Well, kids – the holiday season is upon us once again. This is the time of year when we’re meant to look around us and give thanks for our blessings and to treat our fellow man with good cheer and wish for peace on earth and all that noise. I have to say, though – it’s all bullshit.
Why? Because if people really felt that way, they’d act like that all year ’round. And most of the people I see around me don’t. I suppose if I’m being honest I’m not a huge fan of peace on earth and goodwill to man, either. I generally distrust and dislike humans on a general level, but the ones I love – I really really really love them. They know who they are.
But, you know, we do try, and charitable giving tends to peak this time of year. It’s as if Thanksgiving creeps up on us and we all go, “oh shit, there are hungry people out there! I’d better give them the expired can of beets from the back of my pantry! Oh, and there’s that irritating Salvation Army bell-ringer. I think I have 35 cents and some pocket lint to stuff in the bucket. There, I’ve done a good thing so I’m a Good Person! All set for another year!” And then we go punch someone in the neck for walking too slow in the mall. Those bargains aren’t going to buy themselves, you know.
It’s all rather pointless, don’t you think? Not to ring my own bell, but I give an awful lot of cash to various causes all throughout the year. I’ve automated a lot of my donations so I don’t even have to think about it. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or if it’s the epitome of slacktivism. I’m not sure I care, actually, as long as the sweet tax deductions roll in.
Celebrities are no different. Whenever there’s a big catastrophe somewhere, you’ll see stories about how So-And-So Famous Movie Star gave $50K to the Red Cross to help with the relief effort. This is almost always someone who is paid something like $20 million dollars to make yet another shitty movie full of explosions and they want to be canonized or knighted or fellated for having given up $50K of it. Fuck that. I hate those people.
Sometimes, though, the famous actually put forth a little effort. That’s when things get interesting.
The mid-80s were a fertile time for the Celebrity Charity Song. MTV wasn’t just a cable channel by then – it was an incredibly powerful cultural force. The visibility it offered was unparalleled and hasn’t been matched since its demise. If you were a musician and you wanted people to see your work, you were on MTV. How else would I know about a band called “Helloween?” It was around this time that MTV figured out it could be a force for good. Sort of.
Between 1983 and 1985, the country of Ethiopia suffered a terrible famine. It wasn’t the first famine to happen there, nor would it be the last, but it happened at a time when communication was truly beginning to go global and people outside of Africa were being confronted with harrowing images of stick-thin babies, their huge eyes imploring us to help them, do something.
ENTER BOB GELDOF!
Our Bob was born in 1951 and raised outside of Dublin, Ireland. He had your basic hardscrabble childhood, and spent some time in Canada as a music journalist before returning to Ireland in 1975 to front the Boomtown Rats. The band ended up being known more for their frontman’s mouthy punk attitude than for anything else (except maybe that one song that you’ve heard of), and they didn’t enjoy nearly as much success as another band from Dublin which you may have heard of: U2.
Like his counterparts in U2, Bob got into social activism relatively early. He did a gig for Amnesty International in 1981, but it was when he was exposed to images from the famine in Ethiopia that he had the ultimate “a ha!” moment. He sat down with Midge Ure (of Ultravox) and together they hammered out what would end up being both the best and worst Christmas song of all time: Do They Know It’s Christmas?
Bob asked, cajoled, and threatened most of the UK pop world to get together with him and produce this record. In the end, he had about 40 different musicians there from all over the UK, and also Kool & The Gang, who happened to be in town and were therefore invited along. The music starts out appropriately Christmassy, with chimes and bells and Paul Young taking the first line the most amazingly tone-deaf lyrics of all time. Remember Paul Young? I bet you don’t. But Come Back And Stay! We’ll figure it out!
Now, I love this song more than I really ought to, given that I don’t even celebrate Christmas and that I know damn well that it does, in fact, snow in Africa. A large part of the varied populations of Africa don’t even celebrate Christmas, so to treat an entire fucking continent like a monolith is absolutely asinine. Not everyone in Africa was affected by the famine. Not everyone in Africa was starving. There are two references to Africa being this massive, arid desert, which is just completely untrue.
In short, the lyrics of this song are complete shit. They’re really, really, really bad and even “Sir Bob” (he was made an honorary knight for his humanitarian efforts but isn’t technically allowed to use the title “Sir,” yet the nickname stuck) has said that he is responsible for two of the worst songs ever, the other being “We Are The World.” Bob gets it.
The lyrics weren’t the point, though – it was all about the money raised. They had originally hoped to raise £70,000 but within a year of its release, the song had generated over £8,000,000. It had succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.
I think, on the whole, the intentions behind this and other songs of its kind are good. Even the most terrible of the genre managed to raise quite a bit of cash for their chosen causes. Would it be easier all around if the famous people involved would just write a fat check and not go through all of this “let’s make a song” malarkey? Sure. But had Band Aid not been formed, and had they not written and performed this, the best and worst of all songs, my life would have been missing something important.
So this year, when you hear Bono doing that whole Bono thing with the line: “tonight thank God it’s them, instead of YOU” take a look around you and do just that. Then maybe open up your wallet or set up an auto-pay donation and try to “feed the world” all year long, not just to “let them know it’s Christmastime again.”