PRINT May 1985


THE LATE LESTER BANGS on the 1976 “Second Annual Rock Music Awards” telecast, hosted by Alice Cooper and Diana Ross:

The highlight of the evening was the Public Service Award. Alice complained that “rock music personalities are foremost and basically people—contrary to rumour. People with the same dreams, desires and feelings as everyone else. They’re ambitious but they’re not selfish or self involved—but caring! . . . and I can’t read this card. Their careers are time consuming, but they still invest whatever time they have in . . . ” Diana: “—what we in this industry are most proud of—the Public Service Award.” They gave Public Service Awards to Harry Chapin for contributing to World Hunger Year, and to Dylan for helping get Rubin “Hurricane” Carter out of jail. . . . Then Diana administered the coup de grace: "But seriously, folks, there’s an incredible movement growing in the United States; concerned citizens who believe that whales have the right to life. And through words and through music the team of David Crosby and Graham Nash express their own concern, by giving a special concert so that the whales are still alive. I think that is absolutely incredible and we honor them with our fifth Public Service Award. Well, once again, I don’t think they’re here. but well accept it for them.”

Alice made a crack about Flo and Eddie being there, speaking of whales, and Diana continued : "No, seriously, I do know that a lot of my friends are concerned about this area and it’s something that I personally would like very much to be interested in.”

Things haven’t changed much since then. Rock stars still invest whatever time they have in what they are most proud of. The only difference is that the Rock Music Awards have been replaced by the American Music Awards, and whales have been exchanged for Ethiopians.

Following the AMA telecast this January, more than 40 performers gathered to make a record to raise funds for Ethiopian famine relief. AMA host and big winner Lionel Richie had already written the song with Michael Jackson; Quincy Jones produced. Diana Ross, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Tina Turner, Willie Nelson, Steve Perry, James Ingram, Kenny Rogers, Paul Simon and the rest “checked their egos at the door” and, under the name of USA for Africa, cut “We Are the World.” As Oscar Wilde might have said, it takes a strong man to listen without laughing. Or throwing up.

As I was cleaning the floor, I had to admit that as a tune “We Are the World” isn’t at all bad—but a more vague composition about specific suffering could not be imagined. Small print on the sleeve claims “United Support of Artists for Africa (‘USA for AFRICA’) . . . has pledged to use . . . all profits realized by CBS Records from the sale of ’We Are the World’ . . . to address immediate emergency needs in the USA and Africa, including food and medicine,” but there isn’t a word in the song about how or why this might be necessary. In the first verse one is told that “There are people dying” (STOP PRESS); in the last verse, that “When you’re down and out” (the Ethiopians are “down and out”?) “ . . . if you just believe there’s no way we can fall.” Literally, that means if Ethiopians believe in USA for Africa the stars will realize their own hopes. That’s it for Ethiopia.

While grammar is no help, contextualization comes to the rescue: certainly the superstars of USA for Africa knew their efforts would receive such overwhelming media coverage that their proximate inspiration would be clear to all. Thus once past “There are people dying” the rest of the song can fairly be about not the question but its answer—a celebration of the rock music personalities who are singing.

“There’s a choice we’re making/We’re saving our own lives”—those are the key lines of “We Are the World,” repeated again and again. Dylan sings them, Cyndi Lauper sings them, Springsteen sings them, Ray Charles sings them, Stevie Wonder sings them. Within the confines of desperately MOR music, Charles is magnificent, Wonder sounds fine, Springsteen sounds like Joe Cocker, and Dylan —well, if a comedian attempted a Dylan parody this broad he’d be laughed off the stage. But that’s irrelevant. Within the context of contextualization, recognition is all: objective parody is more recognizable, more salable, than subjective performance. The point is voracious aggrandizement in the face of starvation—a collective aggrandizement, what those in the industry are most proud of. Melanie Klein posited the infant’s projection of itself on the world, and its instinctive attempt to devour the world; beneath perfectly decent, thoughtless intentions, that’s what’s to be heard on “We Are the World.” Forget the show-biz heaven of “We are the world, we are the children/We are the ones who make a brighter day”; listen to the way that, projecting themselves on the world, the USA for Africa singers eat it. Ethiopians may not have anything to eat, but at least these people get to eat Ethiopians.

Obviously, I think the subliminal message of “We Are the World” is destructive. The message is, ye have the poor always with you; that there is a “We,” you and I, who should help a “Them,” who are not like us; that as we help them we gain points for admission to heaven (“We’re saving our own lives”); that hunger, whether in the USA or in Africa, is a natural disaster, in God’s hands, His testing—His testing, perhaps, of those Americans who are homeless and starving “by choice,” and if they aren’t, how in God’s name did they reach such a fate? And if they are, aren’t the Ethiopians? For that matter, small print and small USA for Africa contributions to American hunger relief (10%) aside, doesn’t the spectacularization of Ethiopian suffering trivialize American suffering and hide its political causes in a blaze of good will? Bad politics, which can be based in real desires, can produce good art; bad art, which can only be based in faked or compromised desires, can only produce bad politics. Such carping is as vague as "We Are the World”—but there is a message hidden in the song that is more specific than anyone could have intended.

As with Michael Jackson in 1984, the highlight of the 1985 Grammy telecast was the unveiling of the new Pepsi commercial. Lionel Richie, earning $8.5 million as a Pepsi spokesman, strolled through a three-minute spot, advertised as the longest network TV advertisement in the history of the medium. The theme was pressed hard. “You know, we’re a new generation,” Richie said, "and we’ve made our choice”—most notably, he was saying without saying it, the choice of Pepsi over Coke.

Pepsi first tried this theme in the ’60s, when it pushed “The Pepsi Generation” as a slogan. In the time of the generation gap, of seemingly autonomous youth, the line didn’t work. As based in abundance as the ’60s were, the ideology of the era was antimaterialist; the corporate cooptation rubbed raw. But the new generation of Richie’s commercial really was new—the post-’60s generation, which is all-inclusive, which indeed has room for anyone from that passed time; a generation whose members, according to media wisdom, have traded utopianism for selfhood, but nevertheless look hard for quality time to spend on family, friends, and areas they personally would like very much to be interested in, so long as those areas are sufficiently distant, say, eight thousand miles distant.

Actually, the 1985 Pepsi commercial was a lousy commercial: a stiff combination of a Lionel Richie video and an insurance-company ad. Compared to the 1984 Mountain Dew break-dancing commercial it was merely long. But “We Are the World” is a great commercial. It sounds like a Pepsi jingle—and the constant repetition of “There’s a choice we’re making” conflates with Pepsi’s trademarked “The Choice of a New Generation” in a way that, on the part of Pepsi-contracted songwriters Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, is certainly not intentional, and even more certainly beyond serendipity. In the realm of contextualization “We Are the World” says less about Ethiopia than it does about Pepsi—and the true result will likely be less that certain Ethiopian individuals will live, or anyway live a bit longer than they otherwise would have, than that Pepsi will get the catch phrase of its advertising campaign sung for free by Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, and all the rest. But that is only the short-term, subliminal way of looking at it. In the long-view, real-life way of looking at it, within the realm of contextualized geopolitical economics, those Ethiopians who survive may end up not merely alive, but drinking Pepsi instead of Coke.

As American singers came together for the USA for Africa sessions, Canadian performers gathered to make their own Ethiopia record, which may appear on the USA for Africa album that, as I write, has yet to be released. Among the contributors was Neil Young. “You can’t always support the weak,” he had said in October 1984. "You have to make the weak stand up on one leg, or a half a leg, whatever they’ve got.” But the Ethiopia benefit session? Hey, it was something he personally very much wanted to be interested in.

Greil Marcus