Miles-tones

Wow..."We Are the World" Is 30 Years Old

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"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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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray