The organizers of the “We Are the World: 25 for Haiti” pulled off a Herculean feat, rallying and recording the track and video for the earthquake-relief effort in record time. Like the sessions for the 1985 original all-star famine relief tune, producer Quincy Jones and songwriter Lionel Richie were able to get a galaxy of contemporary and classic voices to drop what they were doing to lend their time and vocals to a higher cause.
But whereas the original features vocals from such still-classic megastars as Stevie Wonder, Tina Turner, Kenny Rogers, Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Ray Charles, Jones and Richie said they purposely shuffled the deck on the reboot to focus on contemporary acts. That explains why the track opens with newly minted star Justin Bieber, followed by Jennifer Hudson and Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger, and quickly segues into solos from Sugarland singer Jennifer Nettles, Jamie Foxx, Maroon 5’s Adam Levine, Fergie and Nick Jonas, among many others. While there are major, undeniable stars on the new version — Mary J. Blige, Lil Wayne, Kanye West and Pink among them — some are wondering if the song’s lineup was too contemporary?
“I looked at the video the other day and I will admit I had several ‘Who the hell is that?’ moments,” said Christopher Morris, contributing music writer for Variety magazine of the 8-minute clip for the song shot by Academy Award-winning director Paul Haggis. “Some like Kanye West leap out at you, but it took several go-rounds for me to identify Nicole Scherzinger from the Pussycat Dolls. In terms of legend power, it’s on the shorter side.”
As the new video unfolds, such modern standard-bearers as Celine Dion, Janet Jackson, Toni Braxton and Josh Groban are thrown into a mix that also includes old-schoolers Tony Bennett and Barbra Streisand, alongside the 1985 vocals from Michael Jackson, who co-wrote the song with Richie, and bits from gospel singers BeBe Winans and Mary Mary.
The update’s concentration on contemporary stars, some of whom have voices that are not as instantly recognizable, might have contributed to the song’s relatively low profile at radio (although it did debut at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100).
“Is it likely that an R&B station will put it in regular rotation? Probably not. As a curiosity, yes. But this is not about airplay, which it won’t get a lot of, it’s about creating a viral hit on YouTube and Vevo, and maybe getting some traction at a few top-40 stations,” said Keith Caulfield, Senior Chart Manager/Analyst for Billboard magazine.
At a time when terrestrial radio playlists are more narrowly focused than ever before, such a broad, multi-genre song faces an uphill climb to gain major spins on stations that might cotton to stars like Jennifer Hudson and Wayne, but risk alienating their listeners with the likes of Streisand, Josh Groban, Cyrus and Jonas.
“I don’t know if, given the way things are right now, you could have gotten a similar lineup,” Morris said of the high-wattage, cross-genre original. “Music is much more niche-oriented right now and there aren’t a huge number of artists who’ve cut across every listening demo. Even someone like Taylor Swift doesn’t command an African-American audience. There’s no Michael Jackson in there, except in the old footage, who cuts through every sector of the international listening audience.”
Despite those challenges, the remake’s #2 Billboard debut easily bested the original, which bowed at #21 in March 1985, then rose to #1 three weeks later, eventually earning four-times platinum certification within a month of release (during that era, singles traditionally moved up the charts much more gradually than they do today). The remake entered the Digital Songs chart at #1, selling more than 267,000 copies in less than three days. Even with that firepower, though, it was unable to unseat Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok” from its nine-week run at the top of the single’s charts.
One music journalist at a major music magazine, who requested anonymity, told MTV News that even with a fresh sound courtesy of co-producer RedOne and a vaunted hip-hop section with fresh lyrics from LL Cool J, the new song falls short in a few places. “The general consensus on this remake is that, while it’s for a great cause, it is absolutely horrible on a musical level, except for Jennifer Hudson and Pink,” the writer said. One artist who was rumored to be participating but who ultimately was not involved, Jay-Z, told MTV News he simply thought the original was “untouchable” and was not something that should be re-imagined.
SiriusXM’s Rob “Reef” Tewlow, an executive for the station’s hip-hop channel Shade 45, agreed with Hov’s take. Tewlow also acknowledged the rap portion of the song was commendable. However, Tewlow suggested the rapper’s contributions weren’t an integral part of the number.
“It’s just hard to combine MCs into that song and into that type of thing,” he explained.” It’s like trying to fit a baseball into a golfball or something. Noble intentions, and it’s good that it’s represented in some type of form or fashion, but it’s not a make-or-break thing for the song.”
Though Bieber’s fame is brand new, Caulfield understood why Jones and Richie frontloaded his vocals into the song.
“Everyone is asking the same question about Bieber, but the creative forces are saying, ‘Bieber is the hottest thing with teens, he’s trending huge on Twitter every day, selling tons of digital tracks and he’ll resonate with little girls going gonzo for his songs.’ If you think about it that way, it makes perfect sense when you’re trying to craft something that will get lots of attention from as many people as possible.”
A spokesperson for “We Are the World: 25 for Haiti” could not be reached for comment at press time.
With their concept of tapping the talent of today, Morris also gave Jones and Richie credit for doing the best they could with the artists at their disposal in a media environment that is very different than it was a quarter-century ago. “This is a charity single after all, so you want to try and pull in the masses, so they did what they had to, which is to enlist people who sold a lot of records,” he said. “It’s not a miscalculation on their part, but it’s just a very different landscape. The way music is marketed and consumed has changed, the delivery system is fragmented.”
Getting the kind of mass audience hit as the 1985 song — which has raised more than $60 million to date — today is elusive, Morris said. “It’s impossible to reach the ubiquity the first one did. It’s a replication of an event that was an unprecedented, huge deal at the time and there’s no way that mining something like that again is going to top it.”
Caulfield credited organizers for getting the song and video out quickly and capitalizing on the buzz of the event, but said he couldn’t predict how the song would end up doing commercially. “Is it going to approach the same impact?” he said. “I don’t know. But I think sales now are from the immediacy of it and the fact that you could see the video and then buy it two seconds later.”