It’s not often I agree with Bob Geldof, but I find myself nodding in agreement with his pithy response to critics who are troubled by his 30-year-old charity song Do They Know It’s Christmas?
“Please. It’s a pop song. Relax.
“It’s a pop song, it’s not a doctoral thesis. They can f*** off.”
Indeed. What seems remarkable to me is the way that a typically reactionary strategy – the po-faced literal interpretation of pop lyrics – has been used by supposedly progressive forces to condemn a laudable aim. Most notably, that somehow it is archaic and patronising to suggest that Africans are unaware of Christmas.
But is that what the song does at all?
Consider its opening verse, which for me at least conjures something of the magical spirit of the season. It is a time of warmth, comfort, safety, when we celebrate our own good fortune and our thoughts turn to others – wherever they might be and however they might be in need.
It’s Christmastime; there’s no need to be afraid
At Christmastime, we let in light and we banish shade
And in our world of plenty we can spread a smile of joy
Throw your arms around the world at Christmastime
Now the meaning of the rest of the song makes perfect sense when considering how many millions of other people are not nearly so lucky. Deprived of our bellies stuffed with turkey, can people in impoverished parts of the world – fighting their own daily battles of survival – embrace the Christmas spirit in the way that we might. Is the day any different to any others? Is it free from fear? Is it a day spent surrounded by loved ones?
The greatest gift they’ll get this year is life
Oh, where nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers flow
Do they know it’s Christmastime at all?
Is the song asking whether the rest of the world knows its Christmas. Or is it asking if they are as safe and secure as we are, on the one day when we all (who celebrate Christmas) hope to put our worries aside.
And if you are unimpressed by my reasoning, consider this: Sierra Leone has “cancelled” Christmas, banning public celebrations to help curb the spread of Ebola. Of course people know it’s literally Christmastime but is it still actually Christmas if you can’t gather in public to sing your carols?
Sure, the charity single does perpetuate notions of the white man as saviour. But if you don’t like that then there are far more important targets than Geldof and his charity single.
This all smacks to me of a new age of ultra-literalism, based in no small part on our 140-character culture. Irony, sarcasm, metaphor and allusion are all losing their way. A complicated sentiment is stripped down to its surface.
Celebrating Christmas is not just about knowing it is December 25.