We Really Are the World

A subtle lyric change indicates a push for religious pluralism

In his New York Times column last month, Nicholas D. Kristof ’81-’82 argued that there is a rising trend among socially conservative Christians in realizing that “to be ‘pro-life’ must mean more than opposing abortion.” As proof, Kristof cites the prologue of “The Hole in Our Gospel,” a book by the head of the Christian humanitarian organization World Vision, in which the author describes his encounter in Uganda a decade ago with a thirteen-year-old AIDS orphan raising his two younger brothers on his own. “Where were the followers of Jesus Christ?” the author laments. “How have we missed it so tragically, when even rock stars and Hollywood actors seem to understand?”

As last month’s remake of the song “We Are the World” indicates, internationalism is definitely something that rock stars and Hollywood actors comprehend. The original track, written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, was recorded in 1985 by a supergroup of pop artists to benefit famine relief in Africa and became the best-selling single of the 1980s. Twenty-five years later, a planned remake took an unexpected emotional turn when an earthquake hit Haiti and the track once again became a vehicle for collecting humanitarian aid. But a slight lyrical change overlooked by many music critics suggests that these celebrities may be at the forefront of a religious cause in addition to a humanitarian one.

Overall, the remake tended to alienate more critics than it won over. Many, for example, bemoaned the choice of stars to replace the originals: Justin Bieber for Lionel Richie, Miley Cyrus for Dionne Warwick, Nick Jonas for, well, pretty much anybody. The song also came under fire for its auto-tune trifecta, with the computer-assisted voices of Lil’ Wayne, Akon, and T-Pain replacing the natural voices of Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Bruce Springsteen, and Stevie Wonder.

There is, however, a more understated change. In the new version, Lionel Richie changed some of the lyrics to “bring [the song] up to date,” but his rationale is far from obvious. While the second verse originally included the lines “as God has shown us by turning stones to bread/And so we all must lend a helping hand,” the remake tells its listeners that “we can’t let them suffer, no we cannot turn away/Right now, they need a helping hand.” The religious reference, in other words, is conspicuously absent.

One very possible reason he did this is that the original line embarrassingly conflated two different biblical allusions. In the New Testament, Jesus fasts in the desert for forty days following his baptism, and, in Matthew and Luke, Satan tempts Jesus by suggesting that he quell his hunger by turning stones into bread. Apparently, Jackson and Richie confused this story with the story of Jesus feeding the multitudes with a few fish and loaves of bread, which, granted, may have been a more relevant allusion for the famine crisis in Africa than the earthquake in Haiti.


Still, if such great pains were taken by the producers to mimic the original while adding a modern feel, why change these lines? Many other parts of the song—such as the cheesy lead-in music, a Ray Charles interlude (courtesy of Jaime Foxx), and Cyndi Lauper’s ad-libbed arpeggio (courtesy, unfortunately, of Celine Dion)—were all kept more or less intact, save for some sound tweaking. If the producers evidently considered the original to be such a classic, why alter the words? Furthermore, if Richie had changed the lines in order to purge the song of any religious reference, why does Mary J. Blige still croon in the remake that “we are all a part of God’s great big family”?

Rather, it seems that Richie altered this line to create a message that is religiously universal. In the original, if, like many, you do not believe that Jesus is God, its lyrics place a barrier between you and the artists. The newer version, however, keeps the religious angle but broadens it to talk about more than just one religion. Aiding the devastation in Haiti is not just a mission for Christians, the remake tells us—it is the aim of any religious person who believes in the dignity of the human being.

This might not sound like a terribly original message, but it is absolutely essential. In her “Harvard Thinks Big” lecture last month, Harvard Divinity School Professor Diana Eck argued that the increasing complexity of the religious landscape in America necessitated the creation of opportunities for religious pluralism in order to tempter stereotypes, prejudice, and intolerance. Pluralism, Eck explains on her website, is the “active seeking of understanding across lines of difference,” which includes working together on issues upon which different religions can find common ground.

As the edits imply, the aim of the new “We Are the World” is not just to encourage aid in times of crisis, but to reach across religious traditions in order to do so. Perhaps, then, behind T-Pain’s auto-tune and Miley Cyrus’s nasal singing voice, rock stars and Hollywood actors can strengthen our religious outlooks in a more fundamental way than merely instructing us where to send our money.

Avishai D. Don ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Pforzheimer House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.