The worst Christmas song ever isn’t actually a Christmas song. It’s just a song that uses Christmas in the hook and was popular when it was released. So Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas” gets played every year starting at the end of November. Every year, I think that the awfulness comes in part from the refreshed shock of dreadful lyrics I’ve not heard in 11 months. Instead, my loathing of the song grows through the season and year by year. So as it starts playing on repeat—and the 30th anniversary edition regales us with two versions this season—a complaint against this offense against music and charity.
For anyone who has only absentmindedly listened to the chorus—“Feed the World/ Let them know it’s Christmastime”—then my annoyance might seem odd. The song sounds like a typical weak-but-catchy pop music offering. And it was for charity, after all. But the song and story of “Do they Know It’s Christmas” and Band Aid has a little of everything to loathe. Condescension. Inane inaccuracies. Smugness. Mullets. All of which are tied up in a failure to actually aid the unfortunate souls the song is about.
Horribly Inaccurate and Condescending Lyrics
Bob Geldof wrote and produced the song after seeing reports of the Ethiopian famine in 1984. He convinced many famous vocal artists from the United Kingdom to each sing a line. Bono of U2 first became well-known for his charitable works though this event. The song inspired a U.S. version, “We Are the World,” and together the U.S. and U.K. artists did a Live Aid concert in the summer of 1985 which raised a still impressive £50 million from the two concerts alone. It was the biggest crowd sourced charity event ever, and at the time notorious for Geldof’s use of expletives to get the money flowing. (It is unclear if he yelled on air, “Give them the f#%@ing numbers!” referring to the call-in numbers or if he yelled “Give them your f$#@ing money!” Regardless, the pace of donations picked up after the outburst.)
The lyrics are dreadful on many levels. The song uses the “pitiful souls of Africa City” tripe (an apt phrase I picked up from this angry post on using African women as fodder for natural childbirth debates, warning: language) to illustrate the applicable white Western virtue, showing the world that we care. Critical commentary on the song typically notes some obnoxious melodramatic descriptions. Africa: “where the only water flowing is a bitter stream of tears” and “the only bells that ring there are the clanging chimes of doom.” But I find the referral to the poor of Africa simply as “the other ones” much more obnoxious. “But say a prayer/ Pray for the other ones.” How in the world did he ever get away with that formulation?
Other lyrics needlessly sacrifice facts, without adding to the poetry: “There won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas time.” Well, except for the mountains. But to the extent the song is correct, it is not because Africa is a pitiful continent but because the bulk of the continent lies in the Southern Hemisphere. Christmastime comes in the summer there. The title and chorus are worse: do they know it’s Christmas? Well, yes, since Christianity is thriving in Africa, they likely know about Christmas.
Worst, the song butchers Christian doctrine. After describing the Africans’ pitiful state, Bono, I believe, belts out, “Tonight thank God it’s them instead of you!” Perhaps the songwriter was reaching for an allusion to the Christian sentiment, “There but for the Grace of God, go I.” But these are two very different statements. Granted, this is a harder concept than some of the other remedial misunderstandings about religion, such as the aggressive ignorance about how one divides unleavened bread. (Examples of such ignorance abound, but that one remains my favorite.) There might be a little more reasonable discussion in society if more of the non-religious bothered to understand religion before speaking on it. These little misunderstandings can do great damage. I first noticed the dreadfulness of this song when I overheard someone complaining against Christianity and using this song as if it represented Christian doctrine, evidenced by the fact that Bono, a songwriter known for his Christian lyrics, sang the offending line.
The statement about Grace concerns the Christian belief that humans must strive to be good and that we only manage though God’s unconditional aid, or Grace. Because God is willing to forgive all our transgressions, we can heal, change, do the good works He has called on us to do, etc. It is a statement about the power of God’s compassion. The “thank God it’s them” line, on the other hand, is a lack of compassion, God’s and man’s. The gratitude suggests a god that dispenses misery, and it calls for no action by the grateful. Be happy that misfortune befell someone else, buddy. It’s cruel.
Live Aid Is Really a Charity Racket
The song was intended as a charity drive for food and funds for the starving Ethiopians, but it was a failure in everything but PR. Much of the food rotted on the docks. And much of the money went to warlords. It is a classic example of “Toxic Charity,” western do-gooders failing to understand how their “help” effects the intended recipients.
None of this is news. The BBC did a documentary on it years ago. Geldof was furious and exacted an apology from them, as they had overstated their case. Nevertheless, unfortunate facts remained, and Live Aid has become a case study in poorly executed aid to poor nations.
Thirty years on, little has changed. Geldof has done a 30th anniversary song, this time sending proceeds to fight Ebola. The title and tagline: “Band Aid 30: Buy the song. Stop the Virus.” Accordingly, Geldof changed some lines. Instead of the famine-themed “Where the only water flowing is the bitter sting of tears,” the line alludes to the contagious disease “Where a kiss of love can kill you and there is death in every tear.” Not an improvement. As The Spectator dryly put it:
Unless you have been in isolation for the past six months, the Band Aid single will not have raised your awareness of the disease one bit. Since the outbreak was first confirmed in Guinea on 22 March, many hours of news coverage had been broadcast and many millions raised to help the aid effort. Few have noted that diarrhoea has killed 73 times as many Africans as Ebola since the disease broke out. We can treat diarrhoea far more easily, though no celebrity would sing a Christmas song about it.
Many have wised-up to the Band Aid racket. The crop of Band Aid 30 singers is not as famous as ensembles past. Geldof has been dropping vulgarities on air and shaming those who don’t do what he wants. Reportedly, he wanted Adele to sing for the 30th anniversary of the song. Adele has wisely refused to associate herself with this nonsense. She made her own, private donation though Oxfam, instead.
Africans are fed up with this dreadful song that has become a symbol of the White Savior Complex. Considering my annoyance with the song just on theory, I can only imagine how much they hate this condescension chorus.