Thirty-five years ago this month, “We Are the World” detonated in American popular culture. Here’s a reboot of some stuff I’ve written about it.
KIIS in Los Angeles, WINZ in Miami, and WHYI in Fort Lauderdale charted “We Are the World” at #1 within a week of its release on March 7, but it did not hit the Hot 100 until two weeks later, on March 23, when it entered at #21—astoundingly high by the standards of the time. It went to #5 the next week—the first single to reach the top 5 within two weeks since “Let It Be” 15 years before. For the week of April 6, it went to #2, held out of the top spot by Phil Collins’ “One More Night,” which was spending its second week at #1.
“We Are the World” finally reached #1 for the week of April 13, 1985. It topped the charts for four weeks, until Madonna’s “Crazy for You” bumped it to #2 for the week of May 11. . . . The song also appeared on Billboard‘s Rock Tracks and Hot Country Singles charts. According to Joel Whitburn’s accounting, it was the #2 single of 1985 behind Richie’s “Say You, Say Me.” It would reach #1 in 15 other countries.
That spring, I was program director of an automated Top 40 station. Our music was shipped to us from a programming service, and I had been told that based on the company’s schedules, “We Are the World” wouldn’t be added to our regular rotation until early April. This was simply not good enough, so I went down to our local record store and bought a copy. When I brought it back to the office and set it on my desk, it promptly snapped in two, the only time in my life I’ve ever broken a record that way. So I went and got another one, and I had it on the air within 15 minutes, sometime during that first week of its release.
Not long ago, the full seven-minute version of “We Are the World” popped up on shuffle, so I decided to live-blog it. . . .
0:00: Jingly keyboard noise, then an orchestra blat followed by stately low brass, like something in a documentary about Washington DC, a camera rolling past statues and columned buildings, all heartwarming and patriotic. (Lionel Richie has said that he and co-writer Michael Jackson were going for a national-anthem feel.) Then that jingly keyboard noise comes back, and the echoing production that was all over everything in the 80s.
0:54: Kenny Rogers gets a line less than minute in. Clients of high-powered artist manager Ken Kragen, who helped organized the event, got priority treatment.
1:18: And there’s Michael Jackson, coming in like an angel, followed by a voice I bet I recognized in 1985 but not now, until I looked it up: Diana Ross.
1:55: There’s the Dionne Warwick/Willie Nelson duet we didn’t know we never needed until we heard it and realized, nah.
2:20: And there’s Bruce Springsteen in full my-voice-is-shot-from-touring wail. . . .
2:48: At the bridge we reach Peak 80s, with Huey Lewis, Cyndi Lauper, and Kim Carnes singing together.
3:09: Full choir. It’s weird that Dan Aykroyd is in there somewhere, like he sneaked in with the craft-service people, then stood at the back hoping nobody would notice. True, he once had a #1 album (Briefcase Full of Blues), but still.
3:48: Bob Dylan invents his own melody line, of course.
4:02: The choir is clapping now. It’s remarkable how even though Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie, Smokey Robinson, the Jacksons, and Tina Turner are all on this record, it’s still so white it makes Bobby Vinton sound like George Clinton.
4:27: Ray fking Charles, everybody. . . .
5:10: Has anybody ever explained what “we’re saving our own lives” is supposed to mean? If indeed we are the world, and we could indeed save our own lives, we wouldn’t even need USA for Africa. According to this absolutely golden Rolling Stone piece on the making of “We Are the World,” the line was originally “we’re taking our own lives.” Reporter Gavin Edwards wrote, “Richie and Jackson changed it when they recorded the demo so that the group wouldn’t seem to be unduly congratulating themselves for advocating mass suicide.”
7:07: Stevie, Bruce, Brother Ray, and the rest fade out to silence.
Playing “We Are the World” on the air was exhilarating the first few times. You knew you were part of an enormous cultural phenomenon, you were giving your listeners exactly what they wanted to hear (for they were caught up in the phenomenon too), and you even felt like you were personally helping feed starving Ethiopians. On April 5, 1985, over 8,000 radio stations around the world (including mine) joined in a simultaneous airing of “We Are the World.” At that moment, it was hot like nothing since “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” The feeling didn’t last, however. By the time it fell off the charts in July after over four months of ubiquity, radio stations were ready to be rid of it.