It was today in 1985 that “We Are the World” went to No. 1 on music charts around the world. The song was recorded by USA for Africa, probably the world’s largest supergroup comprised of some of the world’s most famous performers. The story of how the single came to be one of the most popular songs in the world, and the records it set along the way is a rather fascinating one. “We Are the World” is the effort by USA for Africa to raise money for famine relief in Africa. It came about after Band-Aid, the UK supergroup organized by Boomtown Rats lead singer Bob Geldof, had released its “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” According to music industry lore, Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson managed to write the song the night before recording was supposed to begin. The relief effort though, had been coordinated by singer Harry Belafonte and fundraiser and activist, Ken Kragen. “We Are the World” was released on March 7, 1985.
“We Are the World”: a recording and video phenomenon
For people who were old enough to be aware of “We Are the World,” it is difficult to imagine replicating the effort in today’s music industry. It is also difficult to imagine the resulting effort bringing generations of families together. Maybe things were simpler then, but the overwhelming popularity of the song and by extension, the video, seemed an integral part of the time period’s music and video culture. That culture in large part, is non-existent today.
There exists a plethora of stories about the difficulties of getting 45 popular singers together for one project, for deciding who would sing the mini-solos, and even for deciding who would stand where. The actual recording was done the same night after the American Music Awards were held. Of all the famous people who still represent 1980’s culture, who wasn’t part of the project, Prince is notably absent. Nevertheless, those in attendance included five of Michael Jackson’s siblings, Stevie Wonder, Steve Perry, Kim Carnes, Cyndi Lauper, Bruce Springsteen, Diana Ross, and so on to produce a star-studded recording and video that captivated the listening public.
From the comfort of their own homes, individuals, and often families could watch the video for “We Are the World.” The video was an event for a few different reasons: 1. The song was longer than the typical video, it was almost seven minutes long; the album version was more than seven minutes in duration; 2. The reason for the song was a good cause. Americans were being bombarded with images of famine-stricken Africans in the 1980s. Finally, there was a way to help with the cause and get a recording with a catchy (if sentimental), hook. 3. The video was interesting because it allowed fans to play a game of sorts of spotting who was among the performers in the video.
And it seemed that while the song “We Are the World” was on the charts, the video was in heavy rotation on Music Television. People were drawn to the song and its video, to the idea, perhaps, of watching stars do an act of charity. They were actually singing, the thing that made them famous, and they were lending that talent to a cause that most people agreed was a good one.
“We Are the World” chart placing and success
The song was the first song to be certified quadruple platinum. A few years ago, Rolling Stone magazine presented a breakdown of “We Are the World’s” recording process, which was done overnight. The song went to number on almost every chart. It even placed on country and rap and r&b sections of Billboard. Internationally, it was No. 1 everywhere, except for two countries where it stalled at No. 2. In terms of competition, Phil Collins’ “One More Night” was the song that vied for No. 1 with “We Are the World,” as the single’s strongest contender on the pop charts. The popularity of “We Are the World,” cannot be denied. The initial pressing of 800,000 copies sold out less than a week.
In more recent times, “We Are the World” has not fared as well. It receives 2 stars out of 5 on All Music.com. The song is largely considered a product of its time and it “fails” by modern standards because of some of the stars included at the time who ultimately didn’t have lengthy careers, or the use of production values that were acceptable at the time, but not much after 1985.
Music criticism aside, USA for Africa is still an organization that intends to help the continent’s residents. To date, according to its website, $100 million has been raised for the organization’s various efforts.
“We Are the World” was interesting in the mid-1980s because in an age before the Internet, before social media, and reality shows, it gave audiences a close-up look at some of the decade’s most famous performers doing an act of charity.