USA for Africa – We Are The World

First Hit #1: April 13, 1985

The UK invented the charity supergroup with Band Aid. The idea was simple, get all the famous people you can find them, bring them together in a recording studio, and record an uplifting song about helping people. Mind you, Band Aid’s song is terrible. Do they Know It’s Christmas? is incredibly patronizing and oddly ignorant of the culture of the people they’re helping – they neither know nor care that it’s Christmas, it’s not a cultural touchstone in Africa to the same level as it is in Europe and North America. It also had Bono shouting “Thank god it’s them instead of you,” which is not classy.

USA for Africa instead had Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson get together for their big charity moment. Richie and Jackson, as it turns out, are quite good at making a vague uplifting song. While the earlier song tried to guilt one into donating to the cause, here’s a song that takes a much more optimistic tone. It encourages charity donation just because we can and if we do it we’re great. It’s relentlessly positive, which is a good tactic when you do this kind of thing. It does derive a lot of its power from having a big choir with every famous person in America singing on it, but it serves its purpose well, and it did give a bit of a theme song to a charity movement of the time. It’s not timeless, but it’s not supposed to be, it’s very much of the moment, and I can’t be too mean to it just because it was for a good cause, it brought a whole pile of recognizable faces into one room and unlike Do they Know It’s Christmas, it’s not actively stupid.

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3 Responses to USA for Africa – We Are The World

  1. RBerman says:

    I just watched a documentary on Irish music, in which Bono confessed that he hated singing that line, but his shamrock compatriot Bob had all the other soloists record their lines first and then leave the studio, so Bono got the short end of the stick and soldiered through his assigned line rather than leave the recording unreleasable. “Think of the children” is a much better selling point than “You should feel guilty.” USA For Africa’s song does have its own lyrical gaffe, however. God never turned stones to bread. That was an idea of Satan. (

    Musically, it’s a typical ballad for the first several minutes, with all your favorite mid 80s stars trading lines. Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, then…. nine choruses at the end, with a key modulation between #2 and #3. That’s a whole lot of chorus. Stevie Wonder and Bruce Springsteen get to duet on two in a row (#5 and #6). Ray Charles gets all of one and half of two others. You might have thought all the repetition would have bored the listening public quickly, but despite the song’s seven minute length, it was played on the radio over and over, and the music video aired tirelessly on MTV. The audacious all-star novelty of the whole thing, as well as the general air of bonhomie and good-doing, won the hearts of 20 million buyers and set the stage for the historic Live Aid concert event that summer.

    It also set the stage for a ribbing charity single parody by Weird Al twenty years later:

  2. RBerman says:

    Bob = Bob Geldoff of the punkish band Boomtown Rats, who put together both Band Aid and Live Aid.

  3. Pingback: Michael Jackson – Black or White | We Are Number Ones

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