Sep 09

USA FOR AFRICA – “We Are The World”

FT + Popular80 comments • 6,801 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. 31
    pink champale on 21 Sep 2009 #

    #26, #29 yes, isn’t nearly all of this charitable giving
    church tithes? (hence the poor in red states). with the rest being alumni donations to already loaded ivy league colleges. so, basically, bad causes and self interest.

  2. 32
    Rory on 21 Sep 2009 #

    Australia sent this to number one almost two weeks before the UK and kept it there for nine, so I’ve been itching to lay the boot into this particular blot on my musical memories. Apart from the charitable intentions, this was the opposite of everything I liked about “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”: overworked instead of spontaneous, overlong instead of brisk, overacted instead of enthusiastic, and as overegged as a pudding of plum pop stars can get. Thriller‘s success had clearly gone to Michael Jackson’s head, erasing any lingering sense of perspective, and Springsteen’s strained croak guaranteed that I never became a fan.

    What was worse was that, as the more recent and bigger hit on our charts, this became the radio soundtrack of the lead-up to Live Aid; and worse than that, I have only spotty memories of Live Aid itself to overwrite it, because my mid-year exams started on the Monday and I had to spend most of the Live Aid weekend studying. (Well, I didn’t have to – plenty of my mates didn’t – but doing well in those exams seemed important at the time. But which are the crucial memories I wish I had today, eh, Tasmanian Higher School Certificate Board?) My family didn’t have a VCR back then, so that was that. On the plus side, it meant I didn’t have to watch this lumbering star vehicle get wheeled onstage yet again. 2.

  3. 33
    pink champale on 21 Sep 2009 #

    lord wotsit #7 i’m not sure i get your distinction about ‘defining’, but you’re probably right – there’s a bit in the essay about the stars getting to eat ethiopians which seems like pure debord (bearing in mind that i know basically nothing about debord except what greil marcus has told me…). i think maybe all the situationist stuff was a way for him to write himself into punk story (as it clearly did genuinely affect him) and to assert a continuity with the berkely free speech movement and all the other stuff he did know and care about. he certainly seemed to keep faith in his ability to see the punk impulse at work for longer than pretty much anyone else but it must have become a stretch and so it was probably a relief when clinton came along and he could go back to elvis and the boomers. though the elvis/clinton is pretty much just a collection of unrelated 90s essays with only the thinnest attempts to make the elvis clinton theory mean anything. nice cover though.

  4. 34
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 22 Sep 2009 #

    i mean that he would say “art that comes from sincerity etc which you consider bad, we shouldn’t call this bad art, let’s call it — i don’t know, say — failed art“: so he’s deliberately limiting the term in question to the area he wants to focus on… in other words, you can’t catch him out with it, bcz he would just say “that’s how i think we should use the word ‘bad’ here”, or something

  5. 35
    MBI on 22 Sep 2009 #

    I’ve always hated this song, but listening to it now, 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.

  6. 36
    tonya on 22 Sep 2009 #

    One of my favorite memories: right after this came out, sitting in paranoid park in Portland, I heard two homeless guys singing “we are the world, we are the winos”.

  7. 37
    koganbot on 22 Sep 2009 #


    Robert Christgau: by any reasonably objective critical standard, USA for Africa’s “We Are the World” is a good (maybe great) record where Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” was a bad (or terrible) one. Forget meaning momentarily, stop telling me rock and roll can’t feed the world, and just think voices…

    it isn’t just talent that gives “We Are the World”‘s humanism its force–it’s also concept, and even words. Where Band Aid’s female contingent consisted primarily of Bananarama, USA for Africa is sexually integrated, and also a lot more seasoned, probably too much so–there’s no one under 30 on the record who isn’t named Jackson (my nominations to replace no-show Prince: Melle Mel and Eldra DeBarge). And of course it’s blacker, which is crucial. USA for Africa celebrates a long overdue hegemony that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago–not merely interracial, but with blacks in the forefront and such relatively marginal black artists as Warwick, Ingram, Jeffrey Osborne, and Al Jarreau granted the pride of place they deserve in the pop-vocal firmament AfroAmerican tradition has generated. One reason the singers manage to mean the uplifting lyric is that they’re old enough to have lived through the civil rights movement. They’ve already stood “together as one” and made “a brighter day”–in fact, they’re among the rare black people who’ve reached gospel’s Jordan-on-earth. Though their belief that something comparable can be done for their brothers and sisters in Africa may be naive or self-serving (or just wishful or provisional), it does enable them to go at the problem from a more constructive angle: not “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” topped off with the appalling “Well tonight thank God it’s them instead of you,” but “We Are the World,” climaxing with the inspirational “There’s a choice we’re making/ We’re saving our own lives.”

  8. 38
    punctum on 22 Sep 2009 #

    So how come virtually all the black performers on “We Are The World” boycotted Live Aid?

  9. 39
    MikeMCSG on 22 Sep 2009 #

    Good question Punctum. It’s also worth noting that Sting did an acoustic set at Live Aid because his all-black backing band wanted to be paid before going on.

    Of course this is a blacker record than “DTKIC”. I remember Harry Belafonte (who did leave his ego at the door) saying his first reaction to Band Aid was “What are all the black guys doing about this ?” In fairness to Geldof who did he have to pick from in 1984 ?
    Finding room for the likes of Leee John, Junior or David Grant would have diluted the record’s impact.

    The song is execrable in its self-congratulatory tone and probably fuelled more anti-American feeling than “We Didn’t Start The Fire” which was at least amusing.

  10. 40
    Rory on 22 Sep 2009 #

    With each review that I see, more and more I find myself concluding the opposite of what Christgau writes. Does that make me the Antichristgau?

  11. 41
    Tom on 22 Sep 2009 #

    I think it’s a simple case of who’s in their rolodex. Midge’n’Bob = two white guys who came up during/after punk – the people they know are similar. Michael/Lionel/Quincy/Harry = black entertainers, years in the biz, with contacts to match.

    “Diluted the record’s impact” fails as an argument though when you consider MARILYN WAS ON IT.

  12. 42
    MikeMCSG on 22 Sep 2009 #

    # 41 Yes but Marilyn wasn’t given a solo spot; of course those individuals wouldn’t have made a difference if they’d lined up for the chorus (like Kool and the Gang and Jody Watley) but if Junior had taken George Michael’s lines and Leee John Bono’s you would have seen a difference both in coverage and sales.

    I don’t agree with your point that either team went for their friends first and foremost.Phil Lynott doesn’t appear on Band Aid; it’s hard to believe that any of the Americans had much contact with Dylan or Willie Nelson. Both sides picked the best team available and a few non-entities came along for the ride.

  13. 43
    Billy Smart on 22 Sep 2009 #

    I’m now busily casting a phantom ‘black’ version of ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ in my head, with Phil Lynott, Phil Fearon, Errol Brown, Aswad, etc…

  14. 44
    Billy Smart on 22 Sep 2009 #

    Speaking of 1985 charity supergroups, here’s an Ian Levene hi-energy flop, protesting at the cancellation of ‘Doctor Who’. It isn’t very good!


  15. 45

    I don’t know enough about the various backstories but isn’t Tom’s point about rolodexes just that it was less a matter of — say — Al Jarreau being asked onto Live Aid and saying no way, as that the organisers didn’t ask him in the first place? Or was there an actual boycott?

    Of course the drawback of using charity to sidestep politics is that you usually — especially over time — end up merely occluding rather than removing the politics, including the very interesting and tricky cultural politics of who is turning who off and who’s being apealed to: interesting to contrast this project with the vast “black power”/”pan-african celebration”/”rumble in the jungle” concert in zaire ten years earlier, as documented in the recent film soul power, mr james brown headlining… in the film and in the music the contradictions are, while not exactly verbalised, very definitely manifested

    i think xgau is bringing up an important issue re the music of the civil rights generation, though i think he’s also — rather untypically — sentimentalising it: and the solution to the question of formal musical unity (as a symbol of cltural solidarity) of course reaches to the wrong model: quincy had the roots and the knowledge to point the song towards a better old-school black-music model of individualist expression within unity, which is of course JAZZ… he should have brought wynton marsalis in!

    i think it’s revealing that the three grand old men of rockwrite are being drawn apart here in respect of their feel for black music: the arrival of rap would draw them further apart (marsh pro; marcus alienated) — i’d like to know what meltzer wrote abt this record, if anything; also stanley crouch

  16. 46

    better still, laswell and shannon jackson should have produced/written/arranged it — with all the same singers — as a material/collision/harmolodics project

  17. 47
    swanstep on 22 Sep 2009 #

    Reading Christgau is just so unpleasant! He tells us that this record has reason, objectivity, sexual integration, and a long-overdue black hegemony on its side. Well, that’s settled then. I guess we all *should* like it or something. Funnily, most of us experience and value music as a realm of relative freedom from ‘should’s of various sorts – this way of writing about it is horrible, anti-musical, and makes me re-appreciate Tom’s columns, with which I often disagree but which I always enjoy reading. Thanks Tom!

    And what’s ‘gospel’s Jordan-on-earth’ at which Stevie and the rest have so luckily/rarely arrived? LA? At any rate I thought Jordan (and the River Jordan) *was* on Earth… (Writes tirade about crossing the Jordan in the Old Test being immediately followed by divinely-assisted ethnic cleansing and genocide… but thinks better of it and erases. Considers sacrificing a Bunny.)

  18. 48
    Erithian on 22 Sep 2009 #

    Tom #41 – the contacts-book idea is probably correct for the time (and the story of Sting’s backing band is interesting too) but 20 years on the exiling of African acts from Live 8 to the Eden Project was rather more questionable. Particularly for an event which was less about the money than about hearts and minds – the presence of African acts in the front line wouldn’t have affected fundraising but their absence did raise a few questions about the validity of the message. As a concert Live 8 possibly shaded it over Live Aid, but there were still a few shortcomings as well as a general vagueness of purpose.

    But back to 1985. I like the point about the messianic treatment of Jacko starting here – note that he alone gets a bit of a build-up in the video. Everyone else has their face shown straight away whereas the camera pans upwards to him – “oooh it’s Michael’s trousers!” An ego not checked at the door there, or was it just down to the director?

    It’s obviously a starrier line-up than the Brits could come up with, but the song is undoubtedly schmalzier, and the whole thing suffers from being rather po-faced. The debate on the lyrics has said all that I could and more, but what seems to be missing from the USA project is British good cheer and humour. The Americans are ever so sincere, the Brits (even though the subject matter is serious as hell) show the acts arriving with the Sunday papers in hand, the joshing between rival bands, Francis Rossi checking out Jody Watley’s arse, etc. It’s fun as well as chariddy, and doesn’t detract from the purpose of the undertaking.

    US stars making a great ensemble record in 1985, though – “Sun City”.

  19. 49
    punctum on 22 Sep 2009 #

    #45 – I watched a documentary about Live Aid on BBC2 around the time of Live 8 (i.e. 2005) and the word was that MJ, Stevie, Lionel, Prince etc. had mutually agreed to say no to doing Philadelphia. This started when Geldof presumptuously included Stevie in the Philadelphia line-up at his initial press conference without actually having asked him beforehand, and there were other doubts being generally raised, some political, about the whole affair. It was an unofficial boycott.

    #46 – That would have been the most boring record ever! At the time in a long-defunct fanzine I proposed a Brit improv remix of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” where Derek, Evan etc. just did eight bars of their thing over the original backing track but no one took me up on it bah.

    As regards Phil Lynott appearing on a charity single plus curious personnel overlap with “Sun City”… (get away from me bunny!)

  20. 50

    @49: re boycott — aha! But this of course digs into swanstep’s question at @47: “Gospel’s Jordan-on-earth”, for these guys is less LA than “Not jumping to attention when some white guy sez ‘Do this now!'” I too think xmas is a better record — because it flaunts its own seams, and bcz i’m a brit and more in tune with cheeky brit sang froid, but i’d be a bit hesitant to jump from this to “Of course edgy white Brits of our generation and hence er mixed musical ability — Marilyn! also Bob! — understand racial politics better than ferociously talented and successful black Americans of their generation…”

    The fact of MJ’s ego isn’t so much that it’s titanic or unchecked-at-door, as that it was shattered in childhood; the love of everyone in the universe is what he had instead of acceptable parenting…

    Re my harmolodics project: I disagree! Well, if the singing cast were pruned somewhat I disagree! And Shannon Jackson has to actally write the tune…

    EDIT: by “politics” i suppose i mean “racial politics”, and have changed this to say so

  21. 51
    lonepilgrim on 22 Sep 2009 #

    Punk had put the nails into the coffin of the myth that the rock and roll lifestyle offered some utopian alternative to straight society so there was always something unconvincing about these charity records. I think that’s what I find so intensely irritating about Bono in his messianic pomp – he still wants to believe when he should (and probably does) know better.

    Plus it’s always easier to say ‘Make poverty history’ than its necessary counterpart – ‘Give up (y)our obscene wealth’.

    I ended up watching Live Aid while working on a summer camp near Toledo, Ohio so caught only fragments of the concert – and didn’t get the full-on experience of watching it all day on BBC

  22. 52
    punctum on 22 Sep 2009 #

    To an extent Manu Dibango (who IIRC also did some stuff for Laswell/CellulOid around this time) achieved that with his “Tam-Tam Pour L’Ethiopie,” the Actual African Band Aid record which came out as a double A-side with the Jerry Dammers/2-Tone “Starvation” project. Only a minor Top 40 hit but it got huge coverage in the NME at the time and the Dibango side isn’t half bad.

  23. 53

    ooh yes i’d forgotten about that entirely — must dig it out and play it! also manu d totally invented michael jackson!

  24. 54
    Conrad on 22 Sep 2009 #

    #40, I used to enjoy reading Christgau and have a well-thumbed copy of Rock Albums of the 70s, but his musical conservatism became a bore. The lauding of dull acts like The Band, the overrating of the Byrds and Big Star, and he’s on more comfortable ground discussing a Stones live album in 82 then a Dollar record. I can’t take his opinion seriously anymore, certainly not post new wave.

    Also, as Swanstep eloquently puts it at 47, this presumptious and didactic style of rock criticism really is off-putting.

    As for the record, absolutely horrendous. Bloated, imperialist corporate America, no thanks.

    #43, I’d have liked a bit of toasting from Ranking Roger added to that particular mix

    Actually, why wasn’t Jerry Dammers on Band Aid?

  25. 55
    Tom on 22 Sep 2009 #

    Where Christgau’s taste departs from mine is his Euroscepticism mostly but I’ve never thought of him as conservative in taste exactly: certainly not compared to Marcus or Marsh (though I haven’t kept up on Marsh’s views).

  26. 56

    I know it’s the thing that Meltzer twitted him about — viciously too, being Meltzer — but one of the things I admire, as pointed out I think by Chuck Eddy, is that if you look at the mark Christgau gave some minor LP by Joe Jackson that no one else remembers the name of, and compare the original mark with the mark in “Rock Albums of 80s”, he’s adjusted it, from D to C-: meaning he diligently re-listened to it! And all the others! Which is kind of mental and kind of awesome — what a pro!

    Of course I never listen to anything in case I taint my objectivity (/whiskered old mark s joke): so, no! *I* am the anti-xgau!

  27. 57
    MikeMCSG on 22 Sep 2009 #

    # 54 Interesting question Conrad. I’d guess one or more of these were correct

    a) The Special AKA album had bombed completely; Bob may have thought one has-been (i.e himself) on the project was enough.
    b) He was/is a control freak and without any vocal/instrumental talent to bring to the party he’d have wanted to be on the top team.
    c) he’d have wanted to politicise the venture possibly compromising its reach (look how they kept Weller on a leash).

  28. 58
    LondonLee on 22 Sep 2009 #

    #29 “J. Arthur Rank” is rhyming slang for something, erm, completely different.

    Wasn’t there some minor scandal at the time about there being a lavish catered buffet for the stars at the end of the recording session?

  29. 59
    Conrad on 22 Sep 2009 #

    57, I was thinking of his prominent role, i.e.composer/producer etc on Free Nelson Mandela – and he was a talented keyboard player, although I take your point about control-freakery/star on the wane

  30. 60
    MikeMCSG on 22 Sep 2009 #

    #59 Terry Hall alleged that Jerry couldn’t play anything well enough for recording purposes though of course he’s not an unbiased source.

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