Featured Post


If you're a student looking for syllabi, click the "Academic Home Page" link on your right, and start there.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Defending "Do They Know It's Christmas?"

For quite a while now (a matter of years, really), I have considered the bloggers at Lawyers, Guns and Money, particularly the original triumvirate of exceptionally lame song sung by mostly third-rate British pop stars that is also an unfortunate combination of self-congratulatory charity project and egregious racist condescensionegregious racist condescension, and are probably a Ron Paul supporter to boot. But whatever--to call "Do They Know" egregiously racist as well is, I think, to utterly miss the subtle yet unmistakable angry irony woven into this particular bit of condescension. Consider its most obvious analogue: the meretricious "We Are The World" by USA for Africa:

We can't go on pretending day by day
That someone, somehow will soon make a change
We're all a part of God's great big family
And the truth - you know love is all we need

We are the world, we are the children
We are the ones who make a brighter day
So let's start giving
There's a choice we're making
We're saving our own lives
It's true we'll make a better day
Just you and me

Excuse me? I'm sorry, but this is not merely "banal," Tim; this is the lamest, most muddle-headed kind of dismissive pseudo-spiritual feel-goodism imaginable. I mean, c'mon: "we're saving our own lives"? Well, how about that? God has made us one with starving children in Africa! Giving of ourselves to these sad little losers in life's lottery will make us more human! Folks, don't you see: loving Africans by giving them money is win-win! Bleargh; excuse me while I vomit. If I'm going to be guilted into doing something, I want that liberal guilt to come honestly, to hit me where I actually live and hide my heartstrings, not to disguise what's happening with fake karmic oneness. And that, incidentally, describes "Do They Know" extremely well. Everyone goes after the ignorance of the title and refrain from the chorus (yes, yes, we get it, hardly anyone in Ethiopia celebrates Christian holidays anyway, so sure, score one for the critics), but have you thought about the rest of it?

But say a prayer
Pray for the other ones
At Christmastime it's hard, but when you're having fun
There's a world outside your window
And it's a world of dread and fear
Where the only water flowing is the bitter sting of tears
And the Christmas bells that ring there are the clanging
chimes of doom
Well tonight thank God it's them instead of you...

(Here's to you) raise a glass for everyone
(Here's to them) underneath that burning sun
Do they know it's Christmastime at all?

A simplistic reading would tell you that this is a bunch contented revelers taking the time to toss some cheap sentiments towards a bunch of folks they'd never thought of before. But that completely misses the actual target of the song--not sappy thinkers liable to be lured into some easy guilt, but the busy rank and file who are wrongly content with their own wealth. "While you're having fun" is balanced against "dread and fear" and "the bitter sting of tears" and "the clinging chimes of doom"; a contrast is made between raising a glass and suffering under a drought; and the scream "thank God it's them" is the guilty admission of all of us, liberal or otherwise, when faced with suffering. In short, the whole song is a pretty damn honest challenge, and a harsh one too, addressed with unapologetic and unwavering intensity to exactly the sort of people what are making the record and who they knew would buy the record: the white middle and upper-classes who would have thought nothing of just running down to the market and blowing 50 pounds on some useless nonsense, 50 pounds that could have fed a starving child. If anything, this is class warfare, not racism.

Actually, I think the underlying frustration animating this song, however clumsily it may come out, probably has a lot of similarity with the Kinks' "Father Christmas":

Father Christmas, give us some money
Don't mess around with those silly toys.
We'll beat you up if you don't hand it over
We want your bread so don't make us annoyed
Give all the toys to the little rich boys...

But give my daddy a job cause he needs one
He's got lots of mouths to feed
But if you've got one, I'll have a machine gun
So I can scare all the kids down the street

Have yourself a merry merry Christmas
Have yourself a good time
But remember the kids who got nothin'
While you're drinkin' down your wine

Not nearly as good at raising charity as "Do They Know," but it's got a better bass line, that's for certain. And I guess you could claim the Kinks were making a comprehensive critique of the economy rather than just trying to guilt some dollars out of their listeners. But in the context of Christmas in our wealthy Western homelands, a sharp kick to the gut to prompt some charitable feeling isn't always the wrong way to go. And so I've got to defend "Do They Know It's Christmas" from its detractors. It's not a great song; not worth the passion I've dumped into the effort here, I know. But giving a dollar to the Salvation Army ringer--whether out of guilt or any other motivation--isn't a great passionate act either, yet it's got as much to do with Christmas as most any other act of charity available to us moderns...and I say any song that encourages a little bit more of that, especially if it has at least of modicum of honesty and wit about it, deserves better than to be dismissed as crap, especially when more appropriate candidates are plentiful.

Well, I'm going to go outside to play with the kids in the snow. Enjoy your holiday, and listen to whatever music you like. To those whose cool sensibilities and critical taste I may have attacked, my apologies; maybe I'm just exorcising old resentments. Not the best of pastimes on Christmas Eve, but what can I say? I just like Paul Young, I guess. Merry Christmas, everyone. "Throw your arms around the world" and all that.


Anonymous said...

Agree 100%.

I'd go farther and say that anyone calling Bono and some of the others "third-rate" is ... well, unless you're Mozart reborn or something, I don't think you have the standing to do that. You just don't.

Anonymous said...

But . . . but . . . what about the line "There won't be snow in Africa this Christmastime." Oh really? As if a continent much of which either is equatorial or that experiences summer in December would normally have snow? Sheesh.