Positive Cynicism – We are the fail

Aaron Davis

Aaron R. Davis

I was nine years old when the USA for Africa charity released “We Are the World.” And while I’ll be the first to admit it’s not exactly a classic song, I do have a soft spot for it. It had a big impact; maybe not necessarily on Africa (be honest, it’s been 25 years), but on me and the other third graders in my fairly affluent, mostly white suburban neighborhood. We were little kids; when our teachers actually turned on the making-of video for us to watch, we were more easily wowed by silly things.

And let’s face it: “We Are the World” is kind of silly. That’s the real reason for its staying power. It’s so overly earnest and full of cheese that it is Profoundly Silly. And even though it has stayed in my life mainly to play the “Whose Voice Is That?” game with people, it was, after all, written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, so it least it has a good sound. Those guys knew how to write a pop song.

Well, Quincy Jones and Lionel Richie have reunited for the 25th anniversary of the song to record it once again, with new music stars, to benefit the victims of the destructive Haiti earthquake. I can’t miss a pop culture event like this, so join me now as I watch the cumbersomely-named “We Are the World 25 for Haiti.” (The video is here on YouTube for anyone who wants to follow along.)

0:01 – Oh, great. This version really needs an introduction by Jaime Foxx to put it in perspective?

0:21 – “Video directed by Oscar-winning director Paul Haggis.” If you, like me, think that Crash was the worst film of the 2000s so far, this is not a good sign. Haggis is a little too earnest; he likes to pour on the obvious and pretend it’s sincerity. The original “We Are the World” is silly, but at least it’s sincere.

1:06 – The music finally starts.

1:22 – Wow, this is already overproduced.

1:30 – Ha ha ha ha ha ha! Seriously?! Justin Beiber gets the first verse? Is this a joke?! I barely even know what this kid is—this is the first time I’ve heard him sing, and I am immediately disappointed in the entire music-buying teenage population. This kid looks like he’s eight years old and sounds like he’s four. I don’t think I can take this video seriously when they start it off with this painfully faux-sincere, baby-faced, chipmunk-voiced ladyboy.

1:42 – Jennifer Hudson. Finally, a singer with a real voice. Too bad Nicole Scherzinger is buried so deep in the mix; she can actually sing, too. (After all, she’s the voice of every Pussycat Doll. True fact.)

1:48 – Who is this idiot? (Checks Wikipedia.) Okay, her name is Jennifer Nettles and she’s the lead singer of something called Sugarland. Wow, she is really, truly irritating to look at. Her theatrical “I’m singing” faces are distractingly smug.

1:57 – Wow, I really forgot how much I hate Josh Groban’s voice. He’s got a loud, deep voice, but vocally he’s flatter than day-old beer. And yet, he’s over-singing it …

2:05 – Tony Bennett? Feels like they’re trotting out the token old guy to try and legitimize this thing.

2:09 – Mary J. Blige, full of herself as always.

2:22 – Okay, they left in Michael Jackson? Not only his vocals, but the scene from the original video. I’m actually offended by that. I guess you could almost — almost — justify that by pointing out that he co-wrote the original song, but I don’t see the song’s other co-writer, Lionel Richie, inserting himself in here. He had the grace to step aside, and they gave his part to Justin Bieber Fraggle.

This is so disrespectful, not only to the singers who have been left out of the new version from the original, but to the very people this song is supposed to help. I mean, I thought this was supposed to benefit Haiti in some way, but apparently it’s been hijacked by yet another inappropriate tribute to Michael Jackson. Seriously, guys, he’s not getting any deader. You can scale it back and stop deifying him now.

2:26 – Oh, and footage of the still very much dead Michael Jackson has been joined in a duet by Janet Jackson, Natalie Cole-style. Because that’s not remotely ghoulish, right?

2:33 – Barbra Streisand? Really? She’s back to inserting herself into liberal causes to make herself look good now? There’s a distastefully self-congratulatory tone settling over this entire enterprise.

2:48 – The inevitable Miley Cyrus contribution. Well, at least she doesn’t give the camera that phony “I’m caring” look that I’ve been seeing a lot of for the last couple of minutes.

3:00 – Enrique Iglesias? Is he still haunting the music industry? Why?

3:09 – Ugh, Jaime Foxx! I am so sick of this man and his slick attitude. Why does this man have a music career? And, really, the term “music” only loosely applies to what he records, but still, why is this happening?

3:15 – Ah, there’s Wyclef Jean. He’s been receiving a lot of criticism for this video, which is kind of weird to me. I mean, sure, his vocal trill does seem sort of out of place, but everything so far has already been such a vocal train wreck that I’m not sure what would really seem in place here. (Seriously, the voices aren’t blending well here. Everyone’s too affected.)

The main criticism of Wyclef Jean appears to be that he’s screaming out the words in this weird language. That “weird language” is Haitian Creole, and Wyclef Jean is Haitian-American, so … gee, so far this is the only truly sincere part of this song. Nice that “We Are the World 25 for Haiti” could take a second away from the apotheosis of Michael Jackson and patting themselves on the back for their caring in order to focus on Haitians.

3:25 – Adam Levine from Maroon 5. Whatever.

3:31 – Pink looks very caught up in herself. But, you know, she is Pink, and being caught up in herself is her whole performance. (Suggested title if there’s ever a greatest hits collection for Pink: Waaaaaah!!)

3:35 – BeBe Winans is still around? Man, he can sing.

3:41 – Sigh … Michael Jackson again. Still insulting.

3:50 – Sorry, Usher, but you’re no Huey Lewis.

3:54 – The inevitable Celine Dion contribution. They gave her the Cyndi Lauper part. Celine Dion sounds weak in comparison; LOUD, but weak. Lauper has a much better vocal range.

4:05 – Fergie. Whatevs.

4:17 – Holy shit, Gladys Knight is in the chorus! Why doesn’t she have a verse? Because she’s not under 30? She could sing rings around Fergie or Pink; why are they shoving aside the talent they’ve got in the room here?

4:20 – Was that Nick Jonas shouting for a second? It whipped away from him so quick I couldn’t even understand his line.

4:32 – Holy crap, that’s Brian fucking Wilson in the chorus! BRIAN! WILSON! And he’s stuck away in the chorus? Brian Wilson is a better singer than anyone else whose voice we’ve heard so far, and you have him buried down in the chorus? Are you kidding me?! This is … this is just so wrong!

4:43 – Who’s the baldie? (Checks Wikipedia again.) The lead singer from the Fray? What the fuck is the Fray? (Checks Wikipedia yet again.) Oh, they did “How to Save a Life”? So, they’re basically like the crappy, bland, AOR version of Ben Folds?

4:48 – I am incapable of understanding the popularity of Lil’ Wayne. Remember when rappers used to be able to actually stay on beat? Now they just ramble atonally. Come on, man, even beatniks tried to make the spoken word rhythmic. You’re just being lazy.

5:08 – I see Ann and Nancy Wilson from Heart being incredibly underused in the chorus, too. What a sad state of affairs this is.

Seriously, am I just filtering this through having been a kid at the time, or were there actual, for-real music stars in the original version? Sure, in 1985 you could call new singers like Huey Lewis and Cyndi Lauper flavors of the month, but the original also had career stars with real longevity like Lionel Richie, Bruce Springsteen, Diana Ross, Paul Simon, Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan … people who were into the second or even third decade of illustrious, creative careers as musicians. Even for me as a nine-year-old, this felt like the entire music industry. I knew who all of those people were; these were people who made “We Are the World” seem serious. They were established.

Are these Fergies and Pinks and Adam Levines really the biggest stars the music industry has to offer now? The best singer in this video is Michael Jackson from a quarter-century ago. This is like some kind of messed-up Kidz Bop version of “We Are the World.” I’m waiting for Fred Figglehorn and the Naked Brothers Band to show up right about now. This’ll play great on Nickelodeon.

5:21 – Akon is screaming into vocoder software, but they can’t let Brian Wilson sing? Die, everyone involved with this, just die.

5:23 – “Come on now, let me hear ya!” Shut the fuck up, Fergie.

5:28 – T-Pain, also shouting into a vocoder. Can’t anyone sing anymore? Actually, sure. You know who can sing? Brian Wilson.

5:31 – Jeff Bridges in the chorus. That’s pretty cool. Look, kids, there’s a real star.

5:41 – Wait, did they leave the Ray Charles part in?

5:48 – Oh, no, it’s just Jaime Foxx doing an impression of Ray Charles. See, folks, this is what I’m talking about here. Almost everyone here seems so self-important. The original was naïve, sure, but at least people seemed to believe they were really doing something to help hunger in Africa. And they were doing it by contributing their time and talent to something that could make money for a charity, which I respect, because I’m sick of seeing people like Sean Penn and Bono trying to insert themselves into the role of activist-prophets while really giving up nothing and contributing even less. But this new version, even with the same people at the helm, is so self-congratulatory I feel like I need to take a shower. I’m not watching people who care. I’m watching a massive publicity stunt; a commercial designed to advertise how much these people want to appear to care about others.

This is the horror of “We Are the World 25 for Haiti” in a nutshell. It’s full of moments that say “I’m incredibly funny and clever, look at me” instead of, you know, “Haiti really needs help right now.”

5:50 – Seriously, Jaime Foxx knows that he’s not Ray Charles, right? Right?

5:52 – Wait, there’s a rap break here? Seriously, a rap break? Wow, that just kills it. It just seems like filler to shoehorn in guys like William (I refuse to call him “will.i.am”) and Snoop Dogg and Swizz Beatz, whatever the hell that is. (Although, I admit, I do like seeing LL Cool J rapping again.)

6:30 – The rap lyrics are imbecilic and simplistic. According to Wikipedia, those were written by William, which makes sense. Much like the video’s director, Paul Haggis, William also likes to make thuddingly obvious, clichéd points and pretend they’re very sincere and heartfelt. This has all the depth of a Hallmark knockoff or a Lifetime movie. It’s all about how awesome America is because Americans will record a charity single and think it genuinely solves problems like world hunger and disaster relief. Oh, America, aren’t you just wonderful? Especially your rapper population?

6:43 – There’s the other Jonas Brothers, Thing 1 and Thing 2.

6:45 – Jennifer Hudson almost seems genuinely sincere, but I’m not giving her a pass for laughing at Jaime Foxx’s Ray Charles moment.

6:56 – Vince Vaughn in the chorus. Damn, he really is that tall, isn’t he? It’s like him, Jason Segel, and Sasquatch for the starting lineup.

6:58 – And there’s the inevitable appearance of Kanye the Self-Anointed, because nothing self-important really happens in pop culture without the blessed presence of the divine one. Of course this leads up to Kanye. It’s so appropriate: this is the most self-important thing ever. I feel so terrible for Haiti that they were devastated by an earthquake and everyone in this recording studio gets to live.

7:27 – Yes, Kanye and William, thank you for putting this into perspective for us by name-checking Katrina, Africa, and Indonesia. Otherwise, we might not know this was an emergency. I’m starting to wonder why Kanye and William, with their divine powers of self-importance, didn’t just stop the earthquake from happening with the godlike control they think they wield.

7:58 – Seriously, people have a problem with Wyclef Jean here? Because his presence and his Creole vocals are the only real acknowledgment that this was supposed to be about Haiti and not about the music industry.

I need to rinse my ears out from this ridiculousness.

The whole thing was a joke. And I wasn’t expecting anything good to come from this, but I am disappointed in two people whose talent I’ve never denied: Lionel Richie and Quincy Jones. They both have so much more taste and more commercial instinct and more sheer talent than to come up with this slapdash, ramshackle, crumbling structure. Maybe if they’d written something new it would’ve come off better; simply covering the original “We Are the World” seems pretty crass in itself. I think of other charity songs like “Sun City” or “Voices That Care” or “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” or Disney’s recent “Send It On” and, well, let’s face it, none of them are great songs, but they were all written for specific moments in time. There was at least something genuine and caring about them in the smallest, most fundamental way. Simply trotting “We Are the World” back out just isn’t good enough, is it?

But at least the people involved in this can feel a little better about themselves as they ride their limousines home to their mansions and celebrate their humanitarianism with a bottle of champagne. And isn’t that what this is really all about?

Aaron R. Davis lives in a cave at the bottom of the ocean with his eyes shut tight and his fingers in his ears. You can contact him at samuraifrog@yahoo.com.

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Comments(5)
  1. Darius Whiteplume February 16, 2010
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  3. MC February 16, 2010
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