Chart Week: April 20, 1985
Song: “We Are the World” – USA for Africa
Chart Position: #1, 5th week on the chart. Spent four weeks at #1.
Ah, the 1980s celebrity/cause single. It seems like there were tons of these but a check of Wikipedia shows there really weren’t that many original songs written for this or that benefit. I guess it’s because so many came in a pretty tight window that they seemed so prevalent.
Let’s get this out of the way quick: “We Are the World” is a bad song. It is trite, patronizing, and kind of boring. To be fair that is the case with many of these songs. They were written, recorded, and produced very quickly. They were designed to cram a bunch of recognizable performers into them rather than for those artists’ particular talents. They are generally repetitive and simplistic. And even if we greeted the songs warmly at first listen, man did they have a way of getting on your nerves quickly.
The two obvious “Yeah Buts” to all of that are “Do They Know It’s Christmas” and “Sun City.” The first is set apart because it has become a Christmas classic, troublesome lyrics or not, and because it sounds like what British pop music sounded like at the time. I think if it wasn’t a Christmas song it too would have faded into obscurity, but I bet we would regard it better than “We Are the World” because of its sound. Regardless, it’s the biggest charity single ever because it’s been played four weeks a year for nearly 35 years now.
“Sun City,” on the other hand, is a pretty good song that happens to be a charity song. Little Stephen saw where music was going and understood that his message would be both better received and get wider coverage if he pulled in hip hop artists. Back in my iTunes days I had the song in my library and would listen to it a couple times a year.
“We Are the World” does fit its time well. It’s a big, glitzy, Hollywood production of a song, which perfectly sums up the US recording industry in 1985. What bugs me the most about it now is how it has no sound. Or, rather, it sounds like a bad Lionel Richie song. Since Lionel co-wrote it with Michael Jackson, that makes sense. While Lionel’s solo music always had a sound, that sound wasn’t revolutionary, genre-defining, or really all that unforgettable. Using the worst of his agreeable blandness and turn into an epic, all star, repeating song was destined to make folks hate it.
But my point today wasn’t really to critique the song like that. Nope, my intention is do something that has been done before but which I was inspired to do after hearing the song this New Year’s Eve night while listening to the Top 100 hits of 1985: critique each solo singer on “We Are the World.” There will be no comments about folks who just showed up and sang with the group. If you didn’t have a line of your own, you don’t make the cut. Sorry Sheila E., Lindsey Buckingham, and assorted Jackson siblings, among others. Each artist will be rated on a 1–5 scale, with five being highest. So here we go!
Lionel Richie, appropriately gets us started. He was a pro, and kicks off the song with a professional take. It is right in his pocket: clean, smooth and safe. Yet somehow also forgettable. Score: 3
Stevie Wonder: Man, you have to give Lionel some props for, despite being the song’s co-author, only taking a quick line and then handing over to Stevie Fucking Wonder. That shows a lot of humility. And this was just hours after he tried to make the word “Outrageous!” a thing while he hosted the American Music Awards. Anyway, Stevie’s lines are just a tease, because he’s coming back for more later. Score: Incomplete
Paul Simon: Here’s how crazy these songs were. Paul Simon is one of the greatest song writers in the history of American music. In 1985 his cultural relevance had faded a bit, although he would begin recording his final massive contribution to American records, Graceland, six months later. He gets nine words and drifts across them without making an impression. Grade: 2.5.
Simon passed to Kenny Rogers, who gets just eight words to himself. Kenny had some pipes, man. He was kind of the country Michael McDonald: a white dude with some serious soul in his voice, great hair, and a beard. Kenny also looks very happy to be here, unlike some other folks. Grade: 3.5.
James Ingram makes a very brief appearance but will be back, so his line gets an incomplete.
Next is Tina Turner, coming off the biggest year of her career, and one of the greatest stories in American pop music history. But her line does not match her voice. She needs to be able to stretch out a little bit, to get the growl going, and have a chance to make us feel it. None of that is here. But it’s not her fault. Grade: 2.
Tina passes to Billy Joel, who also gets a lame line. But his voice is much better suited to it. Grade: 3.
Quick Intermission: Man, am I grading too hard? All 2’s and 3’s? I wonder if it will get better as we get deeper into the song.
Michael Jackson comes in to sing the chorus for the first time, solo. I remember getting chills the first time I heard his line. 1985 me was all like, “Here we go!” But it’s another tease, as Mike passes to Diana Ross, who was still one of his mentors and great friends, before they close with a quick duet. Grade: 3.
Diana Ross is a bit of a cross of Tina Turner and Kenny Rogers. Her lines don’t let her really get into it, but like Kenny she still makes it work. Plus she does a little fist pump after she and Michael finish their lines together. Grade: 3.5.
Dionne Warwick is next. Dionne would go on to have a massive charity single of her own later in the year, “That’s What Friends Are For,” with Elton John and Stevie Wonder. That was a cover, though, so I put it in a completely different class of song. I wonder why she was on this song. This should have been a Pointer Sister. Grade: 2.
If Kenny Rogers was pop-country, Willie Nelson was the old school, real country representative. And he does just fine, doing Willie things. Grade: 3.
Al Jarreau. What the fuck? Did he take Prince’s place, since Prince famously refused to attend? Or did he just show up and Lionel, Michael, and Quincy were all like, “Oh, shit, Al is here! Where can we slide him in?” Grade: 1.
Fortunately, Bruce Springsteen was there to save us. He’s kind of the Bono of the song: the guy who really throws down and everyone has been making fun of ever since. Because Bruce was INTO IT, MAN. Grade: 4.
Onto Kenny Loggins. Why was he invited? Did they think it was a movie soundtrack or something? Grade: 2.
Quick Intermission #2: Ok, things have been pretty mediocre so far. Only Springsteen has garnered a four or above so far. Whether by intent or because the folks later in the song had to wait longer to record their lines, we are about to hit the song’s high point.
Steve Perry gets that stretch started. And he just fucking nails it. It’s like the final line of the last verse on a massive Journey power ballad. He’s singing so the kids in Peoria, Chattanooga, Spokane, and Buffalo can hear him. Grade: 5.
Poor Daryl Hall has to follow Steve up. Which is kind of fucked up. Daryl was a bigger star than Perry in 1985. He’s a bigger star now. And he does perfectly fine on his lines. But somehow they seem like a letdown. Grade: 4.
Michael comes back for a few more quick lines as you can feel the song climbing further. In retrospect they could have easily made this a Michael Jackson-fueled machine. But it was genius to show some restraint and just offer a little bit of The King of Pop. The Jacksons would kind of use the same strategy on their album later that year! Grade: 4.
When it comes to unlikely baton passes, Michael to Huey Lewis is right up there. But you know what? My man crushed it. Grade: 4.5.
We’re nearly three minutes into the song when Cindi Lauper gets her chance. And she says, “Fuck it, I’m making this bitch mine.” She takes the song, slaps it around, makes it confess to her, then makes sweet love to it, and turns her lines into the biggest and most memorable of the entire joint. Grade: 5+.
Kim Carnes was up next. She had one of the biggest hits of the 1980s with “Bette Davis Eyes.” But she is just a distraction because Cindi and Huey join her at the end of her section, with Cindi blowing her away with a “YEAH YEAH YEAHHHHH!” Was Cindi showboating? Maybe. But she was trying to feed some kids in Africa. Grade: 2.
We finally hit our first, big group chorus. The lines that are stuck in your head forever. Ugh.
I was never a Bob Dylan fan. But it’s kind of cool he showed up. He does Bob Dylan things here, which will be overrated by his legion of fans, and underrated by people that never dug him. Grade: 3.
Big chorus number two. Double ugh.
Here we hit the only part of the song that can be called genius . Mike, Li, and Q throw in just a touch of the African American gospel experience to give the song a little extra weight but without turning into a “Black” song. Because that might have offended some people.
Ray Charles gets the first run, and even though he was 98 years old, he knocks it out of the park. Just a tremendous performance. Grade: 5.
Finally, the song closes with two quick duets. First are Stevie Wonder and Bruce Springsteen, singing back and forth to each other. Both show why they are Hall of Famers and music legends, arriving in full character and throwing themselves completely into their lines. It’s also fascinating to hear the Boss’ voice harken back to his younger days. I hear more “Hungry Heart” than anything off of Born in the USA here. Grades: 5 for both.
Ray comes back in to close things out with James Ingram. Ingram was a favorite of Quincy Jones, likely explaining why he got this plum assignment. He is more than capable of playing catch with Ray, singing his lungs out and giving us the “Ya Mo B There” double fist pump on each syllable. Ray will not let the young fella steal his thunder, though, and closes the song with a big “WHOOOOOO-HOOO! Good God!” Grades: 5’s.
Happy Easter everybody!
- He says nearly 500 words in… ↩