Anniversary Post: We Are the World

We Are the WorldOn 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:

20 thoughts on “Anniversary Post: We Are the World

  1. According to one of the Michael Jackson bios I read when I was a teenager, Jackson wrote the song in about twenty minutes after spending the entire weekend closeted with either Quincy Jones or some other person involved with the event and being unable to come up with anything better.

    These songs are generally instant muzak. If Wikipedia is to be believed, most of the money raised seems to have made it to where it was supposed to go but I am very cynical about it.

    • I remember reading an interview with some country singer, might have been Steve Earle. He was asked if he participated in any big benefit shows. And he said no. He said the overhead was so high, a lot of the money ended up wasted. He preferred getting someone much more famous than himself to do an acoustic show at some rich person’s house. Charge a ton for tickets. Then sucker-punch the guests for more money. Zero overhead, and you soak the rich. Amen!

      • That makes more sense. During those big charity concerts, I wondered how much money they could be making. I suspect something like Comic Relief raised a lot of money because it was a pledge drive. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Farm Aid didn’t lose money.

    • By that point, everything was so bad that I expect even the corruption wouldn’t stop the aid from getting through. So I wouldn’t doubt it.

      Your story makes me think it was more like Jackson in the corner writing and Jones tapping his wrist watch. The song reminds me of “Ebony and Ivory,” which I just listened to just to make sure that it really is as ghastly as I had thought. Although except for the insipid lyrics, it isn’t that bad.

      • I had this music teacher in, I dunno, third grade or so. I have no idea what the hell she thought she was doing, or why, back then, we had music teachers assigned to part of our day. She taught us to sing songs together, as a class, which she put on overheads (remember those?) so we could all get the lyrics. She taught us the music. Not with musical notation, just playing the recorded songs.

        I think we performed these songs for school pageants. God help the parents who attended.

        We learned “Ebony And Ivory,” and I loathed that song even as a third-grader. “We all know / That people are the same wherever you go,” etc. It was pure pablum. We learned “Beat It,” too, maybe just to be Hip, and I liked that song much more (all the boys delighted in singing “show ’em how fucky” instead of “show ’em how funky”), but I always preferred it when schoolmates sung me Prince lyrics. Or Men At Work. I wasn’t too picky. I just disliked Michael Jackson.

        For some odd reason, there are a few songs I remember that teacher teaching us which moved me deeply. One was “The Theme From Billy Jack,” “go ahead and hate your neighbor, go ahead and cheat a friend.” It’s no worse than “Ebony And Ivory” (it’s actually a lot worse) but I reacted to it. Maybe because the teacher was a super-hippie and was trying to include “Thriller” to seem modern. I probably responded better to the songs she loved because she loved them more than her attempting to Be Cool For The Kids.

        The other one was “The Circle Game.” Jesus H. Shit, that song breaks my goddamn heart every time I hear it now, and it broke my heart when I was a little kid. I dunno what kind of passion that music teacher put into teaching it to us . . . but it sure as fuck hit me right in the skull.

        And that’s the thing with kids, and why I’ll never have any. The responsibility of what impact you make on them is simply too heavy. I have a little interaction with kids, and they value what you give and hate what you take from their lives in ways it’s impossible to fathom beforehand.

        • Well, as for kids, you are talking about the man who is thinking that he’d like to have a rat. But really he should have two so they have company because he just doesn’t have enough time to care for a rat properly.

          I don’t have nearly as much of a problem with a song like “One Tin Soldier.” The thing is that it is preachy as hell, but it doesn’t pretend to be anything else. It’s in your face. And let’s face it: the lyrics are a whole lot deeper than either “We Are the World” or “Ebony and Ivory.”

          But check out this video. It is the original version by The Original Caste. And the video totally distorts the song, turning it into a class based massacre. We never see the people on the hill; we only see the king. The people of the valley apparently have no king. So it basically gets the actual dynamics of war exactly backwards.

          • Yeah, that video is pretty bad. It’s like Reagan turning “Born In The USA” into a jingo song. But it doesn’t look like the animators were paid much, or that there were very many of them, so maybe it was just people who didn’t get that type of song. It does mention that the mountain people are a “kingdom,” which in context means “another country,” but if you took it literally I could see where you might draw it that way.

            Kinda made me a little vulnerable, just the same. I don’t think I’d heard that song in 35 years. It really is a good song to teach to kids!

            • It looks kind of like Bullwinkle, which was animated in Mexico. Maybe they didn’t fully understand the song.

              BTW: did you see the parody of the “Born in the USA” cover with Ted Cruz and “Born Near the USA”?

              • No — but now I have. That guy’s singing is wonderfully droll, I laughed the second he started. He has a lot of fun with the rhymes, too. For song parodies to work, they have to feel like the person making them was having a good time.

                • I hadn’t heard the song. I just saw the cover parody.

                  The song is wrong, however. Most legal scholars seem to think that he is eligible. Regardless, it’s a pretty embarrassing, xenophobic part of the Constitution. But yes, it is a fun song. Although it took me until the end of the song to figure out the guy who was talking in the background was supposed to be Obama. Not that I could do a better impression.

                  • I didn’t get that either. Obama’s hard to do. His most signature bits are the odd, barely noticeable pauses during his speeches. Like his CPU is overloaded. (He is a very smart man, his CPU probably IS overloaded.)

                    Sure, Cruz is eligible, but you get the joke — the same people who questioned Obama’s citizenship could easily vote for Cruz. Hmm. Why? I wonder. “One of these things does not fit together, one of these things does not belong,” as an old “Sesame Street” tune goes.

                    It is a strange part of the Constitution. Were all the authors of the Constitution US-born? I’d be surprised if a few weren’t born in England.

                    • Yes, that was how the subject first came to my attention: the irony of Truthers for Cruz.

                      As for the framers, I don’t know. It seems a strange bit to be in there. I’m sure it’s all explained on Wikipedia. I’m just too tired dealing with a nasty piece of work and then thinking about “Flowers for Algernon” for reasons that I will probably write about soon enough. So I’ll leave it to you.

          • It was amazingly good. And it shows just how easy it is to properly dub foreign language films. But it isn’t done for two reasons. First, people who are interested in foreign films have been convinced that dubbing is wrong (even though subtitles really destroy the experience of watching the film). Second, it is expensive. It costs almost nothing to do subtitles. Dubbing is like making a whole other film. See the amazing work done on the original Godzilla. But not that much has to be done. Old Italian films were all shot without sound, so they were even dubbed in the original language. As a result, the English dubbing was usually excellent (and by the same actors). It seems to me that I recently wrote about the English dubbing on The Bicycle Thieves. On the other hand, the English dubbing on Rashomon is so bad it seems like they went out of their way just to annoy me 50 years later.

            • Yes it was created specifically to annoy you fifty years later. Why they were that mad at a baby no one knows.

              Just kidding. But I thought it was fascinating. They have done a lot of political stuff, I watched some of the other videos with a colleague.

              • Well, the technology now makes it pretty easy. But coming up with stuff that silly is certainly an art. And the editing was great. They are definitely pros.

    • That was hilarious. Thanks! I disagree with him about Bob Dylan; that’s just how he sounds. And I can’t speak to the new artists because of course I know them because I’m old. It is, however, interesting that most of the people on the original are still around. I suspect they wanted nothing to do with this project because they are still embarrassed about the last time. Hell, just cut a check for 50 grand and leave it at that. Given all the people in that group, it would have to be more than $2 million, which is probably more than the song made.

      For the record: Haiti’s a good place to give to any time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *