Feed on


By David Howes

The Global Jukebox

It was Bob Geldof who got the ball rolling. The Irish rockstar was deeply affected by the pictures of Ethiopian children starving which he witnessed on the BBC evening news (Geldof 1986: 271). The images inspired him to try to raise money for famine relief. To this end, he composed the song Do They Know Its Christmas? and persuaded a congeries of British rock stars to record it with him. The single and accompanying video were released in the month before Christmas 1984, and had already raised $15 million by the end of that year. Next came We Are the World, written by Lionel Ritchie and Michael Jackson, and sung by a host of American rock stars calling themselves “United Support of Artists for Africa” (U.S.A. for Africa). Sales of the We Are the World single and video, which came out in March 1985, would eventually top US $50 million. Tears Are Not Enough, the Canadian contribution to this global effort, was arranged by David Foster, with lyrics by Jim Valance, Rachel Paiement and Bryan Adams, and performed by a group of Canadian rock stars under the name “Northern Lights.” This song also came out in March 1985, as the flip side of We Are the World.

Building on the momentum unleashed by the release of his own song, and the American and Canadian imitations, Geldof went on to organize an international live music marathon which he billed as a “global jukebox.” The Live Aid concert, which took place on July 13, 1985, involved close to 180 rock stars in London and Philadelphia, and lasted for 16 hours – permitting one star (Phil Collins) to jet across the Atlantic and thus perform in both venues. The concert was seen by an estimated 1.5 billion television viewers in 169 countries, and raised in excess of $110 million in donations to Band Aid, the nonprofit trust which Geldof set up to administer and distribute all the funds that were collected. The experience that was made possible by all the human energy and communications technology that went into manufacturing this event was of a world without borders, humanity as one big family, the globe as a single place.

The fact that all three of these famine-relief songs (and a fourth which will be introduced later) were written with the same purpose in mind makes them ideal material for comparative cultural analysis. In each case, the composers wanted to reach the largest possible audience, compel their listeners to think about “the whole”, and persuade them to give as generously as possible. In the result, a study of the lyrics reveals that the arrangement of each song echoes the (constitutional) arrangement of its country of origin.

“You can do something”

If there is one theme that can be said to run through all three songs, that theme is – in Bob Geldof’s own words – “the simple idea of personal responsibility,” or “you can do something” (Geldof 1986: 290). The first sounding of this theme occurs in the David Bowie monologue during the voice-over interlude in Do They Know Its Christmas?

Its Christmas 1984, and there are more starving folk on our planet than ever before. Please give a thought for them this season, and do whatever you can, however small, to help them live.

This theme resounds in the lines of the Canadian and American songs, which call upon listeners to help actualize “the dream” or “make a change” respectively:

Tears Are Not Enough
It’s up to me and you
To make the dream come true
We Are the World
We can’t go on,
pretending day by day
that someone, somewhere
will soon make a change

The theme of personal responsibility is the only theme contained in the British song which is carried over to the same extent in both the New World songs. Otherwise, the latter songs present variations on the themes introduced in the British original.

Consider the British and American songs first. The three most salient themes of the American song can all be traced back to the British original. These themes include: the idea of the home country as a happy place and the centre from which good things radiate; the theme of overcoming distance (be this through putting your arms around the world, or standing together as one); and, the use of the pronoun “we” to convey the idea of an undifferentiated unity (i.e. a collective that has no internal divisions). All three themes can be discerned in the following lines from the British song:

And in our world of plenty,
we can spread a smile of joy
Put your arms around the world at Christmas time

In the case of the American song, the three themes find expression in the following two passages:

We are the ones who make a brighter day,
so let’s start giving

Let’s realize that a change can only come
when we stand together as one

Comparing the British and Canadian songs, there are but two instances where the Canadian song gives expression to themes derived directly from Do They Know Its Christmas? The first of these has to do with the dichotomization of the world, or separation of “you” from “them.” In the British and Canadian songs, the pronoun “you” invariably refers to the intended audience, while “them” refers to the Ethiopians:

Do They Know Its Christmas
Feed the world,
Let them know its Christmas time
Tears Are Not Enough
Let’s show them Canada still cares

To speak in terms of “them” implies a prior act of discrimination which establishes a border between self and other, us and them. This tendency to isolate “them” in the British and Canadian songs contrasts with the more inclusive attitude toward the other expressed via the use of the pronoun “we” in the American song. The “we” that is spoken in such lines as “We Are the World, we are the children,” or “We are all a part of God’s great big family” could be referring to Americans alone, or Americans and Ethiopians together, or indeed all the people of the world. The American use of “we” consistently blurs or obliterates boundaries. The American song may therefore be said to synthesize, while the British and Canadian songs dichotomize, the world’s peoples.

The Canadian song actually posits a sort of double dichotomization: not only does it divide the world in two (us and them), but it substitutes “you and I” for the British “you”, thereby dividing those of and to whom it speaks in two as well:

And if we should try, together you and I
Maybe we could understand the reason why

The Canadian song is, hence, even more discriminating than the British song because it insists upon doubly dissecting the addressee – on which more later.

The other theme first sounded in the British song which appears to be reiterated in the Canadian song is the theme of epistemological uncertainty or disbelief, which is expressed in the lines: “Do They Know Its Christmas time at all?” (British) and “Don’t you know that Tears Are Not Enough?” (Canadian). The Canadian variation on this theme is actually an inversion of the original, for the Canadian song implies that the ignorance lies with us (the audience) whereas the British song clearly projects it onto “them” (the people of Ethiopia).

It must be said that the British imputation of ignorance to the Ethiopians is hardly just: over half of the population of Ethiopia is Muslim, and being Muslim, there is no reason “they” ought to have known it was Christmas time. Another example of this tendency to project local (read: British) customs or experiences onto the world at large is contained in the line: “And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas time,” as if there would be snow in Africa – as there sometimes is in England – were it not for the drought.

Tears over a Pint of Beer

A further peculiarity of the British song is that it seems to be based on the assumption that the only way to mobilize sentiment at home for “the other ones” abroad is by emphasizing difference from “them” rather than identity with them. Consider the atmosphere the British song creates. It is the atmosphere of a working class pub. There is a fire blazing, and there is frost on the windows because it is winter time: “Christmas bells are ringing,” to quote the song, and everyone has a glass in front of them. Someone brings up the subject of Ethiopia, “Where nothing ever grows/ No rain or rivers flow,” and wonders: “Do They Know Its Christmas time at all?” At this point another voice pipes up: “Well tonight thank God it’s them instead of you,” and then all chime in:

Here’s to you, raise a glass for everyone
Here’s to them, underneath that burning sun
Do They Know Its Christmas time at all?

Were it not for the chorus, “Feed the World,” and the profoundly sobering David Bowie monologue quoted earlier, the revellers in the song would probably have kept right on toasting each other, celebrating their own good fortune, forever. They would never have given another thought to making a donation. This certainly seems to be the way the stars other than Bowie who deliver messages during the voice-over interlude understood the situation. Typical interjections by the stars include: “Just have a good Christmas and enjoy yourself,” “Have a lovely Christmas, bye!” which suggest little real comprehension of the gravity of the situation.

Phrases such as “Well tonight thank God it’s them instead of you,” do not exactly kindle much fellow-feeling as regards “the other ones.” Why is the British song so insular? One possible explanation is that it was only by emphasizing differences from “them” that British society could appear and experience itself as a unified whole. As is well known, British society is sharply divided along class lines. Deflecting attention from these divisions was perhaps essential to encouraging people to reflect not on the deprivations of their own class position, but rather on the total deprivation of the famine victims.

Another possible explanation for the hierarchical phraseology has to do with Britain’s former constitution as an imperial power. The song’s lyrics may be interpreted as containing vestiges of the imperial relation in which England once stood to Africa. For example, Africans are pictured as “the lesser breeds beneath the sun” in a classical colonial trope (Said 1995). Similarly, the world “outside your window”, which is to say the Third World, is pictured as “the world of dread and fear,” and the Englishman has the burden to lighten and transform that world by, first, bringing the knowledge that it is Christmas time to Ethiopia, and, second, “spread[ing] a smile of joy.” This symbolism, however secular its intent, echoes much of the imagery surrounding the colonial British missionizing activity of the nineteenth century (see Comaroff and Comaroff 1996).

Canadian-American Relations

Turning now to a comparison of the Canadian and American songs, the most noticeable difference between the two is that the Canadian song has two lines in French whereas the American song is exclusively in English. The bilingualism of the Canadian song acknowledges that English is not the universal language, that the world speaks (and listens) with more than one voice. The monolingualism of the American song is the first indication of the latter being in some measure the expression of a concentric (not to say monolithic) conception of the world. English is simply assumed to be the universal language.

A second difference is that the appeal of the Canadian song is couched in conditional language and the outcome is left uncertain whereas the American song uses an ontological idiom.

Tears Are Not Enough

If we can pull together,
We could change the world forever

We Are the World

We are the ones
who make a brighter day
so lets start giving

The rhetorical strategies utilized here are quite distinct: the Canadian song reasons with us, the American song reasons for us. The logic of the argument in the first song has the form: “If p then possibly q” whereas the latter simply states: “It being the case that p, therefore q.” One cannot dissent from the latter argument.

A third difference has to do with the air of doubt and acknowledgement of the uncertain character of any understanding one might achieve regarding the state the world is in that pervades the Canadian song. By contrast, there is no trace of any hesitation regarding the declaration of certain fundamental “truths” in the American lyrics:

Tears Are Not Enough

And if we should try,
together you and I
Maybe we could understand
the reasons why
Don’t you know that
tears are not enough?

We Are the World

It’s true we make a brighter day
just me and you

And the truth, you know
love is all we need

What is the authority for the “truths” declared by the American song? The idea that “love is all we need” seems to be derived from the Beatles’ song All You Need is Love. As for the “truth” of the first proposition, it has the same “self-evident” ring as the notion that “all men are created equal,” which has always been treated as an article of faith in the United States

A fourth difference has to do with the different unities and identities the songs call forth. The Canadian song articulates a “unity of you and I,” which is consistent with the Canadian identity being an identity which is not one. Witness the line: “And if we should try, together you and I …” . Note how the phrase “you and I” serves to qualify the pronoun “we,” essentially splitting it in two. Another case of this difference finding expression in the Canadian song:

If we take a stand, every woman, child and man
We can make it work, for God’s sake, lend a hand

The Canadian composers were (constitutionally) unable to conceive of their audience as “a single whole, a single person,” for everytime they use “we” they feel compelled to specify that they are indeed addressing “every woman, child and man”, or in the alternative “you and I.” Given the context, it was hardly necessary for them to be this explicit; that they were is but further evidence of the absence of a unitary notion of identity in Canada.

As noted earlier, the use of “we” is never qualified in the American song. Rather, it seems as if the “unity of we” at the base of the American Union is extended to encompass the whole world. This extension is explicable in terms of the concentrism of the American imaginary. There is one line, though, where “we” would seem to revert to its historic meaning, that of “We, the People” (as distinct from “We, the World”). This line reads: “There’s a choice we’re making, we’re saving our own lives,” the idea being that by donating money to the cause of U.S.A. for Africa, Americans are protecting their own lives and property from jeopardy.

There is no corresponding reference to self-interest in the Canadian song. Also absent is the idea of there being some kind of choice to be made. Instead, the emphasis is all on the overriding necessity of giving, as in: “How can we look away, ’cause every single day,/ We’ve got to help at any cost.”

Perhaps the most profound difference between the two songs has to do with the representation of space. The fact of distance is accented in the Canadian song whereas the American song emphasizes closeness or “stand[ing] together as one”:

Tears Are Not Enough

We can bridge the distance
Only we can make the
C’est l’amour qui
nous rassemble

D’ici a l’autre bout du mondes

We Are the World

There comes a time
when we heed a certain call
When the world must
come together as one

The emphasis on distance is apparent in the French lines which speak of love as “bringing us together, from here to the other end of the world”!

As regards this theme of distance, the English text speaks explicitly of “bridging the distance.” The metaphor of “bridging” is very different from the American idea of “coming together as one”. A bridge does not dissolve the distance between the points it joins: it keeps them separate in the very act of linking them to each other. “Coming together as one” collapses distances, and dissolves boundaries. It is in this sense that the Canadian song may be said to posit a diathesis while the American song describes a synthesis; the Canadian song imagines the First and Third World as juxtaposed but remaining quite separate, while the American song describes a fusion, a “perfect Union”. This point is further borne out by the fact that immediately after the reference to “bridging” in the Canadian song there is reference to “making a difference” whereas the emphasis in We Are the World is all on sameness, or becoming “as one”.

Mary Douglas once observed that, “More spacing means more solemnity” (Douglas 1975: 214). This observation helps to account for the difference in mood of the two songs, just as it earlier helped us to think through some of the differences between Alex Colville and Norman Rockwell’s imagery. Given the emphasis on closeness in We Are the World, it is not surprising that this song is imbued with a sense of buoyant optimism, as in “love is all we need”. Indeed, the American song even goes so far as to suggest that if “we just believe”, “we” can overcome situations where “there seems no hope at all”.

Given the emphasis on distance in the Canadian song, it is comprehensible why it sounds more solemn, as in the line which laments: “Somehow our innocence is lost,” or the cry: “Heaven knows that Tears Are Not Enough“. Indeed, it is only from the latter song that one derives any sense of the huge gulf, both geographic and economic, that divides the First World from the Third. The last point is also brought out by the line which goes “Let’s show them Canada still cares.” We Are the World never mentions the United States by name, playing instead on the identification of “We, the People” with “We, the World”.

Why is any sense of the distance between Africa and America missing from We Are the World? One possible explanation for the closeness of the “we” in We Are the World is that the song was written by two American blacks, Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson, who probably felt a certain kinship with their “brothers in Africa.” The difficulty with this explanation is that it fails to account for why We Are the World came after rather than before Do They Know Its Christmas? It is unclear whether We Are the World was written out of fellow-feeling or shame, out of genuine concern for the plight of the Ethiopians or the desire to outdo the British. All we know is that Harry Belafonte went on public record as saying he was “ashamed and embarrassed at seeing a bunch of white English kids doing what black Americans ought to have been doing” (Geldof 1986: 322).

A sounder explanation perhaps is that, according to George Grant (1986), it is the “civilisational destiny” of America to realize “the universal and homogeneous state”. What the actualization of such a state involves is the overcoming of “necessity and chance” (e.g. famine) in the name of human freedom, or “universal happiness.” This idea is given in the lines of We Are the World which read:

Send them your hearts, so they know that someone cares
And their hearts will be stronger and free

These lines envision the Ethiopians as the recipients not just of American aid, but American liberalism, with the message that if they take this American gift to the world to heart they will be stronger and free. These lines are steeped in the modern understanding of the Western tradition as the dialectical progression of human freedom.

Identity in a Glance

Given the relatively “unitary” character of the American state, the American artists were content with producing one song. But in a more “federal” state such as Canada, where the parts must be seen to be on a par with the whole, no one song could suffice. Tears was not enough, and “Northern Lights” (representative as this group tried to be) could not pretend to speak for and to Canadians “with one voice” (even using both official languages). There had to be a response from somewhere – and that response came, as usual, from Quebec.

In Montreal, a host of Québecois musicians banded together to perform Les yeux de la faim, composed by Gil Courtemanche and Jean Robitaille. A foundation, La Fondation Québec/Afrique, was set up to channel the proceeds from album sales not only towards the purchase of food and medication, but also “to help the African people in their quest for autonomy” (according to the album cover) – words which would have resonated, perhaps, with Quebec’s own quest for sovereignty (or failing that, sovereignty association) within the Canadian federation.

The three things that most stand out about the lyrics of Les yeux de la faim are, first, that it communicates a deeper sense of tragedy than either the American or Canadian songs. The children of Ethiopia are depicted as having been deprived of everything – laughter, games, songs, dreams, hopes. With neither time nor words left, they have nothing Que leurs yeux pour nous parler (but their eyes [with which] to speak to us).

Second, the identity of the singers as of the audience of the song is neither the American “we” nor the Canadian “you and I,” but a nous or “us” which is defined for the Québecois by les enfants qui nous regardent (the children who look at us). No other pronominal form is used.

Third, it is neither the moral option nor the moral necessity of giving that is emphasized in the Quebec song, but the natural right of the Ethiopians to receive: les enfants de demain, ils ont le droit de vivre (The children of tomorrow, they have the right to live).

The constitutional background to the Quebec song is complex, for Quebec has no constitution of its own. However, it does have its own bill of rights, or Chartre des droits et libertés de la personne. The Chartre, enacted in 1975, is in some respects the most progressive bill of rights in North America. For example, section 43 provides that: “Persons belonging to ethnic minorities have a right to maintain and develop their own cultural interests with the other members of their group.” Treating multicultural heritage as a right is very different from treating it as a rule of interpretation, as under section 27 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, or not recognizing it at all, as under the United States Constitution.

The Quebec Chartre does not guarantee property rights; rather, as is certainly more essential to the individual in an age when dependence on the largesse of the welfare state has taken the place of amassing private property (see Reich 1978), section 45 provides that: “Every person in need has a right … to measures of financial assistance and to social measures provided for by law.” In keeping with this positive conception of civil rights, the Quebec Chartre even goes so far as to impose a duty to rescue on the citizenry: “Every human being whose life is in peril has a right to assistance,” according to section 2. This is in contrast to both the American Bill of Rights and the Canadian Charter, which articulate a more negative conception of civil rights. The latter, by guaranteeing freedom of religion, association, etc., protect the individual from encroachment by the state but not impose any corresponding duties.

These facts about the Chartre relate to the interpretation of Les yeux de la faim as follows: the lyrics of Les yeux extend the language of the Chartre beyond the borders of the province, into the heart of Africa. Significantly, of all the songs, the Quebec song is the only one to recognize the Ethiopians as having a “right to live”, and to the financial assistance necessary to the enjoyment of that right. Compare the British dong, which declares: “The greatest gift they’ll get this year is life” as if life were a gift (not an entitlement), and mere survival were all “they” should expect.

The “rights consciousness” which pervades Les yeux makes this song sound more “American” than “Canadian”. Of course, this different sound is partly motivated by the pan-Canadian dualism one might expect, the necessity of having at least two “incommensurate accounts of every entity” (Lee 1977). But this deep-set rights consciousness is not the only feature that distinguishes Les yeux from its English Canadian counterpart, Tears. Also noteworthy is the Quebec song’s universalism, and the undivided character of the audience it evokes, a “unity of us” (nous).

Even with all these borrowed elements, which give the Quebec song a distinctly “American” ring, however, it is not the case that the Les yeux simply articulates the same message as We Are the World. A “unity of us” is after all the reverse of a “unity of we.” There is also a fundamental difference to the kind of universalism the two songs preach. The Quebec song universalizes the welfare state, a state in which “every person in need has a right to measures of financial assistance” (to quote the Chartre again), whereas the American song universalizes the liberal state, a state in which everyone’s “hearts will be stronger and free”.


This chapter has shown how the vision of “the whole” and of a global society entertained in We Are the World, and its British and Canadian counterparts, may be interpreted as modelled after the various writers’ experience of their own society’s constitution. This is most apparent in the way the American song speaks in the name of a universalizing “we” while the British song is addressed to a “you” which explicitly excludes “them”, while the Canadian song dichotomizes the British “you” by substituting “you and I”, and the Quebec song invokes a unity of “us.” It should be emphasized that nothing that has been said here detracts in any way from the nobility of the various songs’ purpose, or Bob Geldof and the other artists’ achievement. The point is rather that even the most noble (or universal) of human purposes can only ever find expression within the framework of a discourse that is partial, for the simple reason that: “We know the universal through the particularities that make it concrete for us” (Angus 1997: 156).

It may be wondered whether the songwriters consciously set out to write songs that were intra vires the constitutions of their respective countries. But this question misses the point of the present analysis. All that is being claimed is that the extremity of the situation in Ethiopia and the immediacy of the images of starvation that reached the West via television provoked a number of artists to think about “the whole” and what sorts of responsibilities “we” have to “them.” If the various artists’ thoughts then proceeded to unfold along constitutional lines, that is because the limits of one’s constitution are the limits of one’s world – to paraphrase Wittgenstein – and beyond that there is only silence.