With Christmas almost upon us, it’s hard to go anywhere without hearing the songs of the season, some of which are decidedly better than others. Who doesn’t smile when they hear Bing Crosby start to warble “White Christmas?” And conversely, who doesn’t cringe when they hear a bunch of 80s has-beens singing “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”
Admittedly, it’s a bit unkind to single out this monstrosity among all the other aural Yuletide dreck that’s out there. After all, the song was recorded to raise money for Ethiopian famine relief, and it was wildly successful in its original philanthropic purpose.
And for those old enough to recall the era in which it was originally released, the tune can prompt a powerful wave of nostalgia. (Listen to that! It’s George Michael! And Bono! And… that guy from Spandau Ballet or something!)
But now that the 80s are more than thirty years back in the rear view mirror, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” has to be judged on its own melodic merits. And the hard truth is that, nostalgia be damned, it’s a profoundly lousy song.
“Do They Know It’s Christmas?” is by far the worst song of the season
To begin with, the title is absurd. Of course they know it’s Christmas. The titular question is aimed at the people of Africa, a great many of whom are Christians and therefore well aware of the global significance of December 25. But the lyrics condescendingly refer to these supposedly benighted folk as “the other ones,” suggesting a colonial mindset on the part of the singers who are extending the blessings of the faded British Empire to the less enlightened. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that this is both patronizing and racist.
It’s also deeply ignorant. Africa is described as a land “where nothing ever grows/No rain or rivers flow.” Really? The continent filled with rainforests and the rivers that were home to the cradle of civilization is actually a barren wasteland? Earlier on the song, it does mention flowing water, but it only comes in the form of “the bitter sting of tears.” That’s clever, because that particular line is sung by Sting, the lead singer of the defunct rock group The Police. It’s a metaphor or whatever.
Sting continues to sing harmony as the song laments that “the Christmas bells that ring there/Are the clanging chimes of doom.” One is left to wonder what those chimes of doom sound like and who it is that bothers to clang them. Perhaps Africa is home to hundreds of doom chime cathedrals run by Sith Lords who are suckers for clanging on Christmas.
To his credit, Bob Geldof, the musician-turned-philanthropist who co-wrote the song and started a movement, has labeled it one of the “worst songs in history” and hates it just as much as everyone else does.
“Any day soon, I will go to the supermarket, head to the meat counter and it will be playing,” he complained. “Every f***ing Christmas.”
Someone cue the doom chimes clanging.