'We Are the World' at 30: Stars Will Never Be That Earnest Again
In praise of dated musical ego-checking
In the late-night hours of January 28, 1985, Quincy Jones ushered some of the world's most famous pop stars into the A&M Studios in Los Angeles. Among them were Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Billy Joel, Diana Ross, Cyndi Lauper, Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen, Smokey Robinson, and Kenny Rogers. The stars—46 of them in all, many of them at the height of their careers—were greeted with a sign: "Check your egos at the door."
This was both impossible and appropriate. The vocalists—an ad-hoc supergroup that would come to be known, pragmatically, as "USA for Africa"—were there to record, over the course of a long night, a song that was written for them by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, inspired by Harry Belafonte, and produced, in part, by Jones. It was to be a charity drive in musical form. Proceeds from the song's sales, the idea went, would go toward alleviating a famine in Ethiopia. It was a song that was also an idea: "We Are the World."
The result of the stars' efforts that evening was a treacly pop confection released 30 years ago this week; slight in melody but heavy in joy, designed to glorify its singers and its listeners at the same time. In terms of self-satisfaction it fell somewhere on the continuum between "Do They Know It's Christmas" (also recorded to benefit the Ethiopian famine, and a direct antecedent to "We Are the World") and Michael Jackson's 1991 follow-up, "Heal the World." Despite all that, and probably because of it, "We Are the World" was amazingly successful as a commercial project. Released thirty years ago, in early March of 1985, the song became the fastest-selling American pop single in history; it topped music charts worldwide; it was the first single ever to be certified multiplatinum.
It also, however, managed to do what Jones, via his sign, had asked: It checked its stars' egos. The singers shared the song's lyrics, each taking a line or two. They had their moment to solo—and, whoa, solo many of them did—but then faded back into the ensemble. And they seemed genuinely glad to be in it together. In that studio that night in 1985, clad in jeans and sweatshirts, there was no star among the stars. They were all serving as backup singers to a purpose that, their song declared, was greater than they were.
"We Are the World" spawned some epic jokes; it also gave rise to a sequel following the Haiti earthquake of 2010.
But, thirty years later, what still stands out about that original recording is how unique it is—in terms of its lack of irony, in terms of its "look what we're doing, guys!" self-congratulation. The 2010 version of the song replicated the celebrity-togetherness aspect of "We Are the World"; it did not, however, capture the celebrities' own apparent glee at being in that room, singing their hearts out together. It didn't capture all that sticky-sweet—but affecting—joy. "We Are the World," the 1985 version, may be full of keyboard riffs and indoor sunglasses and fluorescent shirts and frizz-perms and man-mullets; the most dated thing about it, though, might be its embrace of the idea that celebrities can come together and form, with little ego but a lot of earnestness, a "we."