If you '80s children need a reason to feel extra-old this week, here's a good one: "We Are the World" is exactly 30 years old. In 1985, the evening of the American Music Awards -- which back then were in late January instead of right after Thanksgiving -- Quincy Jones emptied his Rolodex, partially at Michael Jackson's behest, and stars from Kenny Rogers, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson to Hall & Oates, Billy Joel, Tina Turner, Cyndi Lauper, Huey Lewis & the News and Bruce Springsteen turned up, among a host of other stars at the time.
Inspired by Band Aid, in which Sir Bob Geldof invited/guilt-tripped a who's who of mid-'80s UK pop stars (Duran Duran, Culture Club, Spandau Ballet, Sting, Bono) to record the seasonal pop song "Do They Know It's Christmas?" and donate the proceeds to help fight famine in East Africa, mainly Ethiopia. The song was an instant hit and one of the biggest media events of the decade, although some critics later argued that those most in need actually received a shamefully low percentage of aid compared to the millions of dollars that were supposed to have been raised.
Nevertheless, to date, Geldof has updated "Do They Know It's Christmas" three times for various causes, including last year with a cast topped by Sam Smith, One Direction, Ed Sheeran, Coldplay's Chris Martin, Ellie Goulding, etc., and recording as "Band Aid 30." The funds raised were earmarked to fight Ebola this time.
"We Are the World" followed exactly the same formula, swapping Yanks for Brits (except Geldof, invited to the USA session as as show of solidarity), but it has only been re-recorded once, after the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti. That whopper featured soloists Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, Pink and Maroon 5's Adam Levine (among others), stock footage from the recently deceased Michael Jackson and a raps by Kanye West, Snoop Dogg and Lil Wayne (also among others). Today, of all the ways to measure status in the music business, an invite to appear on the latest charity single has to rank at the very top.
Listening to the original again, co-written by Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson (with Thriller producer Quincy Jones arranging the song and conducting the all-star choir), it's very much a product of its time. A standard pop ballad engineered to build slowly into a soaring, swaying, mass-singalong climax, it contains zero subtlety and even less irony. Among the haircuts alone, Steve Perry's ultra-shag and Darryl Hall's mega-mullet are almost too '80s for words. The enormous studio headphones everyone wears are pretty choice too.
In the video, many of the male singers are lip-syncing because the take recorded while the cameras rolled was in a much higher key than they could handle. However, "We Are the World" also has some powerful musical moments that melt away a lot of the cheesiness: Bob Dylan's standalone mini-verse at the bridge, and then Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Wonder singing the chorus, line by line and back and forth, can still raise a few goosebumps even 30 years later.
It worked, too. Long before the age of digital downloads, the song sold out of its initial shipment of 800,000 copies within three days of its early-March release. Eventually it moved an estimated 20 million copies in all, a staggering amount then or now. Lionel Richie still closes his concerts with it. Even the media was impressed; the L.A. Times article recounting the evening -- an invaluable document, as this was decades before any social media -- bore the headline "Behind the Scenes of a Pop Miracle."
Some choices for soloists have held up better than others. Kim Carnes of "Bette Davis Eyes" and Kenny "Footloose" Loggins are given solo lines, while Smokey Robinson, Fleetwood Mac's Lindsey Buckingham and Bette Midler are relegated to the chorus. So were the Pointer Sisters and Blues Brother Dan Aykroyd, there as a "representative of the American film industry." Stevie Nicks and her fellow bandmates are nowhere in sight. Singer and activist Harry Belafonte of "Banana Boat Song" fame, despite helping organize the session, was not given a solo line either.
And then, as a perfect example of how even then he was a grade apart from even the high-wattage talent assembled, Michael Jackson sings his part from the control room rather than joining the other stars on the other side of the glass. This was still years before the events that led to the King of Pop's tragic demise, and in the video he looks positively regal -- both incredibly charismatic but a little aloof too. According to an article in Internet journal The Awl, Jackson's sincere concern about the problems in Africa was the tipping point that convinced most of the other musicians to sign onto the session.
"Pop does something for us that politics simply can't," Mike Barthel wrote in September 2011. "It provides that feeling of unity, of togetherness that must ultimately precede any political action. And even if Michael Jackson couldn't give that to Africa, he most certainly gave it to the United States."
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Texans had a fairly high profile at the session. In the video, you can really see Kenny Rogers get into his line with Paul Simon at the very beginning. (Rogers' manager Ken Kragen, who also represented Lionel Richie, was a key figure in setting the whole enterprise in motion.) Paired on a microphone with Dionne Warwick -- if this happened even one year later, her cousin Whitney Houston would surely have been invited too -- is an impossibly youthful-looking Willie Nelson, who was 51 at the time and had shockingly short hair. But the funniest anecdote about the whole evening might be about Waylon Jennings, who, ever the outlaw, reportedly walked out of the session around 4 a.m. due to a disagreement about some last-minute lyrical revisions. Nelson, though, seemed to pick up on something he felt was lacking among all the evening's goodwill.
"I'm amazed to see people in Ethiopia starving, but I'm more amazed to see people in the United Sates starving," Nelson told legendary L.A. Times writer Robert Hilburn. "There are people starving to death on our own streets and freezing to death every night on our own streets, right here in this country. That's why I'm glad that a portion of this whole idea is being directed toward our own problem here."
Later that year, of course, Nelson would help to found Farm Aid to raise funds for struggling family farms; credit must also go to Dylan, who said, "Wouldn't it be great if we did something for our own farmers right here in America?" onstage at Live Aid that summer. The first Farm Aid was held on September 22, 1985 in Champaign, Ill., and featured Nelson (who is still President of Farm Aid's Board of Directors today), John Mellencamp, Neil Young, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, B.B. King, Billy Joel, Loretta Lynn and Roy Orbison, among others.
To date, according to Farm Aid's Web site, the organization has raised more than $45 million. However cheesy "We Are the World" may or may not be, that's nothing to laugh about at all.
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