Time after time, he responded to the litany of disappointments by raising the query. The yacht he wanted sank, so the next year he wanted the ocean liner Queen Elizabeth.
For those who think of Keith as a gold digger in The Santa Clause, this is a case of karmic redemption and a valuable lesson in capitalist society. The luxuries didn’t live up to their promise, but as a good capitalist, Keith has a lot more resolution in the song. His faith in his promises is unshakable.
“This Year’s Santa” didn’t chart because it wasn’t a good song. “Frozen Boy” is playful, challenging the listener to consider the nature of relationships and how seriously any of them should be taken. “This Year’s Santa Claus” doesn’t build on that and flattens the dynamic of getting his Christmas list over the top. Asking for a platinum mine and a check box might be sleazy in “Santa Claus,” but in some rarefied circles, a fur and a ring sounds appropriate. Nothing in “This Year’s Santa Claus” was unreal.
Kitt didn’t finish Christmas, and 1955’s “Nothing for Christmas” was a response to “Santa Claus,” which exposed the patriarchy. “Nothing for Christmas,” written by Sid Tepper and Ray C. Bennett, is paired with another Keith signature song, “I Wanna Be Wicked.” In it, Kitt complains, “A girl that never loved / I’m tired of being clean and not chasing.” His response – in comedic terms – is to become evil and become physically expressive, the “evil” we learn from Nothing for Christmas. In the song, men offer her a coat, a motorboat, and a trip to Paris, among other gifts, if she just kisses or squeezes. But he won’t have any of that because “I didn’t want to be mean.”
Part of the criticism of “Santa Baby” is that Keith’s use of sexuality to make deals with men is wrong, but in “Nothing for Christmas,” all the guys are offering goods for physical contact. The combined songs present women in a no-win situation – they’re bad if they’re having sex, but the only way they deserve a Christmas present is to be bad.
The reluctance of the women in Keith’s songs to bet hard on love rang true in her life, as her relationship with the white men who loved her as a black woman faced real limitations. Appropriate Jerah and Kitt, her relationship with a number of wealthy white men could not withstand the pressure of the families. The estranged wife of Revlon founder Revson once threatened to expose her “black lady,” Shapiro wrote.
“The combined songs present women in a no-win situation – they’re bad if they’re having sex, but the only way they deserve a Christmas present is to be bad.»
In a 1962 interview with writer Studs Terkel, Kitt elaborated on the love/money debate, admitting that he loved fur—”I mean everybody loves wearing a mink coat”—but he resented people who relied on the material. goods to make them happy. “I don’t think another Cadillac or another Frigidaire in the house is going to make anyone happy,” he said. “In fact, these are the things that make your life difficult.”
Her song “Mink, Shmink” captures this attitude, “Mink Shmink, Cash Shmoney / You think you hot now, honey, what you got if you ain’t got no love?”
But that wisdom comes courtesy of a male friend who, according to the song’s first verse, tries to hammer the idea into her head. Love remained elusive in Keith’s life. She was married only once, to John William McDonald in 1960, and they divorced five years later. It’s no wonder that at the end of “Mink, Schmink,” which makes light of money and the finer things in life, he still concludes, “I’ll take the Jaguar on the right.”