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It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. Reagan was in his second term, MTV was in its fourth year, and lots of tasteless jokes about the Ethiopian famine were being told in middle schools around the U.S. But the world’s biggest pop star and his trusty sidekicks were about to awaken America’s long-dormant spirit of charity with an improbable pop anthem featuring the vocal talents and star power of a Top 40 rainbow coalition. For one brief moment, Westerners felt sorry for people in the developing world. (Then, of course, those same people all got AIDS, and folks got turned off.)
On the eve of USA for Africa’s 25th anniversary, as if sent by Lionel Richie’s guardian angel, came the massive earthquake in Haiti. For whatever reason (we could explore the social psychology of it for days), this particular misfortune hit America hard. Perhaps it was the Google Earth/Facebook/Twitter effect; perhaps it was Anderson Cooper carrying a bloody child through the ruins of Port-au-Prince; perhaps something entirely else. But before you could say, “Quincy Jones,” a remake of “We Are the World” was being planned. And the speculation began: Who would be asked to participate? Who would be shut out? Who would solo? And how would Bob Geldof feel about all this?
Again, in a “synergy” every music industry publicist would give a kidney for, the new “We Are the World” was ready to be premiered just as the Winter Olympics were starting up. The video for this “Haiti Redux” was sneak-peeked just before the opening ceremonies, and shown in its entirety the following day on several TV networks. And immediately, the fur began to fly. Of course, the original version had had its share of detractors, mostly white men who cringed to see Springsteen and Dylan breathing the same air as Richie and Cyndi Lauper; why should this one be different? The media speculated on why superstars Beyonce and Jay-Z did not participate; now we know why: “I know everybody is gonna take this wrong,” said Jigga, but given the original single’s place in pop history, which he likens to that of Thriller, “I don’t ever wanna see it touched.” Music critics complain that the new version is “oversung” and too “Hollywood.”
News flash, all y’all: NO ONE CARES.
Criticizing the concept, the singing, how the stars dressed, either in ’85 or in ’10, is ultimately pointless. Let’s be honest: this is not a song. It’s performance art. The fascination of the original had to do with celebrity meeting charity, with shallowness linking arms with seriousness. The fun of listening to the record was playing “Guess the Artist” as one solo gave way to the next – hell, stand-up comic Kevin Meaney made his career on his visual impressions of each and every participant. And most important: the record made money and engendered good will for people who desperately needed both. Let’s hope the “25 for Haiti” update will do the same.
That said, here are my lists of the highlights, and lowlights, of “WATW” 2.0.
Hip-hop-ification: In the years that have passed since the original recording, hip-hop went from the fringes of the industry to center stage, so of course the update was going to include rappers galore. Luckily, they were used pretty skillfully. The added bridge, performed by LL Cool J, Snoop, Will.i.am and others, is my favorite part of the new version. Kanye’s rhyming is also effective, not over the top, and allows him to demonstrate that he is capable of behaving in a sane manner. Including a T-Pain auto-tune solo is a clever and hilarious choice; and in response to the critic who remarked that Lil Wayne is “no Bob Dylan”…um, Bob Dylan wasn’t even Bob Dylan anymore in 1985, dude. Relax, it’s not a competition.
Big-voiced ladies: Making one wonder how the hell she was left out of the original recording session, Barbra Streisand brings a surprising amount of soul to her take on “It’s true, we make a better day, just you and me.” P!nk – a criminally underappreciated talent, IMHO – makes other, girlier, more popular singers look like chumps when she belts out, “There’s a choice we’re making, we’re saving our own lives.” And who else could take on the indelible Cyndi Lauper moment but Celine Dion? Moments like this one are why artists like her exist. She nails it. In general, the female contribution to USA for Haiti is much greater than that of USA for Africa (a full third of the soloists, in contrast to a quarter back in ’85), but did one of them have to be the lead singer of the Pussycat Dolls? Then again, that girl can really sing.
A super-hip chorus. Some old-reliables (Harry Connick, Rob Thomas, Brandy), and some head-scratchers (most glaring: Jeff Bridges and Vince Vaughn), but also a stunning number of ass-kicking original talents: I mean, India.Aire? Robin Thicke? Raphael Saadiq? Nikka Costa? Kid Cudi? Can they record yet a third version with all the cool, sexy people up front?
Freda Payne. I’m just glad she was there.
Wyclef. I admit, sometimes he gets on my nerves. But without him there, the record just feels like a series of platitudes. He gets on the mic and is in the zone…when the music fades out at the end and you’re left with him chanting, “Ha-i-ti, Ha-i-ti” in a Kreyol accent, well, you get a little verklempt.
The ghost of Michael Jackson. No one else from 1985 got to reprise their roles, why him? Oh, yeah, because he died. I know lots of people like the use of MJ’s original vocal, and Janet coming in on harmony with him, but this isn’t “Unforgettable,” and he’s only been dead nine months. You say “touching,” I say, “creepy.”
Justin Bieber. I get why they used him as the first singer. He’s super popular with the kids and still has a child’s voice, so it’s affecting and all. But I have a hard time believing anyone will know who he is in 25 years. Lionel Richie may not have had a hit in a while, but people still lose their shit when “All Night Long” comes on at the Fourth of July barbecue.
Tony Bennett. I adore him. I revere him. I think he has no idea what he is doing here. Like, literally, it sounds like he is speaking English phonetically. A shame.
Gladys Knight. You’re thinking, “Gladys Knight? She doesn’t solo.” Exactly my point. She’s in the studio, doing backup and handclaps, just like Vince and Jeff. Granted, there were several major divas, both male and female, who were relegated to the chorus (Natalie Cole, the Wilson sisters of Heart, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys), and the whole point is supposed to be to “check your ego at the door” – and Gladys did. But the woman is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She has had to walk ten paces behind Diana Ross for her entire career. This could have made up for just a little of that. But no, instead we got Jamie Foxx and Adam Levine. Just know, Sister Gladys, I got your back.
Now ignore everything I just said, and go buy the track. In fact, while you’re at it, go buy a copy of the original too – I recommend the full USA for Africa album, if you can find it (yes, I own it…on cassette. It includes a killer Prince track and an even cheesier Canadian charity single. Corey Hart? Of course). Because no matter what your musical principles, “there are people dying.” You can stand on principle later. Buy the record.
I had forgotten that Michael Jackson’s birthday was August 29th, until it was announced that his family planned to bury him on that date this year, when he would have turned fifty-one. (That has now been postponed until September 3rd, no doubt to give him just slightly more time to rise from the dead.) Once upon a time, it was a date I knew by heart – along with the fact that MJ’s zodiac sign was Virgo, which made him a potentially compatible mate for me. Spike Lee, who was recently quoted as saying, “I wanted my Afro to be perfectly round, like Michael’s,” is throwing a public birthday party for the deceased in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Me, I’d like to observe the occasion by looking on the bright side – there are eight Jackson siblings still living. (Joe Jackson may already be looking forward to a future in which he will put his hapless grandchildren on stage, but we need not encourage him.) Sure, next to Michael, the rest of the clan seem like saplings in the shade of a mighty oak, but when we have no alternative, perhaps we can make do.
The Yang to his Yin: Janet
Maybe because she was born so late in the game that she was almost an afterthought, Janet was able to break free of the Joe Jackson mindfuck and make a series of hit records, which, seriously, if you haven’t listened to them in a while, bust out your shoulder pads and crimp your hair, cuz we havin’ a party. For my money, Control and Rhythm Nation 1814 are still the best – I have a weakness for bootylicious Janet as opposed to washboard-abs Janet. But even before she joined forces with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Janet had (or should have) earned her big brothers’ respect by going where none of them was able to go – sitcoms. She was little more than wallpaper as Willis’ girlfriend Charlene on Diff’rent Strokes, but as little girl lost Penny on Good Times, who follows J.J. home and stays in the ghet-to forever, she is indispensable.
The Dethroned Prince: Jermaine
It must have been difficult for him not to just kick Michael in the ass – literally – when the Jackson 5 took to the stage. The handsomest of the boys, Jermaine was the obvious choice for lead singer until his pipsqueak kid brother started hogging all the attention. Getting to sing “co-lead” on hits like “I Want You Back” and “The Love You Save” must have been small consolation. Jermaine soothed his injured feelings by bringing groupies back to the hotel rooms he shared with his brothers on the road, possibly laying the groundwork for at least some of Michael’s future sexual hangups. When he struck out on his own (an endeavor assisted by his marriage to the boss’ daughter, Hazel Gordy), he worked with a mind-blowing range of musical celebs, from Devo to Pia Zadora. However, I think it’s his contribution to the music video world that really deserves more attention. The ever-so-sweaty clip for “Do What You Do,” featuring Iman as a well-oiled lover with a secret agenda, haunted my dreams for years. On the other end of the spectrum is the video for “Dynamite,” in which Jermaine attempts to break out of a prison guarded entirely by dancing women. Thank you for the day-glo vertical stripes, J-Man.
The One Who Saved Herself: Rebbie
The oldest sibling, Rebbie (pronounced REE-bee) is remarkable among the Jackson sisters for how much you don’t know about her. Too old and too female to belong to the Jackson 5, she simply went about her business, marrying her high school sweetheart (to whom she is still wed), pitching in on the family variety show, and doing background vocals on records by Chaka Khan and Lou Rawls. Her li’l bro Michael wrote her a Top 40 hit, “Centipede,” and she was able to enjoy her moderate success without flipping out, talking to the media too much, or butchering her face (though she did give one of the weirdest performances ever captured in a music video). Hopefully, when grandma Katherine passes, Prince, Paris and Blanket will be ushered into adulthood by the gracefully un-neurotic Aunt Rebbie.
The Twin Soul: LaToya
Clearly, LaToya and Michael share the distinction of “Most Troubled Jackson,” the major difference being the latter’s unparalleled success and former’s status as a perpetual loser. Then again, she’s still alive. Before Armed and Famous and Celebrity Big Brother (in which Jermaine also appeared, by the way), before posing for Playboy, before the tell-all memoir, before the unconsummated marriage to the psycho manager who beat her and tried to force her to appear in a porno…wait, what was I talking about? Oh yeah, back in their tender years, Michael and LaToya did everything together, from knocking on doors like good little Jehovah’s Witnesses to sharing their first “grown-up” pad together in New York while Michael was filming The Wiz. Appropriately, she seems to have benefited the most from her beloved brother’s untimely death. It gave her an excuse to release a previously unheard single, ostensibly to benefit Michael’s favorite charity, Project AIDS Los Angeles (remember Ryan White?), and her increased visibility has led to her being asked back to guest host on The View this fall (apparently she did it before, back in 2003 – why on earth…?). The chance to reinvent herself as a long-suffering survivor is, perhaps, Michael’s final gift to the sister who, like him, was a primary victim of their awful father’s intolerance for weakness. He loved her, and his heart don’t lie.
Every generation thinks it makes the world anew…but no matter how many years pass, it’s same shit, different decade. The data presented below should leave no doubt.
BOOMERS – Supremes
GEN-X – Go-Gos
MILLENNIALS – Spice Girls
Other Girl Group:
B’s – Ronettes
X’s – Bangles
M’s – Destiny’s Child
B’s – Cher
X’s – Madonna
M’s – Beyoncé
B’s – Carole King
X’s – Tori Amos
M’s – Alicia Keys
White Boy Band:
B’s – Monkees
X’s – New Kids
M’s – N’Sync
Black Boy Band:
B’s – Jackson 5
X’s – New Edition
M’s – Boyz II Men
Guy Who Changed His Name:
B’s – Cat Stevens (Yusuf Islam)
X’s – John Cougar (John Mellencamp)
M’s – Puff Daddy (Puffy/P. Diddy/Diddy)
B’s – Hair
X’s – Rent
M’s – Spring Awakening
B’s – “Dream On”
X’s – “Angel”
M’s – “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”
B’s – Springsteen
X’s – Bon Jovi
M’s – Fountains of Wayne
B’s – Jim Morrison
X’s – Prince
M’s – Kanye West
B’s – Jerry Lee Lewis
X’s – Jacko
M’s – R. Kelly
Yes, there are differences…big ones. My preferred test is to yell out “Mama say mama sa mama koo sa” and see who starts dancing – that’s Gen-X. But the distinctions noted here are also dead on.
It took me about an hour to realize that VH1-Classic had programmed the videos in alphabetical order (cut me some slack, I’m coming down with a cold), but the juxtaposition of Kool Moe Dee and Kraftwerk was a powerful wake-up call…so to speak. This must have been what Mike Myers was watching when he came up with the “Sprockets” sketch. Speaking of disturbing, what’s up with only one Kool Moe Dee clip? No “Wild Wild West”? For heaven’s sake, even the Kinks got two!
No commentary required. Just watch:
Earlier this evening I was out at a bar. For reasons I can no longer recall (probably because earlier this evening I was out at a bar), the conversation turned to how Radiohead, once an “alternative” band, has in recent years become popular with frat types. I then began reminiscing about the days when They Might Be Giants was a band no one outside of the northeast had heard of, in spite of having recorded three albums and playing live almost constantly, and bemoaning the fact that their shows are now overrun with douchebags.
“Are you a music snob?” my companion asked me. A snob? I thought. Not at all. After all, on my way to the bar I had been listening to Mariah Carey on my iPod. (C’mon now, you know “We Belong Together” is irresistible.) In spite of everything, I still like Madonna. I just don’t like asswipes…so when they show up at the same venues I frequent, I am quite reasonably distressed. However, later in the evening, when I expressed my delight to hear old chestnuts by Erasure and Big Audio Dynamite, the aforementioned companion nodded. “Music snob,” he remarked once more, with a smirk.
What? I’m a snob because I like music you have never heard of? Oh woe is me. Jesus, having owned a copy of “The Innocents” is hardly a sign of erudition.
Okay, what? Before today, I had never seen more than a basic-cable moment or two of the Tom Hanks K-9 buddy comedy Turner and Hooch, but, like many of you, I had laughed at it (I mean, Hanks bellowing “Hooooch!” at the top of his lungs is a cheap and easy laugh, right?). Earlier this evening, I happened upon it playing on Comedy Central – and was shocked to find myself watching as Hanks lifted an injured Hooch out of the back of his car and rushed him into vet Mare Winningham’s office. Imagine my horror as the camera revealed a deep, bloody wound in Hooch’s chest! It looked like a gunshot – had the butt of so many Hollywood jokes actually taken a bullet for his A-list partner? As the vet tried to stabilize him and Hanks’ character stroked his head and reassured him he would be going home, the jowly co-star looked up at them with wet, sad eyes, which eventually closed. Winningham pronounced Hooch dead, Hanks broke down…and I shrieked “No!” in disbelief. What kind of sick, demented people end a man’s best friend comedy with the best friend in question going into rigor mortis? Even out of context, this is easily the most sadistic plot twist imaginable. Even Haley Joel Osment’s death in Pay It Forward makes more sense.
Why? Because I would go out tonight, but I haven’t got a stitch to wear.
Because I went to London and died.
Because the life I’ve had could make a good man turn bad.
Because I want to catch something that I might be ashamed of.
Because pretty girls make graves.
Because heaven knows I’m miserable now.
Because if it’s not love, then it’s the bomb that will bring us together.
Because that joke isn’t funny anymore.
Because now I know how Joan of Arc felt.
Because I was bored before I even began.
Because you must stay on your own for slightly longer.
Because she could have been a poet or she could have been a fool.
Because there is a light that never goes out.
And you could meet somebody who really loves you.
Happy birthday to me!
I know I don’t have to tell you why the game show classic “Match Game” is something whose like we will sadly never see again…but just like Jesus, it needs to be given its due at least twice a year. One of this weekend’s reruns on Game Show Network gives us the perfect opportunity by combining the usual display of C-list celebrity smarminess with bona-fide performance art. The highlights include:
Gary Burghoff, in wide lapels and out of his trademark “Radar” specs, clowning around with his fellow panel members – truly painful to watch. Gary, no one has ever or will ever care about you as a person. Will someone go back in time and inform him?
Charles Nelson Reilly (a.k.a. my personal savior) wearing a T-shirt with glitter letters spelling out “AGITA”. Later holding up a response card to alert the show’s producers to the fact that a comedy bit they had forced the panel to attempt had tanked: “It didn’t work AT ALL!”
That set: it’s not just me, right? It does look like a Confederate flag…?