Pop Song Review: Band Aid 30 – “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”

Yes, I am. I didn’t think I would because it’s a charity single and there’s this unwritten law about not criticising charity singles because they’re for a good cause and all that, but I feel that, in the end, it’s probably best that I do. This is not me reviewing the cause or the goodwill behind the music, but the music itself. So here I am, reviewing “Do They Know it’s Christmas?” by Band Aid 30.

First impressions: Yep, that’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” Same as I remember it – only something’s changed. Something… something terrible…

The music: Er, it’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” Do I… what do I even do here? You all know the song. You’ve known it since you were a kid. You probably had it in your head in utero. Instead of a full analysis of the music, I’m going to focus on what’s changed in this version, namely the vocals. Now, naturally, only the best and brightest young talents of today – the true musical übermensch, if you will – were chosen to lend their flawless, unique and deeply emotive vocals to the recording.

Unfortunately they weren’t available, so instead they just drafted Bastille, One Direction and a bunch of other faceless pop stars into the studio for a day. And Seal and Sinead O’Connor, for some reason. And Bono, because of course Bono. Aw, listen to how much they all care, guys – those forced trills in their weak, uninspiring little voices, or the way they bend and change the notes for no reason other than to carve some sort of stamp into the recording. How emotional. I mean, that is them conveying emotion, right, instead of just showing off? Right? I, er… right?

Okay, let’s just cut to the point: the vocals are a train-wreck. It’s the same problem that that weird rendition of The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” the BBC did a few weeks back suffered from: too many cooks all trying to add their weird spices to the same broth. Why do we have to go straight from Sam Smith’s timid, teary-eyed gurgle to Rita Ora’s explosive foghorn shriek? Why does Ellie Goulding have to start cooing at the end of her take like a deranged sparrow? Why do One Direction’s stacked, one-note vocals have to open proceedings? None of it fits together. The only time it works is when the chorus kicks in, the voices all blend together into one anonymous mush and nobody has any room to show off. Also, for a few brief seconds you can kid yourself into thinking it’s the original.

Sorry, guys, but cause or no cause this just isn’t a pleasant recording to listen to. Mind you, no Dizzee Rascal – that’s a nice plus.

The lyrics: Given that the song has been brought out of storage to help fight Ebola and not world hunger this time around, the lyrics have been altered slightly with a few choice line changes. For example, one of the original lines was “tonight thank God it’s them instead of you.”  Now, though, it’s been replaced with “tonight we’re reaching out and touching you.” Stranger danger!

Here’s a good example of how our culture doesn’t understand irony anymore: the line’s original power came from its deliberate coldness. We weren’t supposed to take it literally; it was meant to provoke us into action, to look at ourselves and our comfortable lives and see how we might be able to help others. True, it was a bit of a weird guilt trip for a pop song, but it was effective. How did anyone think, therefore, that this new line would be better? “Hey, that’s great. Say, while you’re busy reaching out to touch me with your gloved hand from as far away a distance as physically possible, would you mind passing the medicine? Thanks – and could you not grimace in disgust while you do it? I’m still a human being, Mister Millionaire.”

“Where a kiss of love can kill you / and there’s death in every tear.” Okay, that’s a pretty evocative image that does at least get across how Ebola can be spread, even if it’s a bit cheesy. “They can’t even cry, you guys!!” Still, it’s an awful disease and thousands are suffering, so screw my cynicism.

“Bring peace and joy this Christmas to West Africa / a song of hope where there’s no hope tonight.” Again, how is this supposed to be more effective than “the only gift they’ll get this year is life”? It’s okay to leave some things intact, people.

“Why is comfort to be feared? / Why is to touch to be scared?” Sorry, what? I get the second part of this line, but is Ebola spread through comfort now? I think they meant the comfort of an embrace or a kiss, but they’ve written it in such a bizarre way that now all I can think of is the Comfy Chair from Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition sketch. Question is, what does Band Aid 30 want me to confess to?

“Feed the world” has also been replaced, albeit intermittently, with “heal the world.” I guess that works. I mean, world hunger still exists, even if Ebola is the poster crisis of the season, so it’s good to know they haven’t completely abandoned the message of the original song. I wonder if Band Aid 40 will find a way to address corruption and tyranny in African politics?

Verdict: It’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” If you didn’t like it before, you probably won’t like it now. In fact, you may even like it less. As for me, while my opinions on the whole Band Aid deal have grown somewhat more cynical over the years – charity is a personal thing that you can’t and shouldn’t have to guilt people into – I’ve never minded the song itself. It’s a bit of catchy, well constructed 80’s cheese with its heart mostly in the right place. That said, the vocals are mostly dreadful and make it a truly jarring piece of music to listen to, so 2 out of 5 it is. If Bob Geldof doesn’t like that, well, I’m sure he knows what to do by now.

Seriously, though, this is a worthwhile cause we’re talking about here, but if you want to donate this Christmas might I recommend that you just send your money directly to the DEC? That way you have the opportunity to give more to the actual cause and you don’t have to put up with having this song in your iTunes cloud forever.

Today’s double-up is “Go Away” by Living Colour.


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