(Pictured: “We Are the World” sheet music, autographed by some of the performers, sold at auction in 2008.)
When was the last time you heard “We Are the World”? Maybe last spring around its 30th anniversary, but when before that?
“Do They Know It’s Christmas,” the British charity record that inspired “We Are the World,” gets airplay every December, and the British recording industry has remade it several times, most recently for its 30th anniversary last year. But “We Are the World” fell swiftly down the memory hole not long after its release. Although it swept the Grammys in early 1986, it had ceased getting much radio airplay long before that.
Not long ago, the full seven-minute version of “We Are the World” popped up on shuffle, so I decided to live-blog it and post the result here today on the 31st anniversary of the record’s release.
0:00: Jingly keyboard noise, then an orchestra blat followed by stately low brass, like something in a documentary about Washington DC, a camera rolling past statues and columned buildings, all heartwarming and patriotic. (Lionel Richie has said that he and co-writer Michael Jackson were going for a national-anthem feel.) Then that jingly keyboard noise comes back, and the echoing production that was all over everything in the 80s.
0:54: Kenny Rogers gets a line less than minute in. Clients of high-powered artist manager Ken Kragen, who helped organized the event, got priority treatment.
1:18: And there’s Michael Jackson, coming in like an angel, followed by a voice I bet I recognized in 1985 but not now, until I looked it up: Diana Ross.
1:55: There’s the Dionne Warwick/Willie Nelson duet we didn’t know we never needed until we heard it and realized, nah.
2:20: And there’s Bruce Springsteen in full my-voice-is-shot-from-touring wail. As I listen to him bellow, I am reminded of a Saturday Night Live cold open from 1985 in which Prince, famously not included in USA for Africa, did his own version: “I am the world / I am the children / I am the one who makes a brighter day / You want to make something of it?”
2:48: At the bridge we reach Peak 80s, with Huey Lewis, Cyndi Lauper, and Kim Carnes singing together.
3:09: Full choir. It’s weird that Dan Aykroyd is in there somewhere, like he sneaked in with the craft-service people, then stood at the back hoping nobody would notice. True, he once had a #1 album (Briefcase Full of Blues), but still.
3:48: Bob Dylan invents his own melody line, of course.
4:02: The choir is clapping now. It’s remarkable how even though Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie, Smokey Robinson, the Jacksons, and Tina Turner are all on this record, it’s still so white it makes Bobby Vinton sound like George Clinton.
4:27: Ray fking Charles, everybody.
4:56: Bruce getting his Michael Bolton on. (Three years later and they could have gotten Michael Bolton to get his ownself on.) For all the megastars on the project, Springsteen’s presence on “We Are the World” was critical in 1985. He provided legitimate rock-star credibility the record would have lacked otherwise, Dylan notwithstanding.
5:10: Has anybody ever explained what “we’re saving our own lives” is supposed to mean? If indeed we are the world, and we could indeed save our own lives, we wouldn’t even need USA for Africa, now would we? According to this absolutely golden Rolling Stone piece on the making of “We Are the World,” the line was originally “we’re taking our own lives.” Reporter Gavin Edwards wrote, “Richie and Jackson changed it when they recorded the demo so that the group wouldn’t seem to be unduly congratulating themselves for advocating mass suicide.”
7:07: Stevie, Bruce, Brother Ray, and the rest fade out to silence.
“We Are the World” marked a high point for celebrity activism. If USA for Africa didn’t save “our own lives,” it saved many, and I don’t mean to belittle that. But what “We Are the World” shows us most today is how styles and tastes have changed in the 31 years that have passed between then and now, in the blink of an eye.