"We Are The World": When Michael Jackson Got Political

“We Are The World”: When Michael Jackson Got Political

by Mike Barthel

Part of a series on collaborations that we now take for granted but initially made little sense.

In November of 1984, Band Aid, an impromptu UK super-group organized by former Boomtown Rat Bob Geldof and pop mercenary Midge Ure, released “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” The charity single, intended to aid the famine in Ethiopia, sold 3.5 million copies, making it the biggest-selling UK single until “Candle in the Wind ‘97.” The song’s massive success showed that there were sound commercial reasons for marrying pop music to charity causes, a now-familiar union. In this, it preceded, but was ultimately eclipsed by, the American iteration: USA for Africa’s “We Are the World.” Recorded in January of 1985, the single sold 20 million copies worldwide, a pop phenomenon on a scale unthinkable today. As a song, “We Are The World” is difficult to defend. But as a cultural event it has almost certainly been undervalued, its treacly melody and trite lyrics obscuring any lessons we might learn from it. Pop and politics are in constant conversation, but what happens when they actively collaborate? Who wins, and who loses? And are pop’s intrusions into the political realm always regrettable — or can pop culture accomplish things traditional politics simply can’t?

“We Are the World” is one of those things that looks great on paper. Consider the personnel: Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Willie Nelson, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Bruce Springsteen, Smokey Robinson, Bette Midler, Waylon Jennings, Tina Turner, Lindsey Buckingham, Hall & Oates, dot dot dot, Dan Ackroyd. This lineup outshone even the one assembled in the UK for “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” which sported a few enduring stars (Paul McCartney, David Bowie, Sting) but consisted primarily of the full lineup of synthpop groups of varying quality (Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Bananarama). And the above-named luminaries merely made up USA for Africa’s chorus. The group’s principals were some of the biggest stars on the planet: Lionel Richie, Quincy Jones and the man in the glass booth himself, Michael Jackson.

The mega-ness of Michael Jackson in 1985 is hard to overstate. On his way to being crowned the King of Pop, Jackson was much more than just a pop star; he was America’s kindler and gentler, moonwalking ambassador to the world, a secular religious figure in the making. Jackson’s clout was what made it possible for pop and politics to come together and collaborate. Moreover, his involvement in USA for Africa helped shield the project from charges of self-interest. The major criticism of charity singles was that they weren’t about charity at all — see Chumbawamba’s “How to Get Your Band on Television” from their album-length riposte to Band Aid, Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records. But such a criticism was hard to level at USA for Africa. In 1985, after all, Michael Jackson was in no need of publicity. Sitting between Thriller and Bad, and only seven months after being personally handed an (in retrospect, regrettable) award from the President of the United States, it’s hard to think of any way he could have made his public image more glowingly positive than it already was.

It’s worth considering the possibility that he and all the other artists involved (well, most of them) really just did it because they wanted to help people. Jackson seemed genuinely stricken by, and concerned about, the famine in Ethiopia, and for all intents and purposes, he became a political activist on the matter. That neither he nor almost any of the other artists involved (Senator Kenny Loggins, Secretary Tito Jackson) are recalled primarily as political figures today is a reflection of the legacy of “We Are The World.” As a political action, it was mostly a failure. But as a pop event, it was a resounding success. The former should not overshadow the latter. Pop does something for us that politics simply can’t. It provides that feeling of unity, of togetherness that must ultimately precede any political action. And even if Michael Jackson couldn’t give that to Africa, he most certainly gave it to the United States.

You may recall George W. Bush’s post-reelection declaration that “I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and I intend to spend it.” Putting together “We Are the World” was Jackson spending the artistic capital he’d accrued over the three years between Thriller the album, “Thriller” the video, and that first moonwalk on “Motown 25.” Taken together, these achievements granted Jackson a functional authority, and he used the credibility he’d built up to vouchsafe the otherwise-questionable enterprise of gathering together artists from a bunch of genres and singing a song about African poverty.

As recounted in the documentary We Are the World: The Story Behind the Song and a 1985 LA Times article by Robert Hilburn, the work proceeded in much the same way a Congressional negotiation might: phone calls were made; the particular preferences of individual representatives were considered; favors were called in through a network of power and influence. It was Harry Belafonte, a longtime activist, who, following the success of Band Aid, conceived the idea and used his connections to pull something together. Belafonte brought in an artist manager named Ken Kragen, who recruited two of his clients (Richie and Kenny Rogers). Once Jackson expressed interest, his influence radiated outward and star after star signed on. When the American Music Awards brought everyone to Los Angeles, in January of 1985, the rest came together.

Though the level of talent present was good news for the cause, it caused a lot of worry for the organizers, who had to keep the project’s details under wraps (in contrast to Geldof, who had made the recording of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” a media event in the UK). Said Kragen: “The single most damaging piece of information is where we’re doing this. If that shows up anywhere, we’ve got a chaotic situation that could totally destroy the project. The moment a Prince, a Michael Jackson, a Bob Dylan — I guarantee you! — drives up and sees a mob around that studio, he will never come in.” Quincy Jones, Jackson, and the rest of the production team prepped carefully, determining the pair-up of soloists in advance and sending off demos with the admonition to “check all egos at the front door of the studio.” As Hilburn reported, “When the soloists began arriving at the studio around 10 p.m., they found their names written on pieces of tape on the floor.”

The team also flew Geldof over to lend the project a sense of continuity with “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and highlight the importance of the cause. Geldof said he “was pissed off” that he “had to call them in the first place. After they heard what we did with Band Aid, they should have been calling me. I don’t care what they had to do, even if it meant canceling shows. Lives are at stake.” This annoyance, however, didn’t stop the organizers from using him strategically; the session started with “a moving talk by Geldof, who had just returned from a visit to Ethiopia and reported on the suffering there.” Sufficiently chastened, the assembled gentry mostly cooperated.

While the cameras helped to keep egos in check, they also caused problems. According to Hilburn, the first time through the chorus, the men in the group, discovering the key was too high, strained to reach the notes. Given the presence of cameras in the room, this meant that some of the biggest pop stars in the world would be caught on tape singing off-key. Jones had to “diplomatically” suggest the ones having trouble should just not sing for that take. This worked in the moment, but dissent began fomenting during the break. “A few of the men — including Waylon Jennings, Kenny Rogers, Willie Nelson and Bruce Springsteen — retreated to the far side of the room until Jones called for a more manageable register. After Jennings looked over and saw that Nelson, too, had bailed out, the old outlaw pals from Texas broke into laughter.”

Other problems presented themselves but were dealt with diplomatically. As EW reported:

This harmonic convergence nearly fell apart, however, when Stevie Wonder announced the chorus would sing a line in Swahili. Some of the country singers were fit to be tied. Waylon Jennings walked out and didn’t come back. Finally a line in English was used instead. At 4 a.m. two Ethiopian women were escorted into the studio. ‘’Thank you on behalf of everyone from our country,’’ one of them said. Almost everybody wept.

The single and album were successful on a scale that’s hard to fathom today. Twenty million sales of the single worldwide, the fifth highest-selling single of all time and the fastest-selling single in US history. It won four Grammys, two VMAs, and was considered so important that the American Music Awards didn’t even allow it to compete that year. Instead, it was given two honorariums and taken out of the competition. It was inarguably the biggest pop-culture event of 1985, and you can still see its legacy today, if primarily in comedic terms.

As a political action, though, it was less successful. The USA for Africa Foundation did its best, converting donations into a long-term fund. (For some reason, the foundation also flew Belafonte over to Sudan with a planeload of food, medicine and t-shirts.) But the $10 million or so earned from record sales isn’t much compared to the amount needed to stabilize an out-of-control national infrastructure — by way of comparison, Ethiopia received $1.6 billion in foreign aid in 2001. Even taking inflation into account, ten million, while a nice gesture, wasn’t going to be able to accomplish much.

You could say the larger purpose of the project was to raise awareness of the issue. But even in this regard it’s hard to find much to praise. “One hundred years after Africa was divided up by the European colonial powers, the continent is in a state of permanent crisis,” begin the liner notes of the USA for Africa LP, and, while that’s true, it glosses over more recent, and more relevant, history. The crisis in Ethiopia wasn’t just a drought — but a famine, which is to say something caused through human action. Concurrent with the crop failure was a Cold War proxy battle between US-backed rebels and Soviet-backed government forces, a war that consumed a near-majority of the country’s GDP, crippling funding for health care or agricultural planning and making distribution of relief exceedingly difficult. People weren’t just starving because they didn’t have food, in other words. They were starving because the foreign policies of two countries made it very hard for them to have food at all.

And as was pointed out at the time, this was not a problem “We Are the World” seemed interested in addressing. Even worse, the project didn’t just ignore this issue — it actively worked to mask it. Though their political purpose was ostensibly to raise awareness of the larger issues leading to famine in post-colonial countries, USA for Africa’s materials actively diverted attention away from these issues, holding out false hope of what individuals could accomplish. An insert included with the album, for instance, offered various merchandise the home consumer could purchase, and after describing a $21 USA For Africa sweatshirt as “White, longsleeve, 50/50 poly/cotton,” the insert declares: “Your purchase of this item will help feed an African child for almost a month.*”

Note the asterisk. It links to a brief disclaimer: “The net proceeds from your purchase will in fact be used wherever the need is greatest.” This shades the truth. USA for Africa was ultimately uninterested in raising awareness of issues about resource allocation in Ethiopia, foreign policy in America or humanitarian aid worldwide. What they were selling instead was a pop-music model of support. Under such a model, you don’t mess around with proxies, parties or representatives, budgets or planning — none of that. You find the thing you like and support it directly, and by so doing, you allow it to succeed. USA for Africa wanted us to vote for feeding African babies in the same way we voted for Michael Jackson to become King of Pop: with our dollars.

Politics doesn’t work like that. Declaring something to be true does not make it so; desire by itself is insufficient, and simply donating money to feed a starving child is only the first step in a long, unlikely process of getting food to a single child. But you can see why someone like Jackson would want to try. Here is a guy who, through concerted effort, had been able to achieve unthinkable heights of fame; it’s only understandable that he might have thought he could literally do anything that relied on bringing people together. Simplifying, cutting to the moral quick, exuding empathy: these had all worked for him before. Jackson named his charity “Heal the World,” after all. Not “Help the World,” but Heal it, as in fix it completely. It’s like naming something the Committee To Make Everything Perfect Forever. It’s impossible to accomplish the stated purpose, but it’s also hard to argue against.

And that’s precisely why it’s important to keep pop and politics operationally separated. Politics is the gathering and deployment of resources, the process of finding collective ways to solve practical problems. Pop is the collectivization and activation of sentiment, the best way we have in a secular world to inject higher meanings into our daily lives. Both are entirely necessary for our continued existence, but to pursue the purposes of one realm in the other’s space makes for trouble, as when we look to politics to validate our collective identity or to pop culture to show us that YOU CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE in a real-world situation rather than just the world the audience creates for itself. What we can take from the small failure and large success of “We Are the World” is a lesson in why pop culture can be so powerful. It can’t get much done, because it’s bad with material realities. But this limitation is also freeing. In pop culture, a thing’s meaning is whatever we decide it means. And that can be dangerous sometimes, sure. But as a repository for our unquenchable thirst for beauty, for our eternal desire to lie in the light of grace, it’s awfully useful.

Jackson’s kingship is no idly proclaimed title. In his ability to stand for the soul of a nation, to be the head of state, he stood unquestioned, and he achieved this position not through birthright or blood feud but by making music. How strange that is, and how lovely: for a time, America was represented not by some old fart with a crown but by a man who could sing and dance very, very well. It’s easy to stand here and complain about pop’s ineffective forays into feeding the hungry or changing the world. But it seems more useful, to me, to think instead about how pop already does make the world a better place without necessarily trying.

Mike Barthel has a Tumblr.