‘We Are the World 25’ released, world replies “The hell you are.”
Coinciding with the opening of the Olympics this past weekend, a remake of ‘We Are the World’ was released, with proceeds going towards Haitian relief. It was inevitable, really; in fact a remake had been in the works long before the Haiti earthquake even took place. It was inevitable not just because 2010 marks twenty-five years since the original was released, but because pop culture is constantly chasing its own tail, at an ever-increasing clip. Pretty much every song, movie and television show has been or will be remade, remastered, or, in a new darling term, “rebooted” at some point, even if it wasn’t all that great the first time around. Honestly, I’m surprised it took them this long to do a new version, having fully expected to see one for 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the Indian Ocean tsunami. Disaster has struck somewhere in the world? Let’s sing a song about it!
What I’m not surprised about is that ‘We Are the World 25’ sucks. I mean sucks. It sucks enough that I don’t want to post the video here, because if you haven’t seen it yet I’d like to spare you the horror. It’s practically a parody of self-important, pseudo-celebrities taking a day away from buying $5,000 Vietnamese potbelly pigs and vacationing on private Mediterranean islands to encourage their fans to give to the poor and needy until it hurts. It would be funny if it wasn’t so mind-bendingly awful.
Now, before I go on, let me say that I’m not masturbating over the past or idealizing the original. I was 12 when the first ‘We Are the World’ was released, and, good intentions aside, I thought it was corny claptrap even then (though I wasn’t likely using the word “claptrap” yet). The lyrics were mawkish and seemed to promote charity as a mostly self-serving endeavor, and there was something incongruous about celebrities, many of whom could literally take out their checkbooks and write one for a million dollars, telling working class shlubs that it was up to us to make a brighter day for millions of starving African children. Now, that’s not to say that I’m not a fan of charitable endeavors. I donate quite often to charitable organizations, both my time and my money. Good deeds, helping those in need, yeah, I’m a fan. I just don’t like being told by rich people that I need to be doing more. Also, it was all but impossible to escape, played at least once an hour on MTV for several weeks running and nearly as often on the radio. If you’re older than 30, it’s likely you can do a fair impersonation of either Cyndi Lauper or Bruce Springsteen’s parts, but you will get no joy out of doing it.
What bothered me later was the discovery that, like Band Aid, Live Aid and the particularly ludicrous Hands Across America, despite sales of ‘We Are the World’ raising millions of dollars very little of the proceeds went to the people who actually needed it. Music business red tape and corrupt African governments ate most of it, and it seemed that everyone involved in USA for Africa was t00 busy patting each other on the back and flashing the thumbs up sign to notice. It was a major cultural event during the 80s, that much is true, but it was a major cultural event that accomplished virtually nothing.
Again, it’s not surprising that ‘We Are the World 25’ sucks. There’s no way it couldn’t have sucked. Pretty much any attempt at remaking something that was at best mediocre from the beginning by giving it a “modern,” updated flair is all but guaranteed to screw the pooch–this is how we end up with Alvin and the Chipmunks dressed like street thugs. Originally recorded by 45 music stars, all of whom had long, well-established careers with widespread audience appeal, ‘We Are the World 25’ ups the ante to over 8o performers, many of whom stretch the word “star” to its very limits. A fun party game, as long as you provide earplugs to everyone beforehand, is to watch the video and try to identify the various “stars,” or at least, those who manage to get more than seven seconds or so in front of the camera. Unless the median age of your party guests is 16, you’ll be lucky to be able to name half. Even after looking at a list of the participants, I still don’t know who many of them are: Jennifer Nettles, Orianthi, Mary Mary, Isaac Slade, Iyaz. And those are the soloists, the people I’m supposed to recognize, the chorus is an even bigger who’s who of “who’s that?”, including Ethan Bortnick, Zac Brown, Kristian Bush, Melanie Fiona, Sean Garrett, Taryll Jackson, Jimmy Jean-Louis, Verdine White, someone named Nipsey Hussle, and Julianne Hough. “Who’s Julianne Hough?” you may ask, which is fine, because I asked that too. Turns out she’s on Dancing With the Stars, another Hollywood endeavor that has an interesting notion of the word “star.”
It also features appearances by Justin Bieber, a 14 year-old who sings about lost love and the pain of not being with that special lady even though he’s only 14 and doesn’t know shit about that kind of thing, Miley Cyrus and several people named Jonas. It’s fairly obvious that there was a target audience in mind when the “singers” were collected for ‘We Are the World 25,’ even though that audience doesn’t tend to have their own credit cards to use for purchasing songs from iTunes and donating to charitable organizations online. Us oldsters in the listening audience, those who were around the first time, who do we get to represent our generation? Barbra Streisand, human sleeping pill Josh Groban and the always unwelcome presence of Celine Dion. There is no middle ground, it veers wildly between Nicole Scherzinger, lead singer of the Pussycat Dolls, an entirely manufactured pop group based on a Vegas burlesque show, and Tony Bennett, who looks as baffled and dismayed as those of us watching it.
Those who’ve praised the remake claim it’s an accurate representation of today’s music scene. If that’s the case, then holy shit it’s in worse shape then I thought, because it’s represented here almost entirely by bubblegum pop shipped in from Disney Studios and rap. It’s also been complimented for having a more polished sound than its predecessor. Sure, if by “polished” you mean computers were used to tweak the thin, nasal vocals of people like Miley Cyrus so that they sound somewhere near listenable. If that’s what you mean, then I agree, this shit was more polished than my grandmother’s dining room table. Nevertheless, that, not to mention the unforgivable use of autotune, makes the absence of actual singers with actual talent like Beyonce, Mariah Carey and Christina Aguilera all the more glaring. None of them are my cup of tea music-wise, but one wonders if ‘We Are the World 25’ would have been slightly more bearable if roughly half the participants had been dropped (including Vince Vaughn, what the fuck?) and even just one of them had taken part instead.
The high moment, or low depending on how you look at it, though it’s hard to top the autotuning, Jamie Foxx’s smirking impersonation of Ray Charles, Wyclef Jean’s bizarre caterwauling or Celine Dion’s banshee wails, is the inclusion of Michael Jackson’s performance from the original, complete with a clip from the video. It’s a high moment because he’s one of the few voices on the recording that doesn’t make you want to shove chopsticks deep into your ears, and yet there’s just something undeniably gimmicky about it. It seems to be suggesting “If Michael was alive, he’d have participated in this.” I’m sure he would have, but his appearance in the new video, appropriately faded and lens flared so that he looks like a benevolent, sparkling ghost, is morbidly tacky, like Natalie Cole singing with her long deceased father in her cover of ‘Unforgettable,’ or David Spade appearing in a DirectTV commercial with the late Chris Farley. The fact that that may not necessarily be the worst part of ‘We Are the World 25’ says a whole lot about it.
Still, white people praising something for its “hip hop flavor” will never not be funny. At least they’re not spelling it as “flava.”