It was done by “USA’s Supergroup” in 1985 for Africa, and it has now been done again, only this time for Haiti. For many, it is a feel-good collaboration of pop stars who want to get together under one common agenda and for the achievement of one common goal: raise money for a cause. Yet to many others, this attempt to improve humanity and give to those in dire straits is nothing but a pathetic gathering of egos and icons, pushed into a recording studio by their manager and public relations teams, in a marketing stunt to add grace to their music, character to their name, and nobility to their wealth. What is the evidence that backs either of these arguments? Which cohort of music fans do you belong to, and which one has the real pulse on the artists who partake in such collaborative efforts? Can both sides be right, or is only one side right? If so, who?
The original “We Are The World” collaboration was the brainchild of social activist Harry Belafonte, who you may more commonly associate with as the singer of the calypso hit “The Banana Boat Song” in which he famously repeats the phrase ‘Day-O.’ Belafonte was a man with a mission: record a song in which one hundred percent of the proceeds would be donated to his new (at the time of course) non-profit organization United Support of Artists for Africa (or USA for Africa). Whether or not Belafonte’s motive for the song was to raise money for African nations or to write and record a song with some (he really would have liked it to be “all”) of America’s top performing artists of the eighties is still up for debate. Regardless of primary motive, he got the job done and the song, co-written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie, was recorded/produced by Quincy Jones and Michael Omartian in A&M Recording Studios, Hollywood California on January 28, 1985.
Results in both the sales and radio-airwave department were staggering. Released on March 7th, “We Are The World” shot straight to number one on the U.S. R&B Singles chart, the Adult Contemporary Chart, and most importantly – the Billboard 100 (an interesting side-note to this story is that it debuted at 21 in America, the highest debut ever since Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”). Yet it was the collective and simultaneous global success that caused all the stir. Almost immediately, “We Are The World” became a gigantic hit internationally, reaching number one in nine countries within weeks, and becoming a top-twenty hit in dozens of others. Popularity is one thing; profits are another. Within three days of the release, the original shipment of 800,000 copies had sold out worldwide and the single was continuing to sell out without any signs of slowing. Four months after its original release, the song had raised over $10.8 million in aid-money for Africa.
Ok, enough of the history lesson. If the song did so well, in so many countries, for so long, and raised so much money for such a good cause, why would anyone despise it? For many critics and self-appointed gurus of music, they felt the song was too contrived and full of quintessential American advertising jingleism. American author, music journalist, and cultural critic (and in my opinion, national treasure) Greil Marcus responded to the song by remarking:
“[…] the constant repetition of ‘There’s a choice we’re making’ conflates with Pepsi’s trademarked ‘The choice of a new generation’ in a way that, on the part of Pepsi-contracted song writers Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, is certainly not intentional, and even more certainly beyond the realm of serendipity.” Did he mean ‘not unintentional,’ or merely ‘intentional’?
I think music fans, those being the ones who actually purchase albums, listen to the radio, learn about artists, and actively listen and follow the art institution that is ‘American Music’ (in other words, “us”), get frustrated with the contrivable more than anything else. As human beings, music is in our blood. The first sense any one of us ever has of the outside world, long before we are ever born, is sound. Fetal development starts with the ears, and it is the rhythm of our mother’s heartbeat while still in the womb that awakens our consciousness to existence, sensation, and perception, well before we can taste, smell, feel, or see. Undoubtedly, there is a difference between the spontaneous clattering of non-instruments (hand clapping, whistling, singing) to create enjoyable sound, tone, and melody than with that of consciously drafted music created from the blueprints of notes, rests, and pitch, which come together to form song. Yet there are still those who prefer to hear music in its most base form – an expression of the artist, thus minimizing the “blueprint” so to speak, especially when the motive is money.
Songs like “We Are The World” have great intention. Personally, I am not yet convinced what side of the argument I stand myself . Part of me thinks that we should not be so judgmental and simply admire and appreciate the power pop artists have to raise money and act philanthropically. Although I study the history of American music professionally, I make all attempts to avoid music snobbery. I fear and loathe the thought of becoming like that, which was so well captured in Richard Thorpe’s 1957 film Jailhouse Rock. See the scene below in which protagonist Vince Everett, played by Elvis Presley, visits Peggy Van Alden’s, played by Judy Tyler, at her parents house, and the social debutants offer their insight to the days latest jazz recordings. But maybe that’s just the beast in me.
Yet there is this other side of me that detests the egotism that is attached to the pop-star, especially when it is inflated by a false pretension that he/she has some sort of benevolent lens into the socioeconomic conditions of our world, and even worse, actually pretends to care. I know I paint with a wide brush here, and you will have to excuse me for doing so – but how can I respect a group of people who can continuously find ways to sit around and give each other handjobs on a monthly basis under the guise of multi-million dollar produced award shows? I mean heck – did anyone watch the Grammy’s two weeks ago? Since when did the Academy of American Music crawl its oversized head so far up MTV’s ass?
So let’s all hope that “We Are The World 2” makes tens of millions of dollars in relief-money for Haiti. Even more importantly, let us all hope that the money raised actually ends up there. But at the same time, let us not miss the egomaniacal humor that can’t help but rear its ugly head into causal song recording and performance. If there is one thing that irks so many indie, or off-beat if you will, music fans about the remaking of “We Are The World” (and perhaps the 1985 original version too, if you are old enough to remember it), it is this; what do Miley Cyrus, Nick Jonas, and Lil Wayne know about causal performance? About suffering? About poverty? Chaos? About protesting or movement? I have never personally experienced a social condition like any of those either, so I don’t want to sound hypocritical; but at least I take the time to understand the history of it. Wouldn’t it have been great if the 81-cast recording of the remake in Los Angeles, on February 1st, was followed by a general quiz?
Hey, Lil Wayne – can you point to Haiti on a map?
Nick – can you tell us who George Harrison is, and what Bangladesh means?
Miley – can you spell Live AID (we will help you out, and give you the first word for free).
– Kory French