Music

‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ Yes — So Stop Singing

Sting, Bono, and Simon Le Bon in the Do They Know It’s Christmas? music video. (via YouTube)
This catchy Christmas staple is brimming with celebrity condescension.

Since the day after Thanksgiving — and earlier, for some overeager souls — Christmas songs have filled the airwaves, store and restaurant sound systems, and streaming playlists. Many of the most popular numbers in the Christmas canon seem to repeat endlessly; seldom are new entries admitted into the upper echelon (in the last 30 years or so, only Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” has joined the ranks). Some of these songs are far worse than others, sustained in circulation by mere inertia or sheer novelty (I’m looking at you, “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas,” “All I Want for Christmas [Is My Two Front Teeth],” and the entire holiday repertoire of Alvin and the Chipmunks). When one is confronted by the blizzard of Christmas dreck, it can be a tremendous relief to hear Christmas songs with high production quality and actual musical value. You might think U.K. supergroup Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” belongs in this category. But it is, in fact, about as awful as they come.

To be clear, there are some virtues to this Christmas staple from 1984. Bob Geldof and Midge Ure were acting out of a spirit of genuine charity and compassion when they spearheaded production of the song to generate aid for Ethiopia, then in the grips of a famine. And they assembled a mind-boggling menagerie of contemporary stars to contribute — among others, Sting, Boy George, Phil Collins, and Bono (who were some of the biggest acts in the world at the time) — while managing to balance their talents (and egos). The song itself achieves a pleasingly slow build to its anthemic chorus. But not everyone shares that view; Morrissey, former front man of The Smiths, has said that “the song was absolutely tuneless” and “an awful record considering the mass of talent involved.” He added that “one can have great concern for the people of Ethiopia, but it’s another thing to inflict daily torture on the people of Great Britain.”

Morrissey aside, the song blew Geldof and Ure’s fundraising goals out of the water: They reportedly were shooting for about £70,000 but managed to raise millions. And, much as my patriotism pains me to admit it, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” is far superior to the American companion effort from the following year, “We Are the World,” by the supergroup USA for Africa.

To understand why “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” is so terrible, you should listen to the lyrics, even though the song’s slick and catchy structure can make it hard to really pay attention to them. The gist of the song is a juxtaposition guilt trip, contrasting an indifferent world of “light,” “plenty,” and “joy” — presumably, the world of most Western record-buyers — with the supposedly helpless suffering of the song’s subjects. (“Well tonight, thank God it’s them, instead of you!” as Bono sarcastically thunders.) It’s one thing to use guilt as an inducement; as a Catholic, I am well familiar with the power of that particular force. It’s another thing to milk a condescending stereotype, denying a whole continent not merely agency but also differentiation and even key facts about the way many of its inhabitants live.

Start with the physical descriptors of the continent of Africa in the song. It paints with such a broad brush as to suggest the entire landmass is like Arrakis, the desert planet in Dune, where water is so precious that spitting is considered a sign of respect and crying for the deceased is so rare that those who do it are thought to be honoring them by “giving water” to them. In the Band Aid version of Africa, it’s a land “where the only water flowing / Is the bitter sting of tears.” Just to make sure you get the point, the song also claims that Africa is a land “where nothing ever grows / No rain nor rivers flow.” It’s true that there are deserts in Africa, notably the Sahara, and that water access can be threatened by droughts and other factors. But the song seems to forget the existence of the Nile River (the world’s longest) and Lake Victoria, to name just two water bodies, not to mention the coastlines of many countries, and the varied landscapes of jungles, savannahs, mountains, and more. Some of the greatest civilizations in human history have managed to thrive in Africa both despite and because of its diverse features.

Consider also the song’s implicit cultural assessments. Because Christmas in Africa differs so significantly from Christmas in a wealthy Western country, the song suggests, the holiday there essentially cannot be meaningful. After all, “there won’t be any snow in Africa.” Setting aside the single-biome-planet mentality of these lyrics yet again, we can say with confidence that, in many places throughout the world, it’s more than possible to celebrate Christmas without snow. The songwriters seem oddly locked in to a precisely preconceived picture of what Christmas is supposed to look like.

Perhaps if the performers on “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” were not all so fabulously successful, they’d have been better able to realize that Christmas is not defined by its weather, much less its material trappings, but rather by the immaterial goods the holiday reminds us of. Indeed, the question the song’s title poses is unintentionally funny, given that the powerful cultural presence of Christianity in Africa, particularly Ethiopia, is likely to make Africans even more capable of knowing it’s Christmas than many of the denizens of the materialist culture who contributed to the song.

This difference might explain what is by far the song’s biggest moral failing. Right in the middle of the stereotyped catalogue-of-miseries, hopeless-wasteland description of Africa (“And the Christmas bells that ring / There are the clanging chimes of doom”), some combination of celebrity voices intones the lyric, “The greatest gift they’ll get this year is life.” Paying enough attention to the song to actually hear those words for the first time was what led me to view this catchy ’80s synthpop Christmas song as more insidious than I had ever thought. The idea that any person, anywhere on earth, would not consider the greatest gift he gets each year to be life is so vapid and materialistic that only a group of celebrity musicians would dare to advance its opposite as a call to action. “Look at these poor Africans,” the song seems to say, lumping hundreds of millions of people into an undifferentiated, suffering mass, all of them in desperate need of the help that apparently only the musicians who recorded a charity single in the midst of an alcohol-and-drug-fueled bacchanal could provide.

Nitpickers and “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” defenders may complain that the song was written specifically for Ethiopia at a time of crisis rather than for Africa as a whole for all time. Maybe, but that seems a bit too generous to the talent behind the song. If some of the most successful musicians in the world at the time had wanted to write something specifically for Ethiopia, then surely they could have figured out how to do it. Instead, they congregated, though with good motives, to produce a song that elevated themselves to godlike status while reducing their intended beneficiaries to victim status. Whatever the continent’s problems, the intelligent and resourceful citizens of its many nations could do without celebrity condescension. Morrissey captured things well: “It wasn’t done shyly. It was the most self-righteous platform ever in the history of popular music.”