Sep 09

USA FOR AFRICA – “We Are The World”

FT + Popular83 comments • 7,996 views

#548, 20th April 1985, video

A charity record is a bargain struck between the urgency of the situation and the weight of the subject: you want to get something done quickly, but it also has to be serious enough not to seem tasteless. As gesture turned into genre, instigators would reach for readymade gravity in the form of cover versions: but initially the donation of songwriting talent was as important as that of singing time. “We Are The World”, written and performed by genuine heavyweights, is the most monumental example of this.

The rushed composition of do “Do They Know It’s Christmas” gave it an awkward, compelling weirdness – but Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie play things a lot safer. They had to: the Band Aid line up was a generation of new stars self-consciously coming of age together, but Quincy Jones’ and Harry Belafonte’s contact books were fat enough to include the really big beasts, ones who no longer appreciated being herded. “We Are The World” is carefully scripted to give each superstar a chance to sing without being hustled out by the next one – or that’s the positive spin on a record which is seven minutes long and almost all chorus.

At least they get something difficult to sing – “There’s a choice we’re making / We’re saving our own lives” makes sense in the song’s explicitly religious context: because we are all human beings, by saving others we save ourselves. But the line is – to say the least! – risky when sung by extremely rich people not generally known for their unselfishness. And as it is nobody really nails it – most of the singers simply thrash about and end up in that curious register of human speech that exists only on charity records, the concerned bellow.

Obviously, we had Band Aid first, so “We Are The World” left no emotional impression on me then and none now: at the time I mostly remember parochial irritation that we had to get the American version too, and that it was so long and cumbersome. There are little touches of entertainment in the record, beyond the soon-fading Panini stickerbook fun of spotting the various voices. Dylan, of course, puts in a gruesome but at least memorable fifteen seconds (and the song shrugs him off with a monster key change). And Jackson himself gets the record’s one genuinely shivery, vulnerable moment – “When you’re down and out…” – singing (as he often sang) as if he had one less layer of skin than anyone else.



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  1. 61
    lonepilgrim on 22 Sep 2009 #

    re 57 I think (c) probably played a big part. Jerry Dammers was instrumental in organising the Artists against Apartheid concert on Clapham Common in 1986 (at which Boy George memorably appeared in white face and a slogan covered outfit – and less memorably I consumed at least one bottle of white wine and can barely recall any of the acts). He was around the University of London (including SOAS) when I was there between 85-86. He also helped organise the Mandela birthday concerts.

    He’s quoted in a recent interview in the Independent:
    Today, Dammers supports the Love Music Hate Racism charity, but finds the environment depressingly changed. “Most bands nowadays aren’t really political,” he says. “They’re looking after their careers, and for some reason they think getting involved will affect that. God knows why. I was disappointed with Live 8, too. Saying we’re just going to raise awareness – that’s all right if it’s in the music, if the artists are actually committed politically and are putting it in their lyrics. But just having someone on the stage singing about something that’s got nothing to do with it, how that’s going to raise political awareness I don’t know.”

  2. 62
    Jonathan Bogart on 22 Sep 2009 #

    It occurs to me that a further cultural divide might be in British v. American attitudes towards hymnody — “We Are The World” is after all a secular hymn (much like “Bridge Over Troubled Water”), with the usual faults of facile lyrics and repetitive dum-dum melodies towards which modern (and historical!) hymns trend. (This I think is some of what Christgau was getting at in his insistence on seeing WATW as an extension of gospel tradition.)

    My impression is that British music listeners mostly experience hymns as part of an official culture with which they’re not personally engaged; while Americans, even those who aren’t regular churchgoers, see church singing as an outgrowth of personal passion, in which “is it good” matters much less than “is it sincere.”

    I personally have quite a lot of affection for hymnody, thanks to my upbringing and general interest in music history; which isn’t to say that I like “We Are The World” — I just don’t dislike it for that specific reason.

  3. 63
    koganbot on 22 Sep 2009 #

    Xgau reviewed seven Joe Jackson albums in the ’80s in his Consumer Guide, grading none higher than a B or lower than a C-PLUS. He’d originally given Night And Day a B but when he re-reviewed it for the book he lowered the grade to B-MINUS.

    Both Xgau and Chuck Eddy have a second body each; their normal body carries out the regular activities of life: eating, sleeping, writing, etc. The second body does nothing but listen to records.

  4. 64
    Tom on 22 Sep 2009 #

    #62 – I think it’s fairer to say that British people tend to see hymns as a matter of communal rather than personal engagement – there’s a strong tradition of religious singing (which spilled over into secular singing) but not a lot of room for the solo passion that’s a hallmark of gospel.

    We have a good opportunity to think about the idea of the ‘secular hymn’ in a few entries’ time, in fact.

  5. 65
    taDOW on 23 Sep 2009 #

    the cut to mj in the video is presumably due to that part of the song having to be recorded later (it was initially to be prince’s line but then he no-showed – either due to having to bail out a bodyguard or just generally thinking this was corny i forget which – and mj had to step in). strange that by this point prince had peaked stateside and was already receiving blowback but in the uk was such a nonfactor that “i feel for you” (the closest the classic prince sound gets to #1) gets snarked at as nonrepresentative of 80s soul (unlike “careless whisper or “do you really want to hurt me?” apparently). the other notable non-hiphop big (arguably peaked also) in 1984 omission here: madonna. though she did play live-aid (as did run dmc). as for the tracks neither are great to listen to but they’re fun objects – prefer ‘we are the world’ for straight gawk factor and actual performances, much prefer the verses in ‘we are the world’ vs. the verses in ‘do they know it’s xmas’, slightly prefer the chorus to ‘do they know it’s xmas’ vs ‘watw’. much more likely to actually listen to ‘xmas’. much much much more likely to watch this or of course this. big ups to japanese bruce as always.

  6. 66
    taDOW on 23 Sep 2009 #

    god in terms of lineup and actual track how much does ‘sun city’ absolutely slay both these records! dylan and bono! the fat boys!

  7. 67
    MichaelH on 23 Sep 2009 #

    I think the comparison with Sun City is very interesting here. Sun City is just as clumsy a record – more fun to listen to the first time, but equally vapid the second – so I suspect it’s only the combination of cause and artists (Joey Ramone! Run DMC! George Clinton! etc) that makes it seem so much more appealing. It’s also staggeringly, horrifically, unforgivably long. It does, though, have the advantage of being recognisably a pop record, unlike We Are the World.

  8. 68
    MikeMCSG on 23 Sep 2009 #

    Sun City doesn’t bother the bunny because it didn’t even make the Top 20 here, a combination of melody-deficiency, too many unfamiliar artists (to a mainstream audience) and boycotting by fans of artists who were implicitly being criticised in the lyrics and explicitly in publicity for the single. In the process it fractured the charity consensus; Queen felt they were unfairly singled out due to resentment at their stealing the show at Live Aid.

  9. 69
    Rory on 23 Sep 2009 #

    Hence Queen’s 1986 riposte, “Who Wants to Give Forever?”

  10. 70
    taDOW on 23 Sep 2009 #

    ‘self destruction’>>’bad cover version’>’we’re all in the same gang’>’sun city’>>’we’re stars’>>>>>’kidney aid’>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>’do they know it’s xmas’>’we are the world’>>>>>’hands across america’>’voices that care’

  11. 71
    Rosie Hunter on 26 Sep 2009 #

    Would love to know how many of those over inflated egoed Sceptics actually even knew where Africa was when they recorded the worst song in history…
    Will never forget an article at the time comparing the Brits recording ‘Do they know.., wherer they all just pitched up one Sunday as opposed to the Sceptics ‘Hospitality area and skiny Latte & Cappucino machines…

    Like everything else we did it first and we did it better – bring back Maggie!!!!

  12. 72
    Pete on 26 Sep 2009 #

    Ah the Sceptic Tank, the behemoth of the battlefield rumbling round, disbelieving everyone.

  13. 73
    lonepilgrim on 3 Feb 2010 #

    AIEEE!!! It’s back:


    mind you, the UK/Simon Cowell produced version of ‘Everybody hurts’ sounds even worse

  14. 74
    Tom on 3 Feb 2010 #

    I am at least vaguely intrigued to hear Lil Wayne’s bit which is more than I can say for anything on the Cowell horrorshow. Though I will be doing my bit and buying that for review once it inevitably gets to #1.

  15. 75
    vinylscot on 14 Dec 2010 #

    Vaguely amusing video using this as soundtrack (You’ve probably seenm the “Let it Be” from the same people recently)


  16. 76
    seekenee on 28 Apr 2012 #

    This always irritated me, esp. Bruce and Cyndi. I picked this up very cheap in the 90s just to have it but I will never play it. The checking in of the egos was obviously untrue, Michael Jackson’s appearance in the video is preceded by a shot of his glove or his shoes? – unsubtle bit of showbiz buildup they couldn’t resist – I remember thinking, c’mon who does he/they think he is? (since i wrote this I see this has been noted above – makes more sense if it was filmed separately but still this old style hollywood star approach seems vulgar for this record)

  17. 77
    Lazarus on 29 Apr 2012 #

    Actually, unpatriotic as it may seem, I always preferred this to Band Aid, the more so for being more slick and polished. Cyndi’s part was probably my favourite bit – the equivalent of That Line, as sung by Bono, I suppose – and there is still some fun to be gained from listening to the song and identifying the singers in turn (Kenny Loggins and Steve Perry would catch many Brits out, I guess). The little vocal duels in the long fade-out – Springsteen vs Stevie – also appealed to me. It’s not a record I would want to hear that often, but I would go at least a 5 I think.

  18. 78
    Alfred on 30 Apr 2012 #

    #35 is right on: “the second chorus — Springsteen! Kenny Loggins! Steve Perry! Daryl Hall! All of whom were clearly instructed to sound as much as possible like themselves! — is fucking glorious.”

    I’ll add the novel idea of following Dionne Warwick with Willie Nelson.

  19. 79
    DanH on 12 Aug 2013 #

    When I was a young’in, I saw some big deal cartoon special Cartoon All Stars to the Rescue, where all the favorite Saturday morning cartoon characters (circa ’89-’90) band together to stop a kid from using drugs. As a kid, I was focused more on ‘wow! Garfield hanging out with Baby Kermit! The Smurfs and Cartoon Alf talking to each other!’ than the actual message. I imagine a lot of people had this same kind of reaction with WATW, and I still do today (agree with #35 in particular).
    That Dylan part is a good reminder to non-Dylan followers that the ’80s were a verrrrrry bad time for him/

  20. 80
    hectorthebat on 24 Dec 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    1,001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010) 1002
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Dave Marsh (USA) – The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made (1989) 717
    Life (USA) – 40 Years of Rock & Roll, 5 Songs for Each Year 1952-91 (Updated 1995)
    RIAA and NEA (USA) – 365 Songs of the Century (2001) 121
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 50 Best Michael Jackson Songs (2014) 35
    San Antonio Express-News (USA) – Rock ‘n’ roll timeline (2004)
    Steve Sullivan (USA) – Encyclopedia of Great Popular Song Recordings (2013) 21-100
    The Guardian (UK) – 1000 Songs Everyone Must Hear (2009)
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)
    Grammy Awards (USA) – Record of the Year Winner
    Rolling Stone (USA) – Singles of the Year 4
    Village Voice (USA) – Singles of the Year 17

  21. 81
    Gareth Parker on 20 May 2021 #

    I have to say even the short edit version is a chore to get through. 2/10 in my opinion.

  22. 82
    Gareth Parker on 20 May 2021 #

  23. 83
    Gareth Parker on 20 May 2021 #

    Sorry, just to clarify, this was #1 when I was born.

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