Kick 'em While They're Down: The Worst Songs Ever Recorded For Charity

When Rocks Off received an email touting Sting's new MySpace charity video for the Prince of Wales' Rainforest Project, we almost chipped a fingernail hurriedly clicking on the link, which promised oodles of celebrities such as Olivia Newton-John, Richard E. Grant and, of course, Pelé.

Naturally, we were hoping for a new godawful charity song to horrify co-workers with; Hlavaty especially can only hiss and crawl under his desk when confronted with one. Unfortunately, the video we saw was actually a well-edited piece featuring pertinent statistics, lots of chainsaw footage and a kickass live version of "Message In a Bottle." The video also features several of those celebrities holding a frog, including apparent ranidaphobe Billy Connolly.

A tasteful, well-executed video does us no good, since we're already nostalgic for the overblown, ego-driven spectacles of yore, when celebrities too insulated and/or drug-addled to remember how to feel nonetheless tried their best to approximate human concern for the length of a terrible song. Let's have a look at some of those videos, shall we? Oh, stop sniveling, we haven't even started yet.

Artists United Against Apartheid, "Sun City"

The African segregationist institution of apartheid was responsible for many human atrocities, including unjust imprisonment, rape, murder and forcing Lou Reed to get all snuggly with Hall and Oates. The producers of this song at least tried to buck the formula by writing a much peppier, more up-tempo number than is usually associated with these things.

Still, instead of sounding urgent and angry, it sounds more like something you'd hear playing while Axel Foley swings precariously off the back of a wildly fishtailing cigarette truck. More than any other video in the world, this one holds the title as the instigator of the most utterances of "Is that Joey fucking Ramone?"

Michael Jackson, "What More Can I Give?"

You may have never heard this song before. If you watched the United We Stand special following 9/11, you did, but probably not since then. A typically tepid, completely forgettable R&B/pop slog, "What More Can I Give?" was Michael Jackson's attempt to do something nice for the victims of 9/11. It wound up never even getting released as a single, some say due to Sony Music's reluctance to have it compete with Jackson's Invincible.

Others say it was because Jackson's own people shitcanned the project once they found out the song's executive producer used to direct gay porn. Whatever happened, we still have this video to prove that even dogpiling hot-in-2001 acts like *NSync and Mya on top of charity-single staples Celine Dion and Luther Vandross won't necessarily produce a listenable song.

Various Artists, "Voices That Care"

One of the disadvantages of fighting in the first Gulf War was that it happened at a point in history when popular music was nearing an all-time low, quality-wise. Rap had gone from street-tough (N.W.A.) to kid-friendly (MC Hammer), all the hair metal bands were releasing drippy power ballads, grunge wasn't going to resurrect distorted guitars for another several months, and in general the edgiest thing on the radio was EMF (that stands for "Ecstasy Mother Fuckers," you know).

So when Canadian musician David Foster decided to put together a charity single for the troops overseas, he no doubt figured, "Why limit the participants to musicians when all the music sucks anyway?" The end result was a smorgasboard of randomly-chosen celebrities including some who could sing - hello again, Celine Dion and Luther Vandross - and some who... well, they're buried in the chorus (Magic Johnson, Chevy Chase and yes, Mike Tyson).

With its repugnant already-stale-by-the-late-80's R&B production value which is so generic it barely exists, it at least gets points for ambition; as far as we know, this is the only song to ever feature interludes from both Kenny G and the Fresh Prince. Watch the entire thing, and pray we never again are burdened with a pop scene in which the Nelson Twins are relevant.

Northern Lights, "Tears Are Not Enough"

Is there a draft board in Canada? If you were unlucky enough to be a Canuck singer in 1985, there appears to have been. Every Canadian vocalist you've ever heard of (and, let's face it, plenty you haven't) appears in this benefit for Ethiopian relief. This is about the 20th charity video we've listened to in preparation for this article, and we have to ask: was that cheap, vaguely bell-like synthesized piano effect really that popular for that long?

It's like they went to all this trouble to hire every famous performer who can afford the plane ticket to the studio, and then brought in Uncle Gary and his New Life Testifiers to record the instrumentation once they got done rocking the non-denominational evening church service. Our favorite part is Corey Hart's "I REALLY mean this shit!" double-fisted emotion-crumple maneuver at 1:58. "Y'KNOOOOOOW!"

Artists Against AIDS Worldwide, "What's Going On?"

Okay, we accept that when you're unfortunate enough to record a charity single in early September 2001, a little bit of message creep is going to be inevitable. So it's completely understandable that what started out as an enterprise to benefit poverty-stricken AIDS victims all over the world incorporated the victims of the 9/11 attacks into its charitable donations. What we don't get is how experienced producers like Jermaine Dupri and Bono (of course Bono) could take Marvin Gaye's heartfelt classic "What's Going On?" and squeeze every last ounce of emotional honesty right out of it.

That doesn't even seem possible, until you hear it. For those of you who still fear the Large Hadron Collider, we say relax: a universe that does not implode due to a collaboration between Puff Daddy and the guy from Staind can withstand pretty much anything. Contains more rap interludes than any other charity single thus far, including one from Fred Durst. Somebody help us.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
John Seaborn Gray