THERE COMES A TIME when a we need a certain call, a seductive vet calculated earnestness amidst the normal audible drivel of AM car radios that can only be the product of supposedly good intentions meeting high-powered marketing.
USA for Africa, an assemblage of America's highest power pop music talent modeled upon England's successful Band Aid, is singing for the suppers of millions of starving Ethiopians. From an album that went gold in one day, more than two dozen of America's best known voices inform America that
We are the World
We are the children
We can make the world a better place
So let's start giving
This profound expression of universal brotherhood was penned by two men who combine the all American integrity of Wayne Newton with the political sophistication of Pia Zadora: Michael Jackson and Fionel Richie. Instigated by Band Aid organizer (and Boomtown Rats packleader) Bob Geldorf and produced by Quincy Jones, USA for Africa has more celebs per square inch than the Grammys. Recorded in a session inscribed upon destiny by Life magazine and a video crew, the song is lumped on old vinyl with a Canadian cousin ("Tears Are Not Enough") and some outtakes of other artists.
Human beings are rarely more nauseating than when they play the do-gooder and know it. The tight lipped evil of a monocled Erie Stroherm snapping his swagger stick has nothing on the gagging scale to the beatific smiles found on any evangelical show, their lips drooling the milk of human kindness. The only reason that the prototypical single of the Band band-wagon ("Do They Know It's Christmas") could be stomached was that it got no higher on the saccharinemeter than the usual sappy Christmas season pieties that inundate America's speakers after Thanksgiving. Radio stations had enough good taste to erase that song from their playlists after December 26th, and the whole affair was little more than another pimple in the annual acne attack of merchandised sentiment.
I'M AS MUCH for international goodwill as the next buy, but is every school child knows, the ends do not necessarily justify the means. When a fanatic buys 215 copies of "We are the World," is he trying to help out the Ethiopians, or merely indulging in massive star adulation through bad music? The most frequent reaction I have encountered to the project has not been "What an amazing song," or "How great for the starving Ethiopians," but "How neat to see Bob Dylan rub shoulders with Bruce Springsteen." In the Life magazine article, the video, and even the album cover, not one picture of the Ethiopians appears. Instead, the whole affair is being sold as a sort of charity ball of musical megatonnage in the interest of "...saving out lives It's true, just you and me."
Of course, musicians like Jackson, Jones, and Richie know their audience, saddling the project with pictures of those bloated bellies and crying faces would destroy sales, not encourage them, and the ostensible point of the venture is to raise money, not consciousness. But the Jacksons alone could have bankrolled the whole Ethiopian relief effort (Michael's earnings last year were $40 million plus), and for every $7.00 of the cover price that goes to feed the hungry, $3.00 of valuable vinyl and paper gets sucked down the drain.
Note that verb: sucked. It describes nearly every aspect of the project. The song, The video, The event, Even if Jones did post a sign declaring "Check your egos," this whole affair is little more than a concerted media suck-up to glitterati public images, and of one singer's ceiling mirror image in particular.
Which once supremely popular but now overshadowed rock star, having lain low after his much balleyhooed concert tour proved to be the anticlimax of the decade, has been taking a front row in every picture of the USA for Africa team? Yup, Jchovah's own falsetto, Mr. Michael Jackson. After the greed orgy that surrounded the Victory tour--what was soon supplanted in the public's attention by the musically superior (and considerably cheaper) Prince and Springsteen tours--Jackson was in serious need of reputation rehabilitation.
Voila the Ethiopian famine, the perfect opportunity for Jackson 14 reapply himself to the cover of Time Life's magazines. Though aided by half songster Richie (who would write a ukelele concerto if he thought it would sell.) Jackson has overshadowed everybody else's contribution Prince's no-show was a blessing in purple disguise.
THE PRESS HAS FOUND every bit of this self-congratulatory swill mm-mm good to the last drop. The most interesting event at the recording session, when Geldorf called Prince "a creep" in his absence, appeared only once in the press accounts. Most of the singers spent their non singing time getting each other's autographs and forming mutual admiration societies. By all accounts, what was supposedly one of the most touching artistic occasions in pop music history was little more than a Hollywood party without coke.
Granted, all that glowing media attention does sell more records, and therefore save more lives, but only by lowering life-saving charity to the level of Girl Scouts. While it is true that the American public displayed its usual apathy to the crisis until NBC news ran some footage of dying Africans, at least the people were moved by real emotions of horror, pity, and even guilt USA for Africa peddles the feel-good approach to humanitarianism, turning an act of human concern into the moral equivalent of mouthwash.
Every Labor Day the demigod of bad taste, Jerry Lewis, holds his famous telethon for muscular dystrophy. Every year this mawkish tribute to human misery makes money. But though Lewis is cheesy, he is still trying to reach some lowest common denominator of kindness. Without a reputation to enhance (except in France) and lacking the really big talents that would bring Nielsen points by their very presence. Lewis has to rely on a barrage of sympathy-grabbing images to make people even a little concerned. USA for Africa does the exact opposite, attempting to emotionally shield people from the problem while taking credit for solving it. And while a starving African might not care who paid his food bill, for a performers to entice money out of rabid fans and then allow the media to place a halo over has head nicely fits the definition of a rock 'n' roll slimeball.