The Unbearable Unwokeness of ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’
It kicked off the era of all-star do-good pop but sounds totally tone deaf today.
It’s that time of year again. ’Tis the season to drag out all of those end-of-the-year holiday favorites: Christmas trees, mistletoe, eggnog, “White Christmas,” “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” and (God help us!) “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”
The latter, recorded by the one-time-only supergroup Band Aid in 1984, celebrates its 35th anniversary this year. Written by Boomtown Rats’ Bob Geldof and Ultravox’s Midge Ure to raise awareness and funds for the famine in Ethiopia, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” assembled an assortment of mostly UK-bred acts into an all-star choir.
Although it peaked at a relatively lowly number 13 in the United States, the song was a global smash that inspired 1985’s “We Are the World” by USA for Africa and decades of superstar-packed benefit concerts and recordings to come. But just because it was one of the most influential recordings of the last 50 years doesn’t mean it was one of the best ones.
I loved the song at the time, but as I’ve grown older and wiser, it’s become more problematic for me. Basically, it’s a recording on which a group of privileged mostly white musicians whitesplain poverty in a predominantly black country in Africa. Yep, I’m going there. So here are my five most glaring issues with “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”
It’s one think to be dreaming of a white Christmas, but what a white Christmas song.
I get it. Thirty-five years later, any charity record is practically destined to feel like a time capsule packed with what was hot way back then. Band Aid holds up as a representative of the best of British pop in late 1984, having landed many of the recently minted stars of the era, including Culture Club, Duran Duran, The Police, Spandau Ballet, Wham!, and Paul Young.
But for a song inspired by famine in Africa (specifically, Ethiopia), there’s a paucity of black voices on the song and only a handful of black faces in the video. Jody Watley and members of Kool & The Gang pop up in the background to represent the U.S., but not a single solo is sung by a black singer.
It’s not like there weren’t any black artists on the UK charts at the time. Imagination and Junior weren’t as big as they had been circa 1981-1982, but they would have provided a welcome splash of color to the proceedings, as would have Joan Armatrading, Joe Leeway from Thompson Twins, General Public’s Ranking Roger, and Culture Club’s Mikey Craig. British pop has never been as racially diverse as American pop, but even back in the ’80s, it boasted enough black soul to warrant a more colorful Band Aid line-up.
Arriving a little more than a year later, USA for Africa’s “We Are They World” was a more racially balanced affair, offering new and new-ish stars (Cyndi Lauper, Huey Lewis, James Ingram), legends-in-training (Billy Joel, Tina Turner, Bruce Springsteen), and bonafide icons (Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder), which immediately gave it more timeless potential, if not more lyrical depth. Check out both videos, and, regardless of how you feel about the songs, tell me which one feels far more dated in 2019.
No sisters with voices got to shine solo.
Spice Girls wouldn’t bring girl power to British pop for another decade, but it’s not as if the early ’80s was lacking female star power. It was nice to see Bananarama in the larger chorus, but why did they have to sing back-up only? Yes, complicated schedules meant not everyone was able to participate, but were Annie Lennox, Kate Bush, Kim Wilde, and Tracey Ullman all unavailable?
Considering how gender-fluid British pop was in 1984 (even Marilyn scored an invite, despite his diminishing chart returns at the time), one might have expected a bit more gender inclusion.
The lyrics were egregiously simplistic.
We know Bob Geldof and Midge Ure can write a song, but the lyrics to this particular Christmas classic, especially the often-repeated refrain “Feed the world,” are shockingly jejune.
I’ll get into this more in a moment, but the song makes the all-too-common assumption that Western Christianity and the traditions it upholds (like Christmas) are the center of the universe. Geldof and Ure intended for their composition to have a global reach, but they were hardly thinking globally.
It was so condescending.
“And tonight thank God it’s them instead of you.”
I’ve always thought this was the most interesting line in “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” — and Bono, the master of self-aggrandizing enlightened rock, was the perfect star to deliver it. To quote backgrounders Bananarama, he was really saying something … but what exactly?
Was it meant to convey cringey gratitude (Better them than us … thank God) or sarcastic accusation (How dare you unwrap those gifts when the poor in Ethiopia are starving!)? I appreciate that “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” doesn’t peddle generic platitudes the way some might accuse “We Are the World” of doing. But it seems to be written from the perspective of a white liberal who is poking an easy target: other white people, especially unenlightened ones.
“Woke” wasn’t yet a thing in 1984, but the spirit of it apparently was already in full swing: “I see the light. Why don’t you?” It’s the unspoken sentiment many white people send today when they point out the “racism” of other white people on social media. They police posts from the equally privileged, and when one crosses the line, they cue the righteous indignation, elevating themselves to superior status.
It epitomized the white-savior point of view.
Band Aid basically cast themselves as privileged white saviors before “white privilege” was really a thing. Now don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with the privileged wanting to reach out to the underprivileged, even when the privileged are white and the underprivileged aren’t.
But at the very least, the privileged should view the would-be beneficiaries of their generosity as unique individuals and not one colossal yet infantile entity. Yes, Ethiopia was wrestling with famine in 1984, but contrary to what many Westerners think, the individual countries of Africa have identities and problems that are as specific as those of the countries of Europe. What happens in one African country doesn’t necessarily happen in all African countries.
Furthermore, the lyrics of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”— particularly the line “And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmastime” — suggest that its authors didn’t bother to fact check their work. It does, in fact, snow in Africa, and even if starving Ethiopians had been aware of 1984’s holiday season, many of them probably wouldn’t have cared, for the country has a significant Muslim population.
Lyrical criticism aside, the artists who made “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” deserve props for the effort, tone deaf as it might seem in 2019. And most importantly, the Ethiopians who benefited from Band Aid’s benevolence probably never had to hear the song anyway.