All this year, KEXP is celebrating our 50th anniversary. Each week, we’re picking a year from the last half-century to remember that moment in music.
This week, we’re celebrating the year 1984. KEXP’s Roddy Nikpour takes us through his complicated affection for the altruistic single, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” Read or listen to the piece below.
It’s technically not even fall yet, but malls will be playing holiday hits before you know it. So, let’s just rip this “Band Aid” off as soon as we can. (Get it?)
In the mid 80s, people in Ethiopia were in the middle of a historic famine. Drought and civil war in the horn of Africa left people in horrific conditions. The BBC was sharing shocking footage of people wasting away from hunger, reporting that thousands of people were dying every week.
It’s really harrowing to watch people barely able to move, like skeletons waiting to die — not to mention the children.
There was a global response to this crisis, but humanitarian efforts weren’t enough. So, musicians Bob Geldof and Midge Ure decided to take action in the best way they knew how — through music. They assembled a supergroup called Band Aid to record a charity song.
If they couldn’t end the famine themselves, at least they could come up with a temporary solution (hence the name “Band Aid”).
Call it colonialism, call it pop music at its finest, but you can’t deny the all-star cast featured in this song. Phil Collins, George Michael, Sting, and Bono. For me personally, Bono was the one who grabbed my attention since I grew up listening to a lot of U2. Humanitarian disaster stood no chance against these famous white altruists.
On the one hand, lyrically, this song is not great. It’s super Anglo-centric. First, we’re framing suffering through a Christian lens. Second, we’re talking about how “there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmastime” and how we should raise a glass to them “underneath that burning sun.” It goes beyond the idea that Ethiopians need food. It suggests that they would truly be happy if they could experience our culture — our Christmas — Bono’s Christmas.
On the other hand, musically, this song is nothing special until you get to the hook. Hands down, it’s one of the catchiest melodies of all time. It’s no wonder this song immediately went to the top of the charts. And, it’s no wonder that Band Aid made an appearance at Live Aid the following year to perform this song. (Side note: The mullet game was STRONG among the Band Aid members.)
One and done, you’d think — right?
In 1989, Band Aid came together with a new cast of singers and created a new version of the same song. At the time, it felt edgier and more modernized. In retrospect, though, it still has all the cheesiness of the original.
The same thing happened in 2004. Two decades after the original release, Band Aid 20 made a third version of the song.
Most recently in 2014, Band Aid 30 recorded a fourth version (obviously featuring yet another rotation of contemporary musicians). The twist this time was that the lyrics were amended to raise awareness of the Ebola outbreak in Africa.
Altogether, there were good intentions behind all four versions of this song. However, we have to say it: There’s something ironic about watching a group of (mostly white) musicians seemingly having the time of their lives recording a song, and within the same music video, there are Africans dying of famine or Ebola. It has white savior complex all over it.
Even the first version of this song faced a lot of criticism. Time Out Magazine interviewed Morrissey in 1985. He said Band Aid was “the most self-righteous platform ever in the history of popular music.”
In 1986, the band Chumbawamba (yup, of “Tubthumping”) released an entire album in protest of Band Aid called “Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records.” All of the song titles are callouts.
From an anti-colonialist perspective, “Do They Know It’s Christmas” wasn’t a good look. A bunch of rich European artists got together, made a top-selling hit, and went home.
Still, according to Spin Magazine, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” raised millions of dollars. And that’s several million dollars more than would have gone to help combat famine.
Maybe in two years, we can look forward to Band Aid 40 releasing yet another star-studded version of this song. I can guarantee two outcomes by then: I’m almost certain that Bono will still be involved, and I’ll be bobbing my head to that infectious melody, grappling with my own middle-class privilege.
KEXP is celebrating our 50th anniversary this year, and we're looking back at the last half-century of music. Each week in 2022, KEXP pays homage to a different year, and our writers are commemorating a song from that year that resonates with them. This week, KEXP's Rachel Stevens reflects on heart…
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KEXP is celebrating our 50th anniversary this year, and we're looking back at the last half-century of music. Each week in 2022, KEXP pays homage to a different year, and our writers are commemorating a song from that year that resonates with them. This week, KEXP's Dusty Henry looks at Jeff Buckle…