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Have Some Holly Jolly Racism: A Deep Dive into “Do They Know It’s Christmas”

The story behind the music

Sting, Bono, Simon Le Bon SERIOUS about famine relief! Columbia

The holiday music genre belongs in an artistic galaxy all its own. It is a universe populated with the unabashedly highest schmaltz factor, the thickest, goopiest cheesiness, and an emotional quality so overwrought and steeped in so much saccharine you risk getting Type-2 Diabetes from listening. I am here for all of it. Like terrible musical theatre, holiday tunes give us permission to live inside an alternate snow globe reality of uninhibited glee and uncomplicated, one-dimensional beliefs. A snowman comes to life and dances with children; chestnuts roast on an open fire; people ride in sleighs and ENJOY DOING SO WITHOUT FIGHTING OR SCREAMING ABOUT SCREEN TIME! In such complicated, dark, stressful times as these, don’t we deserve the ability to crawl through an escape hatch to a world where children are going to spy to see if reindeer really know how to fly INSTEAD OF FIGHTING AND SCREAMING ABOUT SCREEN TIME!? These airy realms that exist for 3.25 minutes at a clip are what I imagine it’s like walking around the inside of a Barbie doll’s head: soothingly vacuous and blissfully simple.

Unfortunately, not all hard candy confections are created equal. Some have hard shells. Some are soft in the middle. Some appear to be peppermint flavored, but actually taste like cigarette ash left in the tray of a 1979 Buick. Which brings me to “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” not just any holiday song. It’s one with soaring, highly-hookable chorus that features a lush arrangement of synth and bells as only the 1980s could deliver, sung by a star-studded congregation of some of the U.K.’s most high-powered popstars like Sting, George Michael, and Bono (oh my!). As if all of that alone wasn’t enough to hip check tired tunes like “Blue Christmas” and “Santa Claus Is Comin to Town” off the damn holiday charts, “Do They Know It’s Christmas” was a song with a mission: bring hunger relief to Africa. Stick that in your fa and la-la-la it. How could such a noble endeavor miss, right? Well, much like trying to break-up with someone around Valentine’s Day: it’s complicated.

The Story Behind the Music:

The year was 1984. Famine raged through Ethiopia. In October, the BBC News was one of the first outlets to document the catastrophe, pulling no punches in calling it “the closest thing to hell on earth.” Watching these reports was Bob Geldof, the British front man of the pop/rock group The Boomtown Rats (because: 1980s!) and his partner, Paula Yates. Both were understandably appalled and heartbroken by the images they saw of what was taking place; the cost of human suffering overwhelming.

A month later Geldof crossed paths with Midge Ure, the lead singer of the British group Ultravox. Ure and Geldof were friendly, having performed together for a music charity benefit several years prior. With the horrific footage of the famine cemented into Geldof’s brain, he began a conversation with Ure about putting something together to address the issue:

“We’ll put on a show! Smashing! All the bells and whistles, yeah?” said Ure.

“Sounds expensive,” said Geldof. “How about a record! Smashing! All the bells and whistles, yeah?”

“Sounds like work,” said Ure.

“Agreed,” said Geldof.

The pair fell silent.

“Maybe, just, like, one song? But still, smashing? Bells, whistles, the whole lot?” asked Geldof.

“That’s it, mate,” said Ure. And just like that, “Do They Know It’s Christmas” became kind of a thing.

First they needed a butt ton of star power to make this work. Apparently being in the U.K. music scene in the 1980s meant you automatically knew everyone else — Sting, Bowie, Phil Collins, an errant Beatle. You could be playing a game of chess at Brian Ferry’s house and Freddie Mercury and Howard Jones might show up to invite you to a club or try and get you to buy Spain. It was one-hundred percent just like that. Geldof got busy ringing up everyone he could think of (Sting, Bowie, Phil Collins, George Michael, Boy George, Simon Le Bon of Duran Duran, Paul Young, Paul McCartney, and Bono among others) to let them know what he and Ure were up to and could they lend some time and talent and star power to this thing for free, because, hello let’s not miss the point straight out of the gate, right? And really, do you want to go down in history as the jerkface who said “PASS” to helping starving people?

Geldof and Ure quickly tossed out the idea of doing a cover of a holiday song for two reasons: 1. How to make a plea to help people in Africa work if you’re “rocking around the Christmas tree?” and 2. Royalties. An original song was the ticket. Geldof had lyrics from a previously unrecorded tune he had written for the The Boomtown Rats that he felt would work with some revisions. Ure composed the primary melody on a keyboard, which Geldof fleshed out further on acoustic guitar. The pair convened everyone at Sarm West Studios in London on November 25, 1984 to record. In one, grueling nearly 24-hour session Geldof and Ure had their charity single and famine was no longer a thing anywhere ever again God bless us, everyone!

The End.

Not even “ish.”

Geldof christened the supergroup Band Aid and released the single under that name on his label, Phonogram, in the U.K. on December 3 and in the U.S. on December 10. There was a massive media blitz and ad campaign, pushing the single to number one on U.K. charts where it stayed until Sir Elton John swatted it down with his soapy, 1997 valentine to Marilyn Monroe, “Candle in the Wind.” “Do They Know it’s Christmas” supposedly generated tens of millions of dollars for famine relief in Ethiopia and helped spark Geldof’s massive 16-hour marathon Live Aid concert held the following year, which, in turn, raised more than 140 million for hunger assistance in Africa. Again, how could any of this miss? Well, have you listened, really listened to the lyrics? I submit a sampling:

Where the only water flowing

Is the sting of bitter tears….

And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmastime….

(Wait, is that even meteorologically accurate? Answer: it is not)

Where nothing ever grows

No rain or rivers flow.

Do they know it’s Christmastime at all?

Minga, as they say around certain parts of New England. Bob, we need to talk.

I was a youth when this song came out. I admit to cheerfully bopping my head to its shining melody for decades and to feeling the same flush of pride and goodness in yodeling the evangelical “FEED THE WORLD!” chorus in the same way I get screeching out Lennon’s “ALL WE ARE SAYING/IS GIVE PEACE A CHANCE!” So it was not without a considerable amount of crushing disappointment when, just a few years ago, I realized what the hell they were actually singing in those verses. Is this song holly jolly racist? Again, like the plot points in a David Lynch film: it’s complicated.

The lyrics are not great. They traffic in culturally and politically tone deaf, one-dimensional depictions of globalism and multi-ethnicism to prop up a kind of white savior mindset. They are also one hundred percent a product of their times both in terms of the 1980s — a vastly “unwoke” decade — and in regards to trends in charity work.

By this I mean that “Do They Know It’s Christmas” falls squarely within a long legacy of fundraising practices that allowed and even encouraged emotional exploitation in the form of overly-simplified representations of suffering “Others.” Since it’s the holiday season, think of Charles Dickens’ Tiny Tim from A Christmas Carol: sweet, cherubic disabled lad who won’t live to see his next birthday if a wealthy, powerful benevolent patron doesn’t intervene to reverse Tim’s circumstances. I’M NOT CRYING, YOU’RE CRYING! See how that works?

In his 2004 biography, Ure stated that the point of “Do They Know” was always to “touch the heartstrings and loosen the purse strings.” Ironically, it requires separation, a distinction between self and Other, in order to do this.

And the Christmas bells that ring
There are the clanging chimes of doom

Well tonight thank God it’s them instead of you

Here’s to you
Raise a glass for everyone

Here’s to them
Underneath that burning sun

There really isn’t much of an identity to “them,” those faceless, nameless somebodies existing “underneath that burning sun” in what appears to be an apocalyptic cratorscape of grim despair, hopelessness, and fear, which you, non-sufferer, remain safely sheltered from. Minga, again, Bob Geldof!

Finally we’re released from the suffocating specter of loss, death, and all the very bad things like GUILT (“well tonight thank God it’s them, instead of youuuuuuu,” Bono wails) as the triumphant chorus of “feed the world” climbs and reverberates in church-like exaltation. It invites the listener to feel empowered to act. It affirms your identity: savior, helper, good person, benevolent soul, participant in capitalism as it gently erases the complicated, lived reality of the Other, in this case, African people and nations. Moreover, the relief comes with such easy, easy intervention. Buy the single. That’s it. It’s the 1984 version of AmazonSmile: you shop, we give.

I watched the video for the single on YouTube. Because Geldof and Ure wanted to move as quickly as possible on releasing the single and launching the whole campaign, they decided to film most of the studio recording session and use that as a visual marketing asset. The first things I notice are how painfully young and pasty everyone looks. Boy George has both the skin and the voice of an angel. Phil Collins is dressed like a Dad in one of those sleeveless Argyle sweaters, saving his musical icon cred by giving the camera some fantastic, sneery “rock drummer” faces. George Michael, Sting, and Simon Le Bon deliver their verses with eyes closed, presumably absorbing the gravity of these sentiments.

I know it sounds like I’m slagging on this whole ensemble, but I’m not. I’m struck by the earnestness that comes through the video. Geldof, Ure, and everyone else they roped in to this endeavor believes in the merit of what they’re doing and how they are going about doing it. This is also not a criticism of any of these individuals, but further underscores how readily accepted these types of charity campaign practices and their attendant belief systems were in society then and today. A look at David Bowie’s bemused expression as he belts the chorus alongside his fellow pop mates says there’s little to no question here that the ends servicing the greater good justify the jingle bell rockin’ culturally ignorant means.

The desire to help is not wrong, but it’s not always as straightforward as we imagine. And making it easy for someone to offer assistance is not a terrible thing or even irresponsible, but it does require less of our critical faculties and diminishes our intellectual and social curiosity about the people receiving our aid. And those are things worth considering the next time we click a link or tack on an extra few bucks at the check-out or buy and buy into some piece of charity-themed art.

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Sheila M.

Sheila M.

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Author: League of Extraordinarily Funny Women (Running Press); writer & photographer & enthusiastic New Englandaaahhh