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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.