Star-studded charity singles tend to be cheesy, self-righteous, and of dubious real-world value—and we can probably blame “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” for making such songs popular in the first place. The song is now celebrating its 30th anniversary by latching on to a new health crisis. While there had been such recordings before—George Harrison’s 1971 “Bangla Desh” is widely considered the first of its kind—“Do They Know It’s Christmas?” had unprecedented success in garnering attention and donations. “We Are the World,” “Tears Are Not Enough,” and many other large-scale musical pleas starring artists of the moment followed.
The apparent good intentions of these efforts seem to shield them somewhat from criticism. But “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” is awful on a number of levels, and needs to be criticized. As the economist William Easterly wrote in Slate earlier this year, the song promotes “a worldview in which ‘they,’ Africans, are unable to help themselves in preventing famine, and so passively await rescue from ‘we’ Western famine experts, a category that apparently includes rock stars.” Furthermore, the suggestion that “they” need to know that a Christian holiday is taking place obliviously invokes the sins of colonialism. And the song converts a massive, diverse, and complicated continent into a single, undifferentiated place (a typical Western attitude toward Africa), where, apparently, “nothing ever grows” and “no rivers ever flow.”
However much money the song raises, these attitudes can do real harm. “These stereotypes,” Easterly writes, “make it harder to recognize how much Africans deserve (and are already fighting for) greater political and economic rights to actively determine their own destinies.” A colleague of mine rightly dubbed “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” a “white man’s burden anthem.” (Easterly, as it happens, is the author of a book titled White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good.)
This new version, which includes old stalwart Bono as well as fresh-faced newbies One Direction and Sam Smith, swaps out some notoriously cringe-worthy lines (“Well tonight thank God it’s them instead of you”) for slightly less troubling lyrics. But it remains fundamentally unchanged—and the video captures the awful condescension so often present in such star-driven projects: It opens with footage of an Ebola-stricken black body being carried away by rescue workers in hazmat suits, then cuts to rich, smiling celebrities exiting a limo in a flash of paparazzi cameras to “do good” by recording a song. In case you have any doubt where the focus is here, the rest of the video consists of the faces of these celebrity singers.
This latest “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” is the fourth iteration of the Bob Geldof–Midge Ure song, by the way: In addition to the original, there is a 1989 and a 2004 version. Those three were all for famine relief. This one, as noted, focuses on Ebola (though, curiously, they didn’t bother to rewrite the repeated chant, “Feed the world,” to fit this new context for the song). And while we’re here, if you want to donate money to fight the disease, there are some very good organizations you can give to. But if Geldof and company insist on expressing their charitableness in musical form, please, it’s time to write a new song.