When I was growing up, artists banded together on original charity singles that had the illusion of being written specifically for whichever cause they were rallying behind. Bob Geldof and Midge Ure penned “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” after a learning of the widespread famine in Ethiopia. Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie were enlisted to write “We Are the World” for famine relief, too. Even the ’90s yielded an original star-studded pep talk for troops headed into Operation Desert Storm (“Voices That Care”). Not to mention “Tears Are Not Enough,” “Hands Across America,” “Sun City,” and “We’re Stars.” It seems MTV could devote an entire day to playing these charity videos from yesteryear and not have to repeat any.
The emergence of various high-profile Haiti relief songs shows us that the era of the “original” charity single is long gone. It appears celebrities are only willing to sign on to a massive group production if the song is a cover of an already-established hit. Simon Cowell snagged Susan Boyle, Mariah Carey, Miley Cyrus and several others to re-do R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts,” while Lionel Richie led an all-star group to update the ultimate charity single, “We Are the World.”
But why isn’t anybody writing new songs for such high profile collaborations? Have musicians gotten so lazy and uninspired that the thought of composing an original tune for a “side project” has become too much to handle?
A lot has changed since “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” ruled the charts. When songwriters like Bob Geldof or David Foster or Michael Jackson tackled a tune with a message decades ago, they weren’t the butt of a universal eye roll like they would be today. The earnest sincerity that used to be present in pop culture has been replaced with a cold cynicism. In 1985, America didn’t see Dan Aykroyd singing “We Are the World” and think, “Well he’s just there to promote the VHS release of ‘Ghostbusters.’”
Cynicism could also be the culprit for why inspirational ballads are less popular. In 2009, the only “motivational” hit embraced by the public was Miley Cyrus’ “The Climb.” And the negative buzz around the always-schmaltzy “American Idol” victory songs makes me wonder if Whitney Houston had recorded “No Boundaries” in 1988, could it have been as big as “One Moment in Time?” And conversely, if “We Are the World” was originally released in 2010, would bloggers make fun of lyrics about “brighter days” and “God’s great big family?” Probably.
The oversaturation of ’80s charity songs may be to blame for the genre’s downfall, too. For every cherished USA For Africa, there was a forgettable (but not any less well-intentioned) Hear n’ Aid. By the time “Voices That Care” arrived in the early ’90s, the “random stars stand next to each other with headphones on choral risers” had become such a familiar cliché that “Saturday Night Live” was able to mock it relentlessly. (Ditto Brit-rockers Pulp, whose “Bad Cover Song” music video featured an all-star cast of celebrity lookalikes teaming together to ruin their song.)
So then maybe it’s a good idea that Simon Cowell and Wyclef Jean turned to an already-known song instead of taking a chance on an unproven original. By choosing to cover classics, producers have effectively sidestepped the snarky masses who would be quick to point out any hokey sentimentality included in a new composition. Besides, the mega-success of “Glee” and Susan Boyle proves that cover songs can both warms our hearts and empty our wallets.
What do you think? Will an original composition written for charity ever become a classic the way Band Aid’s Christmas carol and “We Are the World” did? Were Simon and Wyclef better off sticking to a known song? Let me know your thoughts below.