Pop-minded holiday music is generally awful: off-tune renditions of over-sung, hyper-produced chestnuts like "Ave Maria," "What Child Is This?" and "O Holy Night". But some of it, like Bruce's cover of "Santa Clause is Coming To Town" or Run-DMC's original "Christmas in Hollis" is pretty awesome. Who doesn't dig those Adidas jumpsuits, the jammaster elf, The Boss asking Clarence Clemons if he's going to be on the naughty or nice list?
November 24th marks the 25th anniversary of the original Band-Aid supergroup collaboration, "Do They Know It's Christmas?" If you're like me, seeing the video on television that winter was a formative game-changer. Who were these weird British dudes in plaid with awful hair intercut with images of skinny black people in weird clothes, living in poor places? Why were my sister and all of her friends buying and playing the single nonstop? Were there really places where people didn't know it was Christmas time and were too poor to celebrate it? (Admittedly, my seven-year-old mind didn't quite grasp the great questions of the day but, hey, it was a start).
The story goes like this: producer Bob Geldof watched a BBC television report on the 1984 famine in Ethiopia, called up his friend Midge Ure, and together they quickly wrote the song, just in time for Geldof's promotional appearance the next night on BBC Radio, where, instead of promoting his new album, he made a general plea to all like-minded musicians and artists from the Commonwealth who wanted to perform the new song to join him the next week in a recording studio. Expecting a few friends, nearly 50 turned out. Expecting to raise around $100,000, they instead, eventually, raised nearly $300 million for famine relief. Sting laid down the vocals so that everyone could learn it in the one day they had to record all of the parts. The single sold more copies than any other British release in history--during the brief period that Wham hit #1 with "Last Christmas," Andrew Ridgley and George Michael felt so bad that they donated the proceeds to Band-Aid--and the next year's Live Aid international mega-concert furthered the charity effort.
Katie used to say that she decided to join the Peace Corps after spending a long evening doing her holiday shopping at a mall where "Happy XMas (War Is Over)" was playing over and over. She never noted this fact with much appreciation--the song made her feel so bad about what she hadn't done to change the world that, years later, she still couldn't listen to the song without feeling guilty. I used to secret away to listen to the song in private, appreciating its political punch and ability to make sing-along-worthy and happy its statement of serious moral uncertainty. Now, it's a song I can't stand much to listen to without bursting into tears.
Both "Do They Know It's Christmas?" and "Happy XMas (War Is Over)" are regularly criticized for being self-righteous, preachy, bloated statements of liberalism that say a lot but do very little. And, if you're looking to celebrities to develop nuanced, long-term policies that address the subtle intricacies of foreign development and military strategy in four-minute pop tunes, then you've hit on a crucial point. But consider the sheer leveraging power of these songs to provide bully pulpits to speak to broad audiences about politically-inconvenient issues of the day. Following his re-election, Reagan spoke candidly about his religious beliefs that Christmas season, instituting a children's Pageant of Peace to accompany the annual tree lighting ceremony, while also insisting that Ethiopia's famine that year was the result of its adherence to godless Communism (rather than, say, bad luck or natural cycles of the Earth). Similarly, the 1971 release of "Happy XMas (War Is Over)" followed on the heels of the leaking of the Pentagon Papers, nearly three years after President Nixon had reveled he possessed a secret plan to end the Vietnam War (it would formally end after still another four years).
Seven years after "Do They Know It's Christmas?" American recording artists came together to record their own super-song, "Voices That Care," a statement of support for American troops serving in the first Gulf War, which also doubled as the launching event for the ubiquitous yellow ribbon of support. Nelson, Michael Bolton, Luther Vandross, Chevy Chase, the Pointer Sisters, and Bobby Brown, among others, came together to express their personal support for the troops, independent of any political feeling. The result--a cloying, poorly-lyricized, Kenny-G-happy sing-along--was a staple of my summer playlist. I wasn't going to let the nearly 26% of Americans who opposed this war silence my support! I had a voice that cared, which was crying out loud, knowing in my heart that my love burned bright with patriotism:
I like to think that my susceptibility to celebrity acts of charity and Christmas music has been boosted, like some mega-dose of Vitamin C, by the ironic detachment I've cultivated in my years of watching baseball heroes commit manslaughter, pop heroes prey on small children, and family-values Seantors arrested soliciting gay-sex in bathrooms. Instead, with Thanksgiving just around the corner, I'm wondering what the contemporary political super-statement has evolved into. Has Obama cornered the market as the uber-celebrity? Does Sean Penn's paddling a rowboat into New Orleans or visiting Iraq qualify as an act of political conscience? Brangelina adopting foreign-born babies? If so, why are these acts so singular? Where has the collaborative spirit gone? What's the intended outcome? And, where's the risk?
President Bush used to like to say that, whether or not you like him, you always knew where he stood. What bothered me about that declaration was that his opinions were never really controversial--that there was more potential for controversy in John Lennon and Yoko Ono refusing to spell out "Christ" in the title of "Happy XMas" than there was in all of George Bush's statements about Iraq and Afghanistan put together. If it is fashionable to speak like an "average American," then it also seems fashionable to claim to do outlandish things while never actually rocking the boat. This past Sunday's New York Times profile of Megan Fox absolutely skewers the actress's penchant for manufacturing controversies that are not at all controversial--that are conventionally salacious ("sometimes I like girls") but lack the substance of and commitment to dissent ("but I'm also in a long-term stable relationship with a man for the past 6 years") that inspire actual controversy.
The only example of true controversies that I can think of in the past eight years both involved prominent African-American artists whose careers were permanently unsettled by their boldness. The first, Janet Jackson's famous nipple exposure, has been plenty picked over. The second, though, remains positively harrowing, impacting, scary, and thoroughly masterful--and silenced. Amiri Baraka's spoken-word performance, "Somebody Blew Up America," is a disturbing poetic statement of dissent. I strongly disagree with the quality and substance of Mr. Baraka's easy generalizations about race, gender, sex, and consequence, but I cannot deny the power of his performance, and I very much admire his commitment to the work despite having lost nearly everything for his commitment to it. One day, I'm certain, "Somebody Blew Up America" will find its way into the major poetry anthologies of work from this era. But, for now, it's too hot to handle, too cold to hold, and too singular for anyone else to sing: