A friend recommended “The Greatest Night in Pop,” a documentary now airing on Netflix, about the making of the “We Are the World” single in 1985. I took his recommendation, and found his summation fairly accurate: Suffer through the first 30 minutes of showbiz bullshit, and you’ll be rewarded with an hour of watching musical superstars feeling and acting very superstar-y, which is to say, often like spoiled brats and other bad-behaving archetypes.
I have to confess my prejudice up front: “We Are the World” and its predecessor, the “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” single out of the U.K., ushered in an era that got on my nerves, the time of ’80s/’90s feel-good “philanthropy” that required nothing of the philanthropist more taxing than a trip to a record store. Or affixing a particular color of ribbon to your clothing. Or joining hands in some sort of stunt to “raise awareness” of homelessness. And the song was terrible, too; at least the British song had a Christmas-carol sound to it, with all those bells. “We Are the World” was syrupy treacle, made for linking elbows, swaying back and forth and proclaiming not that others were in mortal peril, but that we, the singers, are the ones who… well, let’s just paste the chorus here:
We are the world
We are the children
We are the ones who make a brighter day, so let’s start giving
There’s a choice we’re making
We’re saving our own lives
It’s true we’ll make a better day, just you and me
Beyond a few references to “people dying,” it’s entirely self-congratulatory. Which is to say, it’s got the smell of Michael Jackson all over it. He wrote the lyrics, Lionel Richie the music. And Richie is the one who leads the narrative lookback, although there are other talking heads, too, including Bruce Springsteen, Sheila E., Cyndi Lauper and the most surprisingly amusing of the bunch, Huey Lewis.
The hero of the whole project is Quincy Jones, who had to herd all these cats toward their common goal, and to do so in the course of one marathon overnight session. Part of the showbiz-bullshit portion of the film talks about simple steps toward that goal as though they’re brainstorms unique to the brilliance of Quincy — i.e., to have all the soloists record in a big circle, facing one another, rather than retreating to booths where they can complain quietly and nitpick their performance to death. I guess that was a brainstorm for a field that requires no small amount of diplomacy, but if there’s one thing we know about divas of all kinds, it’s that treating them like normal people will work, at least for a little while. (It’s such a new experience for them.)
There were some amusing moments, as when Stevie Wonder suggested they should sing at least a few lines in Swahili, presumably because Africa. This led to Waylon Jennings walking out, but honestly, I was in full agreement (with Waylon). Then someone pointed out that Ethiopians, the presumptive recipient of this charity project, don’t even speak Swahili anyway.
And there’s always the shock of seeing how many of these famous, or semi-famous faces have had serious work done since 1985. Smokey Robinson’s mug is tight as a drum, and Richie’s lower face looks so plumped with fillers it appears to have become a balcony extending from his forehead. All forgivable, because we all have our vanity.
But I was most surprised by my reaction to Jackson, who is painted, as per usual, as a genius, an icon, a magical sprite who was simply too special and talented for this dirty world. I have a long-standing policy of not confusing artists with their art, but Jackson tests it too much for me to look away, as I do about, say, Miles Davis’ history of abusing women. Jackson was a pedophile, period, which makes all his lyrical references to children deeply creepy. I find it hard to enjoy, or even listen to, most of his catalog today. Sorry.
Also, see above for my feelings about the song he co-wrote.
Worth your time? Sure, if you’re into pop music and remember the era. There’s a lot of sic transit gloria mundi on display — hey, Kim Carnes! — and a few good lines. My fave was Paul Simon’s: “If a bomb falls on this place, John Denver is back on top.”
Finally-finally, I’d really like to know more about where the millions this project raised were spent. Did it go directly to food aid? That’s key, because we tend to gloss over the fact that in the modern world, there is enough food for everyone, even with crop failures, drought and other natural causes. There is more than enough, but getting it to people who need it remains problematic, and the Ethiopian government bears at least some responsibility for what happened. That was another thing I disliked about the project, that it led the rest of the world to believe the solution was as simple as raise money > buy food > give food to starving people. When it absolutely wasn’t, and isn’t.
OK, the weekend is almost here! Back to listening to the SCOTUS hearing on you-know-who and hoping against hope.