we are the world (again)

February 8, 2010

In 1985, over 100 of the biggest celebrities at the time gathered at A & M Studios in Hollywood to record the epic philanthropic plea, “We are the World.” With hopes of raising aid for famine relief in Africa, the actors, musicians and pop stars–who coalesced to become the hyperbolically named supergroup USA for Africa–belted out the now-classic song (who could forget Eddie Murphy’s solo–given to him on the eve of “Party All The Time“?) over several recording sessions, with the results being released on both 7” and 12” vinyl.

The song (surprisingly, I’m sure) became a multi-platinum international success and still stands as one of the fastest-selling American pop singles of all time. It topped charts across disparate genres and enthralled music-listeners who had never seen such a diverse display of talent.

“We Are The World” came about in a crucial time in media expansion and its instant success is proof of its placement at these crossroads. Without MTV popularizing visual aspects of music and helping expand the idea of the musician as an ever-present celebrity, a music video for a well-meaning but cheesy charity song would never have had access to the audience it reached. In the 70s, playing concerts was the main way bands shared their image, but in the 80s, cable television gave music a less temporal agency, allowing the world to see what was ordinarily reserved for in-person interaction. Celebrity culture obviously existed prior to the 80s, but there was definitely an explosion during this time. This explosion helped make USA for Africa a recognizable entity and translated the combined popularity of its singers into record sales of over 7.5 million in America alone. Because of this type of emerging media in the mid 1980s, figures in entertainment became more marketable and their influence on public action was only beginning to be tapped.

Twenty-five years and a technological revolution later, another motley group of celebrities entered the very same studio in Hollywood, attempting to recreate the success of the original “We are the World” to help those suffering after the earthquake in Haiti. Recorded last Monday–to catch all the artists in town for the Grammys–the remake will serve the same purpose of its groundbreaking predecessor, but can another self-aggrandizing charity song recorded by a bunch of modern day quasi-celebrities top the charity donation (50 million bucks) of its first attempt? Although new technologies have brought easy-access entertainment to nearly every aspect of our lives, the effects of this on sales of a digital single might be more harmful than good. And if the recent British attempts at large-scale dowloadable charity singles are any indication, Haiti will be getting less help than Africa did 25 years ago.

In 2004, when USA for Africa‘s British counterpart Band Aid re-recorded its 1984 hit “Do They Know It‘s Christmas?” for Sudan‘s troubled Darfur region, it ran into several snags. First, iTunes’ fixed song-price was not enough to raise the kind of money brought in by sales of CDs or vinyl. But even when the song cost stayed low—and Apple agreed to donate the price difference incurred by their strict policy–the song only netted several hundred thousand dollars in its first week of sales. Whether this sales slump was caused by the relatively low number of people set up for digital downloading or information overload desensitizing the public to action, consider this. Even though the power of legal music purchasing has become cheaper and more appealing in the last five years, last week’s release of the Simon Cowell-organized charity cover of R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” still has yet to top half-a-million downloads.

It seems logical that instead of waiting for vinyl to be designed, pressed and shipped to record stores (or worrying about those stores running out), this 2010 rehash’s utilization of digital downloading would translate into more sales, but even with the further expansion of celebrity worship (which played a role in the success of the original “We Are the World”) and Twitter-speed communication networks–through which quick word-of-mouth promotion can happen–this new media landscape might in fact make it harder for people to wade through the information and be inspired to raise the money needed to help Haiti.

So although another star-studded anthem is the entertainment industry’s only logical contribution to the Haitian relief efforts, we will see in the coming weeks whether or not the information inundation of the post-postmodern age has created apathy too strong to inspire leftover humanitarians with iTunes accounts.

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