When saving the world with song, mind the lyrics

As charity jingles go, it was right up there with the Salvation Army's bell ringing. The song raised $150 million in African relief, spawned Live Aid, and inspired the US copycat "We are the World."

Twenty years after an all-star lineup recorded "Do They Know It's Christmas" to raise money for famine relief in Ethiopia, the record is back in the shops again, promising another smash hit for the Band Aid organization that launched the original. And with some 300,000 copies sold in the first week, it's already the fastest-selling record of 2004.

Yet this time around the response is more equivocal. Critics have raised an eyebrow at outdated, insensitive lyrics, while some aid activists are fuming at the song's revival of an unflattering image of Africa as a dependent, hopeless victim of geography and climate.

Some commentators have even questioned whether hand outs for Africa work at all in the long run, while even those buying the record seem to be doing so out of generosity of spirit rather than genuine affection for the record.

The intentions, as in 1984, are impeccable: The funds will be channeled this time to the victims of what the US terms "genocide" in western Sudan; stars performed free of charge; heroic production schedules got the single in the shops barely a month after the project was conceived.

But the 1984 phenomenon is proving a hard act to follow. Dido and Coldplay aside, this year's line-up is rather obscure compared to 1984's Sting, George Michael, Duran Duran, and Boy George. "The line-up is an unglamorous bunch, and the record is very non-descript," says Neil McCormick, a London-based music critic.

An unscientific straw poll of those who have bought or downloaded the record yielded similar sentiments. The almost universal response was "good cause, terrible record." "We bought it for the charity aspect, though it bothers me that they just re-recorded the old one," says Barry Wright. "You'd think they'd update it somehow, revamp it."

Those behind the record say that "time restrictions" made it impossible to record a totally new tune. And in any case this perennial Christmas anthem has the added benefit of instant recognizability: The first broadcast of the video drew some 13 million viewers, formidable ratings for British television. Promoters are confident it has international appeal too, launching the single in more than 40 countries, though not in the US for reasons they won't discuss.

"It's only a pop song but this little pop song saves lives," said U2's lead singer Bono, the only performer to have sung on both versions. "This can be the generation that turns this supertanker of indifference around," he told a BBC documentary on the making of Band Aid 20.

Whether the crooning helps the cause may depend on how the lyrics resonate with 21st century audiences. So far, the words have drawn fire for being tactless ("Tonight thank God it's them instead of you"), misleading, and in parts either meaningless or wrong - or both ("And there won't be snow in Africa this Christmas"). Many Africans will not recognize the song's description of a land where "nothing ever grows, no rain or river flows." Ethiopia, the focus in 1984, happens to be the source of the Nile.

Such nitpicks aside, critics argue that the song creates an unhelpful overall impression of a starving continent reliant on charity. Ethiopia, for example, has indicated that reviving memories of 20 years ago is unhelpful and counterproductive.

"It has the potential to be actively damaging," notes Dave Timms, spokesman for the World Development Movement, an independent international group that campaigns against poverty. "This isn't just another pop song - it's supposed to mean something. It has a set of images attached to those lyrics which present an inaccurate image of Africa's poor."

The lyrics, he said, fail to help ordinary Westerners understand that it is politics, bad governance, unfair trade arrangements, and burdensome debt that are crushing Africa, not the weather.

The timing of the record is unfortunate, moreover, because 2005 could represent an opportunity for movement on these key issues, given that Britain, a champion of debt relief, is at the helm of both the G-8 and EU next year.

Tony Blair and his finance minister, Gordon Brown, have already signaled an intention to push next year for bigger aid budgets and far deeper debt relief.

"On the eve of that year to be reinstating a popular notion of Africa and Africans as helpless or their problems being due to accident of climate or incidence of unfortunate geography rather than as a result of action done to Africa, is worse than just a missed opportunity," says Mr. Timms.

Band Aid sees things differently. They argue that the record put Africa's plight back into the public domain at a critical time. Band Aid leader Bob Geldof calls it "the starting pistol for the vital political year of 2005."

"It's a simple Christmas song to get the West to focus on famine in Africa," says Bernard Doherty, Band Aid 20's publicity chief. "The word are somewhat irrelevant in the context of getting sales of a pop record and bringing famine back on to our TV news screens."

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