On this day in 1985, the song “We Are the World” was recorded. It was for a good cause. It was in response for the Ethiopian famine. Roughly half a million people died because of the famine — maybe a lot more. The proximate cause was a drought, but this was on top of war and bad government policy. Not that you would get any of that from the song.
“We Are the World” is exactly the kind of insipid song that you would think a bunch of rich people would come up with because they just have to do something. It was written Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie — both of whom were capable of writing decent songs. But when you set out to create a hit that will offend absolutely no one, you are sure to offend people like me. I’m just glad that Lester Bangs had died a few years earlier, because this song certainly would have killed him.
One of the things that distinguishes art from commerce is meaning. Art has something to say. It can be personal and small. It can be global and big. Whatever. But it has to be something. “We Are the World” has absolutely nothing to say. It isn’t even about peace and love. “We are the world”? “We are the children?” It’s no deeper than a Pepsi commercial, and it is a good deal less deep than a Coke commercial.
Of course, it was just a commercial. It was a way to get people to know about the famine and to care about it a little bit. But it makes me think very much of Slavoj Žižek’s “First as Tragedy, Then as Farce” — the idea that we feel good about ourselves by consuming the right products. Don’t drink Folgers; drink Starbucks because they will give a nickle to the poor from every ten dollar cup of coffee you buy from them. Good coffee karma. Or in this case, good insipid song purchasing karma.
I wouldn’t dare make you listen to “We Are the World.” Here is Slavoj Žižek’s discussion of the concept: