March 7, 2010

A Whole New “World”

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Around the same time USA for Africa debuted with “We Are the World,” Gary Trudeau imagined the late Jerry Falwell’s counter-movement — “USA for South Africa” — in a Doonesbury strip. When asked for his group’s “basic message,” Falwell responds, “A respect for the freedom of people to live how they choose … being apart isn’t necessarily injustice.”

“So that’s why you’re calling the group,” the interviewer continues.

“‘Apart-Aid.’ Right,” interrupts Falwell.

Time will tell whether “Apart-Aid” was the most distorted take on the original “We Are the World.” My money, however, is on the more recent “We Are the World 25 for Haiti.”

As noted by numerous commentators, the new version is at once melodramatic, “rushed” and poorly sung. What is most interesting about it, however, is what it tells us about our contemporary situation vis-à-vis that of 1985.

For one, we no longer tolerate imperfection. Gone is Dylan’s gravelly, almost atonal crooning and Springsteen’s earthiness; they are replaced by the pitch-perfect, Auto-Tuned “voices” of Lil’ Wayne and T-Pain, respectively. Likewise, in place of Cyndi Lauper’s exuberant shriek, we get, in the words of New York Times critic Jon Pareles, Celine Dion’s “mechanical copy” of her spontaneity.

Our music has not declined in any general sense; rather, specifically pop has taken a completely different form, one that favors absolute virtuosity over everything else. We are, therefore, still feeling the impact of the boy band era.

It often seemed as though the artists attempted to replicate precisely everything about the original performance: the notes, the affect, the pained expressions. They were unwilling to sing spontaneously, unwilling to make original artistic statements. In fact, the only segment of the song that did not seem canned was the rap bridge, likely because it was the only musical part written specifically for this performance.

Perhaps the move towards imitation is attributable to the sense that, as Pareles suggested, these artists felt “daunted by their predecessors.” One couldn’t help but agree, as they replaced the likes of Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles and Tina Turner with, among others, Justin Bieber, Nicole Scherzinger (of Pussycat Dolls fame) and Miley Cyrus.

Tellingly, the best singing emanated from the ghostly form of Michael Jackson, whose “performance” — his solo from the original “We Are the World” video — served as a powerful amnesiac, a sort of respite from the reality of our pop generation.

However, certain aspects of this performance do leave a better impression. As opposed to the 1985 version, we do not forget for whom this song is intended: we see images of Haitian children and hear Wyclef Jean chant “Haiti, Haiti, Haiti.” Compare that to the original, where there is minimal allusion to the actual plight of Africa and much time spent panning around the crowd so that we fully appreciate the majesty of the moment. One feels upon watching the video that it is as much about the pop stars as it is about the starving Africans.

Indeed, one could not help but feel that the “awareness videos” of the 1980’s — which include Hear ’N Aid’s “Stars” and Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas” — were, in addition to undeniably important works of charity, exercises in serious self-indulgence. Why did every performer feel the need to grimace, as though the entire weight of the crisis was on their shoulders? Why, for God’s sake, did Michael Jackson not only wear his full getup — sequined glove and all — but specifically request that the camera pan slowly from his sequined socks up his body?

In our version we have the grimaces — they seem unavoidable in any of these productions — but they are certainly softened by images of Haiti, both before and after the earthquake. We remember why this is being done, who this song will benefit. It is no longer just about celebrity expiation.

That these images can appear in this video certainly reflects well on our globalized era. We can no longer afford merely to pity those suffering in distant lands; rather, we are squarely confronted with their plight as human beings, and the demand to help is unavoidable. The dichotomy of “distant” and “close” falls apart, so that, for the first time, the song’s title actually rings true.

Judah Bellin is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at judahbellin@cornellsun.com. For Whom the Bellin Tolls appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Judah Bellin