07 December 2012

Band Aid: Do They Know It’s Christmas?

So here at Lyrics, Weakly headquarters there hasn’t been muchany blogging going on for quite a while.

Yeah. Well, we’ve been…busy? Had to rake the leaves falling from the birch tree in the front yard, you know. (Sidebar: Who came up with the idea that birch trees are good landscaping elements? And are they still around, so that we can round them up and do mean things to them?) So, of course, new posts haven’t gone up.

But it’s December, and you know what that means: Endless Christmas songs on the radio! And, of course, most of those songs are really just not that good.

There are two types of not really good Christmas songs, though. First, there are the badly done versions of Christmas songs that have been around for a while, clearly just done to get some royalty payments when the annual Christmas song gorgefest comes around. (Yes, Barbara Streisand may be a singing genius, but her rendition of “Jingle Bells”? Please, no.) The second category is where today’s entry falls: Original compositions about Christmas that really, really, really don’t work.

And with that, i present for you Band Aid’s syrupy 1984 masterwork, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?

Now, before i go any further, i want to say that when Bob Geldof and Midge Ure wrote this song (people usually forget Mr. Ure’s contribution to the song, since Mr. Geldof is rather more famous, so i figure i might as well do the same from this point on, ’cause it’s easier to write about one person than a group), the sentiment was precisely spot-on. I mean, for those of us who were around then, the mid-80s Ethiopian famine was heartrending—all these people dying and we couldn’t do anything. Well, most of us, at least—some people had the means to put plans into operation, and Mister Geldof was one of those. He got a bunch of really, really famous mostly-British rock stars together to have them record the song, and the rest is history.

So Mr. Geldof wrote a song for charity, and it was successful—and i’ve seen various numbers for how much it raised for famine relief floating around the interwebs, but $14 million seems to be the most widely cited figure. So good for him and everyone else associated with the song.

Anyway, the song starts with dome foreboding minor-key tonality, very doomy, which is kind of cool for a Christmas song. Fitting for one that has to address human suffering and all.

But the lyrics! Ah, the lyrics…

It’s Christmas time
There’s no need to be afraid

Well, that’s a relief. I mean, given the fact that 68% of the population suffers from a phobia of Christmas…Oh, wait, you mean they don’t? Oh, well, then, i suppose it really is true that there’s no need to be afraid.

For the record, i did find one site that lists “xristougennaphobia” as the fear of Christmas, but i think it says something about how made upwidespread that is that it only shows up on that one page in a Google search. (Well, two, once this page gets indexed by Google’s all-knowing database.)

I also found a lot of listings for “christougenniatiko dentrophobia”, which was defined as the fear of Christmas trees.

I’m still trying to wrap my head around that one.

(Best discussion of the effects of christougenniatiko dentrophobia, by the way, from a page that seems to be serious, giving advice to aspiring fiction writers: “A person with this phobia would most likely not grow Christmas trees for a living. Since all live Christmas trees are a type of pine tree, is a person with this phobia afraid of pine trees year-round? Or just at Christmas time? Could they be afraid of them because of bugs they could bring in the house? Or maybe it is the possibility of the tree catching fire that scares them. Are they also afraid of artificial Christmas trees? And does the tree have to be decorated for them to fear it?”)

At Christmas time
We let in light and we banish shade

I would just like to say, as a resident of Alaska, that this is not possible, at least in the northern latitudes (and the British Isles aren’t in the far north, but even London, near the south end of the islands, is up there with Calgary, of all places). If you open the curtains at Christmas time in the northern hemisphere, you get…dark, at least for most of the day. The opposite of light. In order to provide light, you have to flip a switch or light a candle or something in your house.

I mean, c’mon, people, this is basic kid-level earth science!

And in our world of plenty
We can spread a smile of joy
Throw your arms around the world
At Christmas time

Okay, this is a softball, but one i have to take: Those are some really long arms!

These lines, though, are delivered by Boy George, and they’re worth a listen to remind us of how just absolutely amazing his voice was before he went all VH1 Behind the Music on us.

(Admit it—you were totally expecting that last link to be this one, weren’t you?)

Anyway, at this point the music changes and we get an uptempo rhythm (largely courtesy of Phil Collins, taking a break from ruining the band Genesis) sounding much like…well, actually, sounding like every single other uptempo synthpop song released in the mid-80s, and the lyrics continue.

But say a prayer
Pray for the other ones

So we’re supposed to pray for The Others? Why? According to the Wikipedia page for the movie, it’s done quite well for itself without any prayers on our part.

(Yeah, yeah, i know. After reading that, though, you may be happy to learn that there are plays on words out there that are even worse.)

At Christmas time, it’s hard

I single out this line just because i can’t make any sense of it. The lack of punctuation between lines in the source i was able to find doesn’t make it easier, but all i can figure is that it’s supposed to follow from the preceding lines, so that it reads But say a prayer, pray for the other ones—at Christmas time, it’s hard, and that doesn’t make any sense, really. Maybe it’s supposed to go with what follows? Well, that’s worse: At Christmas time, it’s hard, but when you’re having fun there’s a world outside your window, and it’s a world of dreaded fear.

So all i can figure is that At Christmas time, it’s hard is supposed to be a standalone sentence, not syntactically connected to the phrases either preceding or following it. Unless this is a something about the widely-held but false belief that Christmastime is associated with mental illness, it seems just a throwaway attempt to get from George Michael to Simon Le Bon.

Anyway—sorry about the grammatical aside. I’m a linguist by profession, though, so i can’t really help it.

But when you’re having fun
There’s a world outside your window
And it’s a world of dreaded fear

Okay, so here’s where we start to go properly off the rails.

They’re trying to say that right outside your window, while you’re having fun at Christmas, people are starving in Ethiopia—essentially, it’s guilt trip time! Now, of course, Ethiopia isn’t literally right outside the windows of this song’s target market, but that’s okay—i’ll happily let them be figurative here.

But dreaded fear? I mean, could this be a little bit clumsier? After all, what other kinds of fear are there? Welcomed fear? Appealing fear? Pleasing fear?

Sometimes you just want to shake your head, you know? I mean, Mr. Geldof, you’re the guy who wrote “I Don’t Like Mondays”, which is full of amazingly turned lines about a horrific event, so we know you’ve got the ability. But dreaded fear? Srsly?

Anyway, enough rant. Back to…

Where the only water flowing
Is a bitter sting of tears

Now i realize that we didn’t Wikipedia to answer all our questions back in 1984, but this. I mean, Mr. Geldof, couldn’t you at least be bothered to look at an atlas? The Blue Nile, for heaven’s sake, originates in Ethiopia!

And the Christmas bells that ring there
Are the clanging chimes of doom

Actually, no.

Ethiopia (and Eritrea, which has since become independent but was part of Ethiopia at the time) are both majority-Christian nations, and they have a number of churches that, presumably, could ring bells on Christmas—and even though i’m not actually there to confirm this, i’m pretty sure that they’d choose bells that sound at least minimally joyous on what is, after all, one of their big celebration days.

And then, finally, we get to Bono shouting out…

Well, tonight thank God, it’s them
Instead of you

Let’s take a step back for a moment and consider.

There are a lot of people out there who hate this song. A lot. And, in my review preparing for this entry, this line was mentioned by approximately every single one of them. (In fact, if you simply google this line you get several of them fairly high in the results. Of course, you also get a few defenses of the line, but at least a couple of them also claim that Wham!’s “Last Christmas” is a great Christmas song, so they can of course be dismissed as simply ludicrous.)

I mean, it’s arguably the most clearly sung line in the whole song, and it’s sung with a fervor that nothing else in the whole thing is. Further, it’s even the structural fulcrum of the entire piece, with the following lines coming at a rather more frenzied pace.

And Bono—dear, dear Bono—with all he’s done to try to improve the world, gets remembered for this.

(Actually, i did run across a claim that Bono objected to it, but that Mr. Geldof insisted on it being sung as written. If this is true, then it seems that Mr. Geldof didn’t just play someone with a bit of a dictator complex.)

I like to wonder, though, what such a thanks to deity would sound like. “Dear Lord, we are thankful to thee that thou hast made those people in Ethiopia to starve, and not us.” Now, i don’t precisely no what the response of deity to such a prayer might be, but i do know what it’d be if i were the one so addressed.

And then we get a lesson in climatology…

And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas time

And you know why? Because, a couple of very specific locations aside, there’s nearly never snow in Africa. In fact, snow in Africa is an event worthy of international headlines.

This is simply a fact of geography and climate. I mean, just look at a map, for starters! The vast majority of the African continent lies in the tropics—absent really insanely high elevation, you don’t get snow.

But you want to know the best part of all this? It’s that the claim about no snow in Ethiopia actually isn’t even technically true. Yes, most of Ethiopia is completely snow-free, due to the aforementioned tropic-ness of the place. But Ethiopia also contains the Semien Mountains, where snow can accumulate in the winter. (Skiing, though, would be difficult.

The greatest gift they'll get this year is life

Um, just to be non-snarky for a moment here: Isn’t that true of all of us?

I mean, i don’t care how much you wanted that particular gift, if you’re dead it’s not going to mean as much to you.

(Clearly, the shelf life on non-snarky is short here.)

Where nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers flow

See above on the fact that there are rivers in Ethiopia. Quite a few rivers, in fact.

There’s also rain in Ethiopia. Yes, the mid-80s had record low rainfall in much of the country, but it certainly rains there.

And things also grow in Ethiopia. In fact, agricultural products make up 80%  of Ethiopian exports, according to what i could find on the web.

Yes, yes, i realize that the popular conception is that Ethiopia is a desert, but it’s not actually true. Once again, Mr. Geldof, would it have hurt so much to look in an atlas?

Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?

Well, since (as already mentioned) Ethiopia and Eritrea are both majority-Christian nations, i would have to say that yes, they do know it’s Christmas time, thank you very much.

But what difference would it make? I mean, are you saying they need calendars, too?

But yeah, there’s a pretty good-sized Muslim population in both countries, and so there may well be villages and towns that are entirely unaware that it’s Christmas time, because the entire population is Muslim. And you know what? Come in close, listen carefully, because this is an important secret about those villages: They don’t care!

Now, they may well care whether it’s Eid al-Adha or not, but you know what? They already know.

Here’s to you
Raise your glass for everyone
Here's to them
Underneath that burning sun

So what do we learn from these lines? That when faced with hunger in a distant land, the proper response is to get drunk and party.

Um, yeah. Well, whatever works for you, i guess.

Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?

Again, yes. Or no. But it doesn’t really matter, you know?

Feed the world
Feed the world
Feed the world

In all seriousness, i didn’t know what these lines were until i wrote up this post. Nice sentiment, it’s just a pity that it had to get stuck in a song like this.

And then we get this on repeat and fade:

Let them know it’s Christmas time again
Feed the world
Let them know it’s Christmas time again
Feed the world
Let them know it’s Christmas time again
Feed the world

It can’t be just me who hears this and thinks it’s pretty much a “Neener neener neener! We know it’s Christmas time! So there!”

But in all seriousness, why should it matter to you whether they know it’s Christmas time? If what you want is to feed people, then send them a pizza, no matter the day. I mean, there’s really no connection at all, is there? (Or at least there shouldn’t be.)

So now we’ve got a logical inconsistency to go along with everything else, what with the whole Christmas-famine relief non sequitur.

Anyway, this little gem was released in 1984. In an attempt to redeem the year, here’s a better (though, admittedly, darker) song released the same year, and it even had the year in the title! Enjoy.

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