Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A closer listen to Do They Know it's Christmas?

Reprinting this piece I wrote back in 2008...certainly relevant to the season, and I still think it's strangely offensive. More so now, probably.

In doing some minor research looking for the most awesomest Christmas videos, I came across Band Aid's Do They Know it's Christmas? a charity song put together by Bob Geldof to help out starving people in Africa.

A catchy tune, it's one of the few Christmas songs I enjoy listening to (call me Scrooge or whatever, but I just can't get into the majority of the Christmas songs out there. Occasionally Feliz Navidad, but even that is starting to wear thin).

After watching the video of who's who in the 80's music world of Britain a number of times, however, I've come to an unfortunate realization about the song.

These lyrics are barely coherent, extremely bizarre, and borderline insulting.

I realize the song was written in a very short amount of time, but still. Perhaps just a little more time spent with the lyrics and a little less time demanding Boy George get on the Concorde to be a part of this, and we really might have had something here. Anyway, let's take a closer look...

It's Christmastime There's no need to be afraid
Who's afraid? It's Christmas time! A time for love, sharing, gift giving and cookies. So I'm not sure why anyone would be afraid. At first I thought the people afraid might be the people in Africa, who obviously aren't very aware about Christmas, but on repeated listen I don't think that's the case. I think Band Aid is telling the listener not to be afraid. And since I doubt there were many radios in the Sudan and Ethiopia, I'm guessing that's not the target audience. Who's afraid around Christmas?

Depressed? yeah, maybe a little.
Angry? Sure, mall traffic can be maddening.
Frustrated? Hey, who doesn't get a little annoyed when they're flopping around under the tree trying to get the damned lugnut on the bike at three in the morning Christmas Eve?

But afraid? Only on the set of Silent Night Deadly Night should people feel afraid during Christmas.

At Christmastime, we let in light and we banish shade And in our world of plenty we can spread a smile of joy Throw your arms around the world at Christmastime
Ok, though a little clunky, I can't think of anything much better to rhyme with afraid. Which does of course make me question it's inclusion in the song even more, but I digress. These lyrics here actually do a great job of capturing the spirit of what Geffen was driving at, I think, so I have no problem with them.

But say a prayer

Now why can't I throw my arms around the world AND say a prayer? Both messages seem appropriate for one another. There doesn't seem to be any reason to choose.

Pray for the other ones
At Christmastime it's hard, but when you're having fun

There's a world outside your window
And it's a world of dread and fear
Uh, this seems a little drastic. Dread and fear? Way to bring me down Bono/LeBon/Sting/Michaels/Other guy

Where the only water flowing is the bitter sting of tears
Bitter? Who's bitter? Are they bitter with me? But I'm praying and stuff!

And the Christmas bells that ring there are the clanging chimes of doom
This is sounding less like a plea for charitable donations and more like the announcement of the impending apocalypse with each line. Besides, who would use Christmas bells to chime doom? I can't imagine creating a sense of doom with the same sound as the beginning of Jingle Bells.

I gotta be honest, the song gets a little schizophrenic in places.

Well tonight thank God it's them instead of you
While I certainly do thank God that I'm not one of the less fortunate, it's not something I necessarily want to be reminded about. I carry that guilt in my heart. I don't need to think about it every time I hear this song on my way home from work between October and December (Yes, some radio stations began playing Christmas music in October. I'm going to go out on a limb and say we'll have year round Christmas stations in two years' time).

And there won't be snow in Africa this Christmastime

This is misleading. First of all, there will be. Africa is a huge continent, boasting a variety of different eco-systems, including ones where temperatures get low enough to produce snow. Ever see Mt. Kilamanjero? Snow.

Second of all, if we're to assume that the lyrics are alluding to the regions where many of the starving people were from, well of course it's not going to snow during Christmas time. There's never going to be snow there. I don't need a song to tell me that.

The greatest gift they'll get this year is life
Yeesh. That's a little blunt. Do we really have to bring that up at a time like this?

(Oooh) Where nothing ever grows No rain nor rivers flow Do they know it's Christmastime at all?
Ok, this is a little disingenuous and rather ethnocentric. While I understand that missionary work is successful in some of the more remote sections of the world (and this is neither the time nor the place to argue the merits of Catholic missionary work) I can't imagine many of the people stricken by the drought in Africa during the early 80s had the religious knowledge to even understand the concept of Christmas. That makes the question about knowing whether it's Christmas time a moot point. Why would they even care? They just want something to eat.

(Here's to you) raise a glass for everyone

Ok, now they're just being mean. Didn't they just confirm the absence of rain and river flows? I really don't feel the need to toast at a time like this. The irony feels especially cruel.

(Here's to them) underneath that burning sun

Oh yeah, three cheers for the starving people that are struggling to live day to day while these pop stars show up in their limos, perform a little diddy, and then head off
to shower in champagne with one another.

Do they know it's Christmastime at all?
Feed the world
Feed the world
Feed the world

Let them know it's Christmastime again

Feed the world

Let them know it's Christmastime again
repeat then fade

Not sure they ever knew it ever was Christmas time, but at this point we're just quibbling. Heck, I'm glad the song was successful and people got the message out about the starving nations in Africa, but I wonder what would have happened had the lyrics been coherent. We may never know.


Anonymous said...

bob "geldof". Wtf is bob geffen???

Wanderer said...

I went googling to see if I could find anyone as perplexed by this song as I was, and it looks like I succeeded. It does sound offensive to me, especially as a non-Christian. If you didn't know it's for charity, you'd think it was some kind of song pitying Africans for not being Christian--that's what a lot of it sounds like. Never mind that there's been enough missionary work that some Africans are Christian, and the ones that aren't probably care as much about Christmas as you care about their holidays. Feed starving people in Africa? Good. Babble on and on about those poor Africans and their world of dread and fear, with a few embellishments that make it sound like you slept through geography class as a kid and the only thing you caught was "it's kinda hot and there's a desert there"? Bad. Very bad. If this were released today, it would have been shot dead by the Politically Correct Police, and I don't know if that would have been a bad thing.

Anonymous said...

The part of this that everyone seems to miss, even the people who recognize that this song is utterly offensive: of course "they" know it's Christmas! Africa has 400 million Christians! Even in Muslim countries, there is generally a large enough Christian minority to celebrate Christmas. And Ethiopia, the country about which this song was written, has a proud Christian tradition dating back to the 4th century, more than 1000 years before the first colonial missionaries.

I won't even get into preposterous claims like "nothing grows" and "no rivers flow." Unfortunately attitudes like these make it more difficult for African companies to attract investment, despite attractive economic opportunities.