Do They Know It's Christmas Time Yet? Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of Band Aid

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We've become accustomed to celebrity charitable endorsements, but let me transport you back to a simpler time long ago, exactly 25-years ago in the magical, shiny 1980s, when it was rare to see contemporary famous icons stepping forward to align themselves with a cause.  What's more, a group of disparate performers uniting to create an original song to raise awareness and funds for a new charity?  It had never been done until Bob Geldof, Midge Ure and a star-studded entourage formed the ad hoc Band Aid and released "Do They Know It's Christmas" in 1984.

Their goal was to create awareness of the issue of devastating famine in Ethiopia.  The BBC reports that the Band Aid Trust distributed $144 million in aid from 1985-2004.  In doing so, Band Aid changed pop music.
 
The song was recorded by a charitable supergroup pulled together for the endeavor.  The superstars were chosen based on their fame, and the list paints a portrait of the times: Freddy Mercury, Boy George, Sting, Bowie, Paul McCartney (see the entire list at Geldof's site). And my, they were young.  Watching it is worth it to see babyfaced Bono alone.

Love it or loathe it, and people do have strong feelings of all kinds about this song, "Do They Know It's Christmas" is a powerful piece of work.  Immediately, it sparked a year devoted to similar efforts, including the follow-up Live Aid benefit concert in January, John Mellencamp's Farm Aid concert in the summer of '85 to benefit American farmers, Quincy Jones' "We are the World" recording in 1985.  The trend of charitable endorsements continued, adding a layer of service and meaning to pop music's role in our lives.
  
The song is high 80s, to be sure.  I agree with its critics: for all that is good about the effort, the wretched lyrics are melodramatic, patronizing, and histrionic. No water flows, no snow, poor dry Africa, but hey, let's raise and glass to everyone underneath that burning sun, even if they don't know we get prezzies and chocolate from Santa today!  And the clincher, wailed convincingly by my beloved Bono: "Well tonight thank God it's them instead of you!" (A line with which Bono himself is said to hold disdain, because he thought it could be interpreted as wishing troubles on one's neighbor to save yourself, but Geldolf won and the lyric remained.) Some believe the song relies on a neo-colonial noblesse oblige inspired by pity, which isn't the most respectful way to raise funds.
 
Whether or not you admire the intent or the performance, Band Aid's 25-year legacy is undeniable. It created a model for cause-marketing in music, bringing the local practice of a small band benefit to the international stratosphere. It symbolized emerging internationalism and dissolving boundaries, bringing the English and the Irish together as a united force to be of help to Africa.  "We are the World" similarly united North American superstars from different genres as one entity without boundaries. 

The generational message of the immediate hit was strong, too, asserting that the Baby Boomers didn't own the nexus of pop culture and progressive politics.  With the BandAid model, Gen X put its own spin on the Woodstock legacy, of course.  Certainly the trend was more commercial, more co-opted than the attention previous generations had paid to causes or social agendas. Still, "giving back" became the trend, perpetuated in part because it was the perfect solution to the loss of rebellious street cred that befell punks, rockers and pop stars who amassed wicked fortunes in the booming 80s. For many stars like Bono, Sting, Springsteen, Willie Nelson, Mellencamp, monetary success threatened to undermine the personas that were based on the rebellious struggle of workers.  They were able to achieve success without looking like sell outs by inspiring donations to relieve the need of others.

Times have continued to change.  The 90s were an entirely different bling-bearing creation.  Of course Gen Y and the Millenials need to play their trends as it suits them and the times. For Gen X, we're still compelled to celebrate our glory days, and remember how we loved our MTV, and our Band Aids, how we could envision ourselves joking with Paul Young and Simon Le Bon, holding our headphones with our hand to one ear, belting compassion and Christmas cheer along with our best friends from Duran Duran and Bananarama.

So Happy 25th Anniversary to Band Aid. I'm grateful for the way you taught me it was cool to rock and be an activist who loves the luxe life too.  As the lyrics say "here's to you, raise a glass for everyone!"

Any legacy worth its salt also inspires parody and deconstruction. See these great blog reactions to the classic "Do They Know It's Christmas."

Jayne at My Family and Other Animals

Sally Tomato at The Tomato Diary

Stuff Black People Don't Like

 

Deb Rox remembers 1984 very, very well.  She rocked 1984 hard. Which means she's old now.  But she's okay with that because it must mean that she's also crazy WISE.  Check out all the wisdom in her blog Deb on the Rocks, her consulting agency 3 Smart Girlz, and her book 5 Ways to {Blank} Your Blog
 

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