We Are The World: An Appreciation

Not entirely sure why, but during my workout at the gym tonight I decided to listen to the 2010 remake of We Are The World.

Which quickly led me to the 1985 original.

Which led me to this blog post, and this statement: Namely, the version of We Are The World recorded 29 years ago is insane. Absolutely insane. Packed with talent. Packed with names. Packed with one historic musical figure after another after another. Five years ago, a bunch of recording artists gathered in a room. Some, like Tony Bennett and Barbra Streisand, were legends. Most, ahem, were not. A decade from now, nobody will remember Nicole Scherzinger or Jennifer Nettles or Fergie or Nick Jonas or Julianne Hough. Justin Bieber leads the damn thing off, and he’s as culturally relevant as Rory Sparrow. Josh Groban, big voice, is dime a dozen. Wyclef Jean is a gimmick.

But 1985 … man, oh man.

Let’s run through it, singer by singer. In fact, let’s grade each person on a 1 to 10 scale. For fun …

• The tune starts with Lionel Richie. Not one of the, oh, 15 biggest names, but an event organizer and a guy who was on top of his solo game in 1985. He also was the lead singer for the Commodores, a fucking great group back in the day. His vocals aren’t amazing, but they’re solid. Grade: 7.5

Screen Shot 2014-11-11 at 12.15.48 AM• Richie hands off to Stevie Wonder. Stevie Wonder! If Michael Jackson is a 10. Wonder is a 9.5. And even though his part is small here, he returns in a big way shortly down the road. Grade: 9.5

• Paul Simon comes in. It’s the first really cool moment of We Are The World—two singers of the same era, but living in completely different genres, their voices crossing over one another for just a second. Grade: 9.

• Enter: Kenny Rogers. It’s easy to forget how enormous Kenny Rogers was back in the 1980s, before crap pop nonsense Carrie Underwood bullshit took over the medium. It was a two-horse town, with Kenny on one and Willie Nelson on the other. Grade: 8 (he loses a point for being one of the few artists to wear the white USA for Africa sweatshirt).

Screen Shot 2014-11-11 at 12.21.19 AM• Right before the one minute mark Kenny hands over to James Ingram. I’ve never liked Ingram in this song. Mainly because—despite a string of hits—he’s pretty dime-a-dozen soul singer. For some reason I’ve never understood, Richie brings him back later in the song. Grade: 5.

• But then Tina Turner arrives. And she’s, of course, badass. Restrained for the moment, but her voice crackles. Ike really made a huge mistake. Grade: 9.

• Billy Joel follows. Another super sweet crossing of genres. It’s also neat seeing Tina, hair like splintered glass, hand over to Joel, who looks like he just arrived from serving chopped liver at the deli. Grade: 9.

Screen Shot 2014-11-11 at 12.24.06 AM• Michael Jackson chorus. Not my favorite part, and a waste of a dude who made everything he sang sound unique. But it’s still Michael Jackson—the biggest artist on earth. Grade: 10.

• Diana Ross. I don’t understand the merging of Jacko and Ross, because their voices are almost the same. Ross, of course, is a legend, as well as a notorious diva. I’ve never heard a good thing about the way she treats people, so I’d probably prefer Richie left her out. Grade: 5.

• Dionne Warwick was a big-time star, but I’ve never understood why. I suppose she’s kinda jazzy cool, but to me she’s just dull. No exception here. Grade: 4.

• Watching Willie Nelson sing is the best. He sounds awesome, he’s probably high as shit and he looks like he’s breaking off a tight fart. Seriously, I think that every time I watch the video. Hell, look at his face. Grade: 9.

Screen Shot 2014-11-11 at 12.31.07 AM• Every compilation song is required to have a few people who don’t belong. Here, that’d be Al Jarreau. Yeah, very smooth voice. Yeah, seven Grammy Awards. But just not A-list. Grade: 5.

• At 2:12 into the video, the first BAM! moment takes place. Bruce Springsteen—still a young artist at the time, fresh off of Born in the USA—steps up, takes over for the soft Jarreau and blows the roof off the building. Sounds like sandpaper and beer. Grade: 10.

• Kenny Loggins follows. Not bad, but kinda uneventful. Doesn’t help to follow the Boss and then have people listen to … Grade: 6.

• Steve Perry. Who, it’s easy to forget, has one of rock music’s all-time, all-time great voices. He kills it here. Grade: 8.5.

• Daryl Hall then arrives. As a kid, this was my favorite moment, because Hall and Oates were my group, and it showed they belonged. Hall is perfectly fine here. Not his finest, but he, Perry and Ray Charles are probably the best pure singers of the whole lot. I also can appreciate how Hall closes his eyes and makes a really stupid, self-indulgent expression. Kinda his calling card. Grade: 8.5.

Screen Shot 2014-11-11 at 12.37.38 AM• Michael Jackson returns, and—even in a really bad jacket—he’s butter. Grade: 10.

• This is where We Are The World gets weird and interesting. The next three singers, placed together at a mic, are Huey Lewis, Cindy Lauper and Kim Carnes. None of them go down as legends, though all have had significantly better careers than, say, Nick Jonas. What’s surprising is that, when Lauper starts yelping and Lewis starts hollering and Carnes does … whatever, it’s must-see, must-hear stuff. Like, the best moment of the song. Inexplicable, but true. Grade: 10.

Screen Shot 2014-11-11 at 12.41.38 AM• Chorus, shots of the random Jackson siblings, shots of the Pointer Sisters, Jeffrey Osborne silently wondering why he didn’t snag one of James Ingram’s solos, a glimpse of Dan Aykroyd, leading millions of Americans to collectively ask how, exactly, he scored an invite.

• Bob Dylan! Bob Dylan! I remember, as a kid, wondering who the hell Bob Dylan was, and asking why he sounded like a turkey. But now, looking back, it’s an amazing moment. There’s nobody on the 2010 recording who gets within 10 miles of Dylan. Grade: 10.

• Chorus, shots of the random Jackson siblings, shots of the Pointer Sisters, Jeffrey Osborne silently wondering why he didn’t snag one of James Ingram’s solos, a glimpse of Dan Aykroyd, leading millions of Americans to collectively ask how, exactly, he scored an invite.

• Ray Charles singing over the chorus. It gets no better. Really, it doesn’t. Oh, wait. It does. In about two seconds. Grade: 10.

• Stevie Wonder and Bruce Springsteen sing together, in a sort of back-and-forth battle. And it’s beyond magical. It makes no sense, yet makes perfect sense. Goes on for a good while, too. Chunky and smooth. It’s mesmerizing. Grade: 10.

Screen Shot 2014-11-11 at 12.47.37 AM

• Chorus, shots of the random Jackson siblings, shots of the Pointer Sisters, Jeffrey Osborne silently wondering why he didn’t snag one of James Ingram’s solos, a glimpse of Dan Aykroyd, leading millions of Americans to collectively ask how, exactly, he scored an invite.

• The biggest blunder of We Are The World—James Ingram returns. Somebody clearly really liked James Ingram. But he’s painfully forgettable. Oh, well. Grade: 3.

• Ray Charles returns. And all is well. Grade: 10.

I know people tend to criticize these sorts of efforts; to find fault. But it’s probably the greatest collection of musical talent to assemble in one room.

Too bad Madonna opted out.

6 thoughts on “We Are The World: An Appreciation”

  1. A couple of weeks ago, Lionel Richie performed in Vegas at the Life is Beautiful event. I was always a little iffy on him but figured you always have to see legends perform. One of the things he told the crowd was one of the main reasons for doing We Are The World was so he could work with MJ as it seemed the perfect collaboration and it grew from there. Also, Richie is probably in the top 10 performers I’ve ever seen live. Raw and energetic. Honestly, he put Kanye (who performed Friday nite) to shame and gave OutKast a run for their money. (Sorry for the long comment!)

  2. I was always more partial to Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas”(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bjQzJAKxTrE); the soulful, dulcet tones of Boy George, Jody Watley, Banarama, Phil Collins, Bono, Spandau Ballet, Kool & The Gang… for some reason struck me as more sincere, less about them, more about the cause. Chokes me up every time I hear it.

  3. To see who “clearly really liked James Ingram,” you need to look no further than the front of the room to the man conducting the masses: Quincy Jones. He discovered Ingram and helped propel him to stardom.

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