Once I believed that we were the world … not anymore
On Jan. 28, 1985, 45 musicians gathered for an all-night recording session. The result was “We Are the World,” a song designed to raise funds for famine relief in Africa.
Rolling Stone called the effort “a group of the richest, most spoiled and safest human beings on the planet … (working) to try to feed another group of human beings, a group that has been ravaged, humiliated and imperiled.”
To me, the Lionel Ritchie/Michael Jackson-penned song was a total shift in consciousness. And I’m not just talking about seeing Harry Belafonte alongside Tito Jackson, Cyndi Lauper sharing a mic with Paul Simon and Bruce Springsteen hangin’ out with Bette Midler. (Although seeing Huey Lewis even near the same stage as Smokey Robinson was like a trip to Bizarro-land.)
“We Are the World” was the first time I realized not everybody carries the backpack of privilege I was born with. Not everybody resides in a brick home. Not everybody has a pretty pink bike. Not everybody has the luxury of grumbling about meatloaf.
Though my family wasn’t wealthy, the hungry, bloated bellies on TV made my lifestyle seem downright Epicurean. It was a startling lesson, one that made me sick.
Apparently I wasn’t the only one who took notice. The catchy USA for Africa tune raised more than $61 million for charity.
Also, in November 1984, another music-as-politics song was released. Written by Bob Geldof, “Do They Know it’s Christmas?” sold 50 million copies, raising thousands of dollars for devastated people in Ethiopia.
The two benefits spawned the child, Live Aid, the concert that raised about $92 million for relief in summer 1985.
A domestic effort was made on May 25, 1986, “Hands Across America,” when millions of Americans joined hands in a line stretching more than 4,000 miles from coast to coast. There was a song to promote that one, a weak endeavor from B-list stars called “Voices of America.”
Yet another charity event started as an idea at the Live Aid concert when Bob Dylan said to the audience, “Wouldn’t it be great if we did something for our own farmers right here in America?” Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp agreed. Farm Aid was put together in six weeks and was held in September 1985, raising more than $7 million for America’s family farmers.
Around that time, psychic friend Dionne Warwick gathered Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder and Elton John to record “That’s What Friends Are For,” a benefit for AIDS research.
Don’t forget Latin Aid and AIDS Aid either.
Is it any wonder I once believed a song could change the world?
The process seemed fairly simple: Seek out a social injustice, write a song and create global awareness. The heartstrings of generous people would be tugged, wallets emptied and famines cured.
And then, somewhere along the way, the music stopped.
Benefit concerts that crossed community lines and music genres ceased. The need wasn’t lessened, but the support was.
Other concerts didn’t have the same impact as Live Aid. Money raised from post-Sept. 11 benefits didn’t always benefit legitimate charities. The most recent incarnation of the Woodstock music festival, which was supposed to spread peace, love and harmony, resulted in vandalism, wreckage and sexual assaults. And most only attended “Save Tibet” shows to see Mike D. in the hizzouse.
That’s where “We Are the World” eventually taught me another lesson.
It’s something I remember more often at this time of year — each time I toss a few coins into a charity bucket or hand over a few cans for a food pantry. While I’m not disregarding such gestures, I realize the political, economic and social change that has to occur before any real difference is made.
It gets overwhelming at times, particularly in this career, to see the plight, suffering and horror so many people face daily in this world, then to come up with so few answers. I feel so jaded sometimes, realizing “we” really aren’t the world at all.
These are tough lessons for a little girl who once placed all her trust in the hands of Michael Jackson.
I’ve discovered widespread problems, such as famine, are complex issues that necessitate more than a simple song to solve. The global community requires more than a Band Aid to heal. And I realized one person really can’t solve it all.
Not even Boy George.