32 years ago today – December 4, 1984 – one of the most polarizing Christmas songs ever was released. It’s the song that people love to hate.
Time is not necessarily kind to all music. Some songs, when you look at them closely, aren’t as, well, nice. Songs like “Ahab the Arab“,”Speedy Gonzales“, and “Wives and Lovers” seem a little racist and/or sexist when we listen to them today. Holiday music is no exception: for years, “Baby It’s Cold Outside” has been a staple of holiday programming, yet when you look at the song objectively, it’s a guy stopping at nothing (“Say, what’s in this drink?”) to get some female, um, attention. I’d suggest the same applies for a song that was once considered influential enough to get its composer, Bob Geldof, into the conversation for a Nobel prize, but that now we look at and think “How awful.”
I won’t disagree that the sentiment expressed in the song – “Tonight thank God it’s them instead of you” – seems at first glance to be very awful, especially when sung by a bunch of millionaires. But as a media historian I have to consider the context in which the original song was released. The Ethiopian famine was just starting to move the needle in terms of media coverage in November of 1984, when the song was recorded. In order to cut through the clutter and get the MTV audience to understand that there was, in fact, a problem, it was going to take something particularly brutally curt if it wasn’t going to be danceable. If the 1970s were the “me decade,” then the 1980s were seen in many corners as the “greed decade,” and it would take an extra effort to get consumers fighting over Cabbage Patch kids for the second year in a row to care about someone else’s hungry child.
It got them to care. The song became the biggest-selling single in UK history, a mark that it held until Elton John’s tribute to Princess Diana outsold it in 1997. Geldof hoped that the collection of British and Irish musicians would raise £70,000 for the food assistance charity; in reality, the proceeds topped £8,000,000. Band-Aid begat Live Aid the following summer, and – perhaps more notably for those who look for awful 80s songs to write about – inspired American performers to do their own fundraiser, foisting “We Are The World”upon us in January of 1985. (I like to point out that the best song of the fundraisers was the Canadian effort, “Tears Are Not Enough” by Northern Lights, which hasn’t gotten American airplay in perhaps ever.)
What may be notable about the song is who isn’t on it. David Bowie and Paul McCartney couldn’t make the session and sent recorded messages instead. Bowie’s is a message of urgency, while McCartney’s is a little more flippant. There’s a 12-inch remix of the song that uses the McCartney audio for comic relief (or to poke fun at Sir Paul; I can’t tell which).
How do I remember this song best? Flash back to the halls of Andrew High School. We had a habit of entertaining ourselves (as only high schoolers and morning radio hosts can) by coming up with alternate lyrics to popular songs. “We Killed This Kitty With Rocks And Stones” was sung a lot while Starship was popular. For this one, the chorus, which is stuck in my mind like it was yesterday, goes like this:
“Give…them… Twinkies….. Let them know it’s Hostess time!”
Try it. It may make the song just a little more tolerable for you. Either way, I encourage you to make a donation to a nearby food pantry this year. The song sold a lot of copies and raised a lot of money, but it didn’t solve the problem of hunger, which still exists, even in the land of plenty. Don’t thank God it’s them instead of you – help make it not be them, either.
To relive a piece of Christmas 1984, click here.