21
Sep 09

USA FOR AFRICA – “We Are The World”

FT + Popular80 comments • 6,722 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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Comments

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  1. 1
    lonepilgrim on 21 Sep 2009 #

    …and Bob Dylan finally gets a number 1 in the UK…and as I recall Prince wisely ducked out of the recording – donating one of his zillion spare songs to the album.

    Now all this conjures up is ‘Kidney now’ on the last episode of 30 Rock

  2. 2
    Dan R on 21 Sep 2009 #

    I appreciate that the intention may be to express the cosmopolitan oneness of all humanity but the lyric is much too awkward for that. ‘We are the ones who make a brighter day’ sounds more like they are congratulating themselves on being entertainers (we can help! we’re good at making things better!), so there’s a clumsy shift from an inclusive we to an exclusive we, if you see what I mean.

    Elsewhere it’s really just pious cliches (‘their lives will be stronger and free’), mixed metaphors (‘send them your heart so they know someone cares’ feels pretty dumb when the whole campaign was precisely to send material things like food), and really truly mangled syntax (Michael Jackson’s section in particular).

    I really can’t bear this song. It may be the worst set of lyrics Bob Dylan’s ever sung, too.

  3. 3
    punctum on 21 Sep 2009 #

    On Tacky Souvenirs Of Pre-Revolutionary America, one of the key albums of the eighties, Culturcide attack “We Are The World.” Sonically their attack is not to the extent which we find on, say, their reworkings of “Dancing In The Dark” or “Ebony And Ivory” but the critique is spot on. Here is how they rephrase the chorus:

    “We’re not the world, we’re not the children,
    We’re just bosses and bureaucrats and rock ‘n’ roll has-beens.
    There’s a choice we’re never given, to run our own lives,
    Without it your ‘better day’ is just a better lie.”

    Elsewhere they point out: “There are people dying – oh, and they just noticed!” Where the saving grace of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” was its admittedly appealing am-dram let’s-do-the-show-right-here/sticky-backed-plastic approach – and where was Cliff Richard in that Band Aid line-up? – “We Are The World” from its arrogant title downwards through its depressingly pompous extended intro, is a Corporate Statement, brilliantined and polished to a curtain of platitude-sympathetic bland.

    Despite producer Quincy Jones’ instructions to the participants to “leave their egos at the door” – doubtless mindful of Geldof’s scowling presence in the studio – the song’s central concept, in its execution, is insultingly misguided. Yes, “we” should be “the world,” and the “All You Need Is Love” citation is taken into account, even though “the truth” is that far more than non-committal “love” is needed when trying to save lives; but then we come to this problematic line, “We’re saving our own lives” which in this self-congratulory environment is easily interpretable as “We’re saving our own careers, or consciences.”

    The message proposed in “We are the ones who make a brighter day” is that we, America, are The World, and will pat starving Africans on their prematurely withered heads with scraps from their flowing baskets. It is not so far from claiming “We are the master race.” Am I being too hard on what sounds, then and now, like an endorsement of Reaganite officious indifference masquerading as empathy? After all the song was composed and produced by black musicians, and nearly all of the participants were, and are, paid-up Democrats – but then a significant exception to that number is co-writer and then-recent Reagan endorser Michael Jackson, who had to be emphatically dissuaded by Jones and Richie from chanting “shalom” at key points in the song.

    From a Jackson point of view – and bearing in mind his own near-identical “Heal The World” from a decade later – the song does make its own curious sense; this is Michael, crouching in his darkening corner, possibly entirely genuine in his wish to reach out to the world…but as some of his subsequent songs demonstrate, he had an unfortunate tendency to treat “the world” like Ben the rat, a simple beast who indeed only needs love, and where does the distinction between best friend and God get to be drawn?

    Musically it is a lumbering, elephantine plod of a record; where “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” is, if nothing else, brisk and eager, “We Are The World” is An Epic, a monetarist “Hey Jude.” And despite the urged ego-checks, nearly every featured performer overacts grievously, howling and roaring as though this signified Soul and Caring, bursting their lungs to demonstrate How Strong Their Love Is. There is some true poignancy in hearing Little Stevie trading fours with Uncle Ray towards the end, and a little unintended humour as Dylan drawls his line, correctly treating the song like one of Weberman’s rescued laundry lists – Dylan being very much the Paul Weller figure here, asking the others why they wouldn’t record a fundraising song for America’s farmers (Willie Nelson obligingly played the Heaven 17 role) – both of which elevate the record above minus zero. But in terms of missing the point – Geldof was diplomatic about the exercise but every twist of his jowls betrayed what he really thought – “We Are The World” becomes one of the least humble of number ones, and certainly one of the most presumptuous. “If children are starving, let them drink Pepsi?”

  4. 4
    pink champale on 21 Sep 2009 #

    I reread the greil marcus essay on this at the weekend. despite the odd (i think, actually, *bad* style in which it’s written) i don’t think there’s much arguing with his central point that this is a monstrous ego fest, that (whatever any positive outcomes) makes it clear that ethiopians are way, way less important than the people who are “for” them. he doesn’t explicitly make the contrast with the focus of band aid on the substance of the issue (however hamfistedly), but it’s there to be made.

    the thing the really struck me though, was a sentence that goes something like “bad politics, which can be based in real desires, can lead to good art, but bad art, which is always based in faked or compromised desires, can only lead to bad politics”. okay, the first half of the sentence is fair enough, but surely the second isn’t right? bad art isn’t always insincere is it? and can’t it ever be good politics? for a start ‘compromise’ is pretty much the essence of good politics isn’t it?

  5. 5
    Billy Smart on 21 Sep 2009 #

    The one record that I’ve heard recently that really reminded me of ‘We Are The World’ has been ‘Our Vision Of Global Strategy’ by ‘KPMG’, a corporate power ballad for the multinational that includes The Haliburton Corporartion – That big managerial sound, impersonal hymning of cliches about humanitarianism. Which is to say that not only do I dislike this, it sounds actively sinister.

    When I was 12, I didn’t yet go that far, but ‘We Are The World’ was already a collossal bore. Whereas Band Aid gave us a lot of familiar faces singing a tune, the American version was twice as long, very boring and I wasn’t sure who half of the performers were.

  6. 6
    Billy Smart on 21 Sep 2009 #

    And at number two, two weeks of Tears For Fears’ ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’, also global and titanic in its scope, but actually (like all their best songs) about the fragilty and vulnerability of the ego, and an absolute triumph of expansive eighties pop productions. That would have made a great number one.

  7. 7
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 21 Sep 2009 #

    i think he’s DEFINING all bad art as being based in faked or compromised desires*, which is almost certainly GM channeling guy debord: i haven’t read much recent marcus to be honest, but i wonder quite a bit how he’s since reconciled his fling with debordist absolutism with his subsequent clinton-as-elvis line; let alone with present-day currents in american politics, where the anti-pragmatic absolutist radicals are all massed on the side GM isn’t

    the problem i gradually began to have with culturcide – is that the strength of their work entirely pimps off the residual strength of the material they’re “detourning” and sneering at: a rarely admitted disingenuousness that itself becomes “spectacular”, to use an obfuscatory technical term hurriedly

    *which is either an inadequate or a locally polemical definition, depending on where yr standng

  8. 8
    punctum on 21 Sep 2009 #

    In your Banksy piece you’re making the elementary trapdoor mistake of “fans’ reaction to” = “artist”; also the bah! to “subversion” = unquestioning adoption of unquestioning “gee it’s great and on the level” => monolith-worship and NO FUN whatsoever. Because it’s quite easy to fling some 1987 modes together i.e. Negativland etc. without remembering not just how necessary this was in 1987 (and what are KLF if not etc.?) (and maybe even that pre-subtext was a secondary at the time) but the simple fun that was the thing with “Sonic Theft Merchantism” ((c) Sean O’Hagan) i.e. buying/listening to ILLEGAL ART ooer and Culturcide certainly didn’t benefit financially or in any other way from what they did and who’s to say that they weren’t just jockin’ like John Zorn was at the time (play the hatArt Cobra box side by side with TS e.g.).

    (actually someone like Stan Freberg probably pained me more than any of the ppl MS cites; shit-eating jazz snob who HATED rock with a vengeance – and probably all jazz after Red Norvo – and probably still does. “Old Payola Roll Blues” is kind of the meanest thing ever to appear on a 45 rpm disc)

  9. 9
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 21 Sep 2009 #

    no i’m not punctum, read it again: i’m saying pretty much the opposite — that when you’re using the enemy’s techniques against them, you’re cheering one side of the enemy’s being against another (which i approve of; which is why i said like banksy and dislike the lame interpretation of him, ie very carefully and clearly stepping round the elementary trapdoor); and two, as noted above, i CAME to dislike this about eg culturcide — i liked it a lot at the time, and it took me quite a while to recognise that hostile versioning is ALWAYS part-hommage

    subversion is simply a fancy word for guilty pleasures

  10. 10
    Kat but logged out innit on 21 Sep 2009 #

    #6 – agreed, I absolutely adored EWTRTW whenever my sister put it on in the car (somehow on the same tape as the Proclaimers???).

  11. 11
    swanstep on 21 Sep 2009 #

    Horrible in its stereotypically American self-regardingness: we are the world series and we don’t even know what the world cup is…. that sort of thing. And the contrast with “Do they know’s” other-centered ace, the ‘Feed the world’ sing-along – from ‘Feed’ to ‘We are’- was drastic and seemingly telling. As a piece of music it’s alright: Those are some *big* voices – Ray Charles is like a B-52 landing! Bruce is positively elephantine. And where’s Aretha for that final belt-off? – so 3 seems a little harsh to me, notwithstanding the dire lyrics and vibe. Raising to the power of Cyndi Lauper gets it a:
    5

  12. 12
    will on 21 Sep 2009 #

    The most self-centred charity record of them all – just count the number of first person plurals on the lyric sheet. At least Band Aid in its clumsy, naive way attempted to paint a portrait of what was actually going on Ethiopia. In We Are The World, the poor starving folk get completely pushed out the picture by a bunch of self-regarding millionaires, each desperately trying to out-perform each other (Springsteen and Cyndi Lauper providing particularly hilarious examples).

  13. 13
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 21 Sep 2009 #

    But actually yr right, I’m probably not being fair to culturcide themselves there: I was trying to link them in that post to the Langley Schools Music Project and couldn’t and deleted what wrote. Well I just worked it out: they’re the Langley kids grown up and disenchanted that what they had loved had turned out so lame! And I’m talking about the same process: growing up out of a spasm of art excitement to realise it’s turned into its opposite. If the exciting thing about [xx] is subversion, the exciting — bcz scary and perilous — thing abt subversion is it’s always a two-way process.

    (I have in fact been reading Debord all weekend, hence am inclined to see everything as its opposite this morning.)

  14. 14
    Steve Mannion on 21 Sep 2009 #

    #6 #10 EWTRTW always reminds me of the first time I was taken to Thorpe Park

  15. 15
    col124 on 21 Sep 2009 #

    The only real defense I’ve read of this record is Dave Marsh’s, which was pretty much a direct response to the Marcus essay, and the core of it was (& i’ll dig out the book):

    “Among them, [Lionel] Richie, Jackson and Jones didn’t have enough objectivity or guile to see things in a more broadly politicized context. This was…a bunch of craftsmen who happened to be rich enough to afford a certain solipsism….What critics of “We Are the World” really wanted was an oppositional record about the famine…instead, they got something from the side of the music that’s about reconciliation and, typically, were unable to grant it any validity.”

    It’s a dreadful, woeful clunker of record that gets to me at times. I think it’s just the talent–Ray Charles, Smokey Robinson, Jackson, Dylan (his groaning bit is wonderful–it nearly stops the song dead)–is so strong, vocally, that they can sing the most banal navel-gazer of a charity record and make it compelling. A 5, somehow.

  16. 16
    H. on 21 Sep 2009 #

    I wonder how many other countries jumped on the Band Aid wagon? I’m pretty sure there was a cheesy French celeb-fest too. Were there Australian and Canadian versions as well?

  17. 17
    H. on 21 Sep 2009 #

    Woah, youtube answers my question!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SRSn7gDc4gQ

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VJN3u1wAWIk

  18. 18
    Pete on 21 Sep 2009 #

    Midge Ure & Australian Band Aid!!!!
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SRSn7gDc4gQ

  19. 19
    TomLane on 21 Sep 2009 #

    The type of record that doesn’t get reviewed for its musicality but its musicians. A simple sentiment, these lyrics are, but the song hangs on because of its vocals. Its not just the brilliant finish by Ray Charles. It’s top efforts by Stevie Wonder, James Ingram, and short sharp cameos by Cyndi Lauper, Daryl Hall and Steve Perry. Review the record? Most critics at the time never got around to it. The sentiment the record targeted: feed the world, we are all one, etc. was too easy a target. Most took one look at the millionaires in the video and decided that the song wasn’t even worth their time. An ego fest? Puerile, banal? 25 years later I hear the same thing that I thought when this came out: musicians who for one recording night actually thought they were indeed doing something worthy of their fame. And what’s wrong with that? A solid 7.

  20. 20
    punctum on 21 Sep 2009 #

    Canadian Band Aid

  21. 21
    H. on 21 Sep 2009 #

    French Band Aid:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e4tiwF1yswM

  22. 22
    Jonathan Bogart on 21 Sep 2009 #

    I’m tempted to overrate this out of sheer cussedness, but another listen puts the kibosh on my huffy pro-Americanism. It’s balls through and through, and one of the supreme reasons “the Eighties” has been a cultural punchline in the United States for nearly two decades now.

    The first time I heard it was in Guatemala in the early 90s, watching a music-video channel which showed clips from the 80s heyday of MTV; I didn’t know who most of the people were, but my parents chuckled over the Dylan appearance, and its bland a-bunch-of-overcoiffed-people-in-a-recording-studio visual aesthetic made me anxious for the next clip to come up, whatever it was.

    Building off Marcello’s thoughts, my dominant reaction in this year of all years is: is this the first flowering of the messianic Michael Jackson? The all-consuming ego which was my first real understanding of Jackson — I encountered him in the 90s, you see — is on such grandiose display here that I wonder if for some people it wasn’t part of the appeal. The uniform rejection of that ego here is (perhaps) less than representative; a lot of people, as we have seen this summer, want to worship, and are willing to take pop stars at their own valuation.

    Which doesn’t make it any less immoral to eat up the starving Ethiopians’ oxygen; but one of the paradoxes of fame is that it’s impossible for famous people to point at a problem without their finger being the story. There is essentially nothing the Biggest People In The World can do that will make them less important than the thing they’re bringing to our attention; so embracing that importance is in its own way a kind of honesty that (to my ears) “Do They Know It’s Christmas” lacks*.

    (Hurray; I did manage a cussedly pro-American sentiment after all.)

    *Except Bono; or maybe that’s just hindsight.

  23. 23
    LondonLee on 21 Sep 2009 #

    Having lived in the States for 17 years now (bugger me) and being married to a Sherman my old knee-jerk, sniffy European anti-American attitudes are tempered somewhat but sometimes, Christ, they really live up to the worst expectations. You just want to punch this record in the face don’t you? When Dylan croaks in it’s like someone ripping a hole in the pop space-time continuum.

    The line-up is top notch though, real heavyweights to Band Aid’s plucky contenders. As an English mate of mine once remarked when I was describing some contestants on American Idol to him “you get people who sound like Luther Vandross while we get kids who only want to be a minor member of S-Club 7”

  24. 24
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 21 Sep 2009 #

    I don’t know if it’s some glitch on my link but when I click through to the video, it’s something with the right visuals and quite strangely wrong music. I blame John Oswald. Actually the music’s rather nice: asian pipes wailing…

  25. 25
    James K. on 21 Sep 2009 #

    I don’t think anyone has mentioned the worst part – the ludicrous misquotation of the Bible, with Jesus’s refusal to turn stones into bread changed into his having done so!

    It is a sad comment on the education of American pop stars that no one noticed or cared about this. I would probably peg Dylan and Simon as the most likely of the group to be well-read, and both are Jewish and perhaps not familiar with the Gospels – but what about Dylan’s born-again period? I guess Willie Nelson (who sang the line) didn’t have the hard-core Christian upbringing that so many country (as well R & B and early rock and roll) singers did. Perhaps if Johnny Cash had been invited to participate, the screw-up could have been stopped.

  26. 26
    JonnyB on 21 Sep 2009 #

    I can’t say that I thought the Bible-misquoting bit was the worst part of the record.

    I dunno. I agree with many of the comments here… but then are we judging the music for what it is, or the sentiments behind it, or the music as opposed to the British version… as you say, Tom – the charidee thing conquers all, and I like the review. Especially the ‘concerned bellow’ line.

    The fact is, taking a big step back, I can’t honestly find this any more mawkish as any other group of rich middle-aged stars singing about a) how tough life is being broke, b) how noble the working classes are, c) how I will love this one woman eternally for the rest of my life etc. etc. Which crops up quite often in pop music. I find ‘We are the World’ pretty cringeworthy – but that’s the cynical English heart of me.

    Conversely, criticising the particularly American nature of the way the charity sentiment is done does leave one on thin ice – last time I looked at this sort of thing, American people overall gave a far higher proportion of their income away to good causes than us Brits. [Somebody may correct me on that – but I think I’m right]. So perhaps it was just the right thing to do for its market, and it should get perverse credit for sacrificing art for practicalities.

    And sacrifice it it did. And what’s more, it’s been an ear-worm for a couple of hours now. Thanks.

  27. 27
    James K. on 21 Sep 2009 #

    “I can’t say that I thought the Bible-misquoting bit was the worst part of the record.”

    Well, what I meant was that it is (for me) a major contributor to the feeling of bloated self-righteousness that the record gives off. It’s not as if they called an apostle by the wrong name or something relatively trivial – they got the entire point of the story backwards.

  28. 28
    JonnyB on 21 Sep 2009 #

    No – fair enough. If you’re going to cite something like that then perhaps it is best not to cock it up. Perhaps it’s the ‘no snow in Africa’ equivalent in one way…

    I think perhaps it does all come down to that concerned bellowing, which harks to that most dismal of all art forms, the overwrought duet. Any song where the final chorus consists of one person singing the tune and the second person wading in eagerly during the gaps with all the upper-range look-at-me warbly improvisations that they can think of, deserves a special, special place in Room 101.

  29. 29
    swanstep on 21 Sep 2009 #

    @LondonLee ‘married to a sherman’. Brilliant, I’d not heard that one (risky as applied to the missus, I would have thought, but there you go…). I thought ‘Jarfur’ short for ‘J Arthur Rank’ was the preferred rhyming slang in this case?

    At any rate, clicking around a bit now I’ve been led to read stuff on wiki about ‘hands ascross america’ which was an event that tried to continue the spirit of USA for Africa (and involved many of the same people in high profile roles). It should be read to be believed:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hands_Across_America
    esp., the section on ‘Protests’. Sometimes the Vonnegut or Pynchon (or Simpsons) take on the US is essentially documentary.

    Private charitable giving by Americans is much higher than elsewhere (Interestingly, Americans falsely believe that the Fed Govt provides enormous amounts of foreign aid, and certainly more as a gdp % than elsewhere), and quite poor Americans and ‘red’ states give the most. It’s highly correlated with religiosity IIRC.

  30. 30
    col124 on 21 Sep 2009 #

    After listening to it again, i’d say the extended version of the song is better, mainly because around 5:00 in it becomes a duet between Springsteen and Stevie Wonder that lasts almost a minute: as such things go, it’s a hell of a lot better than “Ebony and Ivory”.

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