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More “dread and fear” than Christmas cheer: The Christmas song lyrics that “really can’t stay”

Marti Stelling on how the Christmas classics of the past can be brought into the present without losing their magic

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Image Credit: Laura James

From Band Aid to The Pogues, many of our favourite festive classics contain lyrics that make you wince. There are a few songs in particular that divide people at Christmas, with many radio stations choosing not to play the original versions. But should we still be singing these uncomfortable songs, or should we forget their existence entirely?

Of course, I couldn’t begin a discussion of controversial Christmas songs without first talking about 'Baby It’s Cold Outside'. This song is known for its somewhat ambiguous lyrics, with many people believing that the lyrics depict sexual harassment and implied date rape. I will admit, there is definitely something uncomfortable about hearing the line “the answer is no” preceded by a male voice pushing for the woman to stay. However, the lyrics could also be interpreted as a push back against the cultural expectations placed upon women. During the early 1950s when this song peaked in popularity, there were much stricter cultural expectations for women, meaning that a female would need to find an excuse to spend the night with her partner. Alcohol was often blamed, potentially explaining the controversial line, “say what’s in this drink?”.

Later revisions of this Christmas classic have made it slightly less painful to listen to and have left less room for ambiguity. John Legend’s cover features a much less pushy male, giving his partner the chance to make her own choices. Lines such as “it’s your body your choice” and “text me when you get home” demonstrate a clear respect for boundaries, contrasting with lyrics such as “think of my lifelong sorrow” and “get over that hold out” from the original that pressure the woman into staying. This revision also explores the original message of respectability and gender roles through the exchange “Oh, I’m supposed to say no (mm, I guess that’s respectable).” There is an acknowledgement of what a woman is historically “expected” to do, with the contemporary attitude of giving women the choice to do whatever they like with their own bodies.

'Do They Know It’s Christmas' is as iconic as mince pies and Wensleydale cheese at Christmas. “A modern Christmas classic” as Smithy would say in Gavin and Stacey. Band Aid was a huge success, raising funds for anti-famine efforts in Ethiopia. The intentions of the song could not be faulted, but its lyrics are questionable at best. Looking beyond the catchy tune and uplifting melody, the lyrics of this song reveal something a little darker. Lines such as “where nothing ever grows” and “no rain of rivers flow” build on stereotypes and misconceptions of Africa. The lyrics make generalisations that are simply not true and could be harmful to the way Western countries view African countries. Africa is a vast and diverse continent, with seven major rivers and rich cultivated land. Many African countries are also predominantly Christian – so yes, I imagine they would know that it’s Christmas. The line “thank God it’s them, instead of you” is also controversial, providing a clear split between “us” (the West) and “them” (Africa). This is also a strange message to promote, suggesting that God has something to do with the suffering of people in Africa – a message that the Church is likely to disagree with.

There have been three revisions to this song, each raising money for charity. The most recent revision, Band Aid 30, was released in 2014 and aimed to help provide aid for Ebola victims in Western Africa. The lyrics were altered to be less offensive, featuring the line “well tonight we’re reaching out and touching you”, offering aid instead of comparison. However, there will always be people who are unhappy with the revisions and believe that the original lyrics are “part of the charm” of the song. Regardless, Band Aid was immensely successful and later revisions provide a more contemporary outlook on the same core message.

Finally, a discussion of controversial lyrics wouldn’t be complete without 'Fairytale of New York' as an honourable mention. This is a song known and loved by many, with one lyric that continues to divide people. The language used in this song is widely accepted as homophobic and is a massively offensive term today. The replacement of this slur with “haggard” in radio edits is an easy solution that doesn’t change the meaning of the song and is hardly noticeable unless you care enough to listen out for it.

The bottom line is this:  These Christmas classics are a product of the time that they were written in and reflect attitudes and language more accepted in the past. New revisions can maintain the legacy of the songs with a more contemporary understanding of the issues they raise.

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