This month marks the 25th Anniversary of the greatest collaboration of musical artists EVER: USA For Africa and the huge hit single: "We Are The World." These American artists were inspired by Band-Aid, a group of British musicians organized by Bob Geldof, for the song "Do They Know Its Christmas?" After the Grammy Awards in 1985, the biggest artists of the 1980s went to a studio at Quincy Jones' invitation to participate in the recording of a song written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie. The only requirement was to "check your egos at the door." Somehow, they got it done and recorded a single that remains among my 25 favourite songs of all time. I still get goose bumps whenever I hear it. Part of my memories associated with this song is that it was released in late April or early May, which was always a time I looked forward to as the end of the school year approached and summer vacation was upon us. So, this was a great end of school year song.
The single raised money and awareness for the famine in Ethiopia. I remember some horrible jokes about Ethiopians told by some guys in class (such as this groaner: "How many Ethiopians does it take to fill up a bath tub? I don't know, they keep slipping down the drain!"). In my apartment complex is a family I've come to know, with the husband and wife both from Ethiopia. Their sons, Desiderata (5) and Yanek (2), were born in the U.S. The wife has an interesting life, as she was an exchange student in the USSR in the mid-1980s and she told me what it was like to live in a communist police state. She didn't like it, so she transferred to Germany and made her way to the USA. I can't remember her husband's story on how he came to live in the USA, but they knew each other back in Ethiopia. One of the questions I had for them when we were first getting to know each other was: "Did Ethiopia benefit from all the charity fundraising in the mid-80s?" Sadly, the answer is that the corrupt government took most of the aid money for their own greedy benefit.
Watching the official music video of "We Are The World", in 1985 and now, I am able to name every single person who is singing. This is a who's who of 80s singing stars. The only major artists missing from the group are Madonna and Prince, though Prince did submit a single to be included on the album: "4 the Tears in Your Eyes" (if I remember the title correctly). I have this album on cassette, though it has not aged well. There's something wrong with it (the volume keeps going up and down when you play it) and I've been searching for several years now a compact disc version (I kept getting outbid on one on eBay. I wish they'd issue a commemorative edition, as I loved all of the songs on there, including the collaborative song by Northern Lights, a group of Canadian recording stars). CDs were just coming into popularity in 1985 and I remember being mesmerized by the mirror-like surface and the way it plays with the light to form a rainbow when you tilt it a certain way.
This music video is the perfect time capsule of 1985. You see everyone who was big back then: Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson, Tina Turner, Cyndi Lauper, Huey Lewis, Bruce Springsteen, Kim Carnes, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Kenny Rogers, James Ingram, Billy Joel, Dionne Warwick, Willie Nelson, Al Jarreau, Kenny Loggins, Steve Perry, Darryl Hall, John Oates, Harry Belafonte, Jeffrey Osbourne, the Pointer Sisters, LaToya Jackson and even Dan Ackroyd! In 1985, several people I knew thought that Bruce Springsteen "ruined" the song. I agree that he was a bit raspy...but what I loved about this single is how distinct everyone is. They all add their unique personalities to create the most memorable collaborative song ever recorded.
The greatness of USA For Africa is only enhanced by this year's failed effort to replicate that success, with a remake featuring the artists of today. The video debuted during the NBC telecast of the Vancouver Olympics in February and was aimed at raising funds for the Haiti Earthquake relief efforts. The reaction was rather "ho-hum." Saturday Night Live even managed to make a dead-on hilarious skit revealing what's wrong with the remake, with the chorus being "We Are The World was good the first time..." Memo to Hollywood: NEVER remake a song that is considered genius and perfect already. Additionally, the remake shows the lower wattage of today's artists compared to those of twenty-five years ago. Many of the stars in USA For Africa have released multiple successful albums and singles and are still well known (notably Bruce Springsteen, who has been on a roll with three awesome albums in the past decade).
Today's artists tend to be one hit wonders or one album wonders. It seems harder to have a career of longevity in today's market. This is largely due to the fracturing of music into various formats and genres, with radio stations focused on specific niches in the market. Also, people seem more interested in the next new thing, so its more difficult for an artist to establish a loyal following when someone new, hipper, fresher is on their tail. The best example of this is how Britney Spears' popularity crested just as Gwen Stefani rose in popularity. Then along came Fergie, whose debut solo album kicked Stefani's sophomore solo album's ass. Now, its all about Lady Gaga. However, even her weirdness and irresistable dance tunes are going to be cast aside for the up and coming Ke$ha, whose performance on Saturday Night Live last month was so unusual, she made Lady Gaga look bland. In another example, is there anything uniquely original that distinguishes Usher, Kanye West, Akon, or Chris Brown from each other? They seem to be mere copycats of one another. A few catchy singles, but nothing that compares to the memorable hit singles recorded by Michael Jackson, Prince, or Lionel Richie a quarter-century ago.
In 1985, my favourite band was Huey Lewis and the News. My favourite male and female singers were Bruce Springsteen and Tina Turner. In 2010, my favourite band is U2 (Bono turns 50 today!). My favourite male and female singers are Johnny Clegg and Madonna. All of them had albums out in 1984-1985, but they all got better with age. I still like Bruce Springsteen and love Tina Turner (I admit, I'm a sucker for a strong black woman: Tina Turner, Oprah Winfrey, Eartha Kitt, Halle Berry, Thandie Newton, Michelle Obama, Maya Angelou, Condoleeza Rice, Anita Hill)...but whatever happened to Huey Lewis and the News anyway?
Below is the video for the 2010 remake of "We Are The World." I dare you to watch both of them back to back. You'll see that there is no comparison between the two. One is top of the line, the other is a b-grade rip-off. Besides the lackluster stars of today (Barbra Streisand is strangely included among the young hipsters, probably because she regrets being left out in the original lineup), I was surprised that Sheryl Crow was not part of the new remake. She is certainly one of the most successful female singers of the past couple decades.