Monday, February 15, 2010

We Are The World (25 For Haiti)

On 12th February 2010, We Are The World 25 For Haiti was released. A short version of the music video debuted at the opening ceremony of the Vancouver Winter Olympics, broadcast live around the world. Following the premiere, the song was available for download on iTunes, with the proceeds going to the newly-established, non-profit We Are The World Foundation.

The story behind this new version of the 1985 classic is well-known by now, but let me just briefly recap it. 25 years ago, activist Harry Belafonte and and fund-raiser Ken Kragen activated Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson to pen an all-star charity anthem to raise funds for impoverished Africa, specifically Ethiopia, after being inspired by UK's gathering of superstars, Band Aid, which recorded the charity single Do They Know It's Christmas?

They managed to assemble 43 of America's biggest stars at the time to record the song on 28th January 1985, right after the American Music Awards. The group was dubbed USA For Africa. The project was released as a single and album and sold over 20 million copies worldwide, reportedly raising US$63 million for Africa.

25 years later, the remake was initiated following the devastating magnitude-7.0 earthquake that struck the Caribbean country Haiti on 12th January 2010. With casualties rising to 200,000, original collaborators Lionel Richie and Quincy Jones (who produced the original) decided it was the right moment to activate a new cast of artists to urgently raise funds for Haiti, one of the poorest nations in the Americas.

They roped in current in-form producer RedOne to produce the track, and had Haitian Wyclef Jean to front the project. wrote a rap segment to make the song more contemporary and relevant to Haiti. In all, more than 85 artists took part in the remake, double the original. Michael Jackson is the only one to be featured vocally in both versions (Lionel Richie did not sing in the remake).

Before going on any further, here are the videos for the original and remake:

USA For Africa - We Are The World

Artists For Haiti - We Are The World 25 For Haiti

Here's the list of artists who participated in the original:

Soloists (in order of appearance)
1. Lionel Richie
2. Stevie Wonder
3. Paul Simon
4. Kenny Rogers
5. James Ingram
6. Tina Turner
7. Billy Joel
8. Michael Jackson
9. Diana Ross
10. Dionne Warwick
11. Willie Nelson
12. Al Jarreau
13. Bruce Springsteen
14. Kenny Loggins
15. Steve Perry
16. Daryl Hall
17. Huey Lewis
18. Cyndi Lauper
19. Kim Carnes
20. Bob Dylan
21. Ray Charles

22. Dan Aykroyd
23. Harry Belafonte
24. Lindsey Buckingham
25. Mario Cipollina
26. Johnny Colla
27. Sheila E.
28. Bob Geldof
29. Bill Gibson
30. Chris Hayes
31. Sean Hopper
32. Jackie Jackson
33. LaToya Jackson
34. Marlon Jackson
35. Randy Jackson
36. Tito Jackson
37. Waylon Jennings
38. Bette Midler
39. John Oates
40. Jeffrey Osborne
41. Anita Pointer
42. Ruth Pointer
43. Smokey Robinson

And here are the ones who took part in the remake:

Soloists (in order of appearance)
1. Justin Bieber
2. Jennifer Hudson
3. Nicole Scherzinger
4. Jennifer Nettles
5. Josh Groban
6. Tony Bennett
7. Mary J. Blige
8. Michael Jackson (from stock archives)
9. Janet Jackson
10. Barbra Streisand
11. Miley Cyrus
12. Enrique Iglesias
13. Jamie Foxx
14. Wyclef Jean
15. Adam Levine
16. P!nk
17. BeBe Winans
18. Usher
19. Celine Dion
20. Orianthi (on guitar)
21. Fergie
22. Nick Jonas
23. Toni Braxton
24. Mary Mary
25. Isaac Slade
26. Lil Wayne
27. Carlos Santana (on guitar)
28. Akon
29. T-Pain
30. LL Cool J
32. Snoop Dogg
33. Busta Rhymes
34. Swizz Beatz
35. IYAZ
36. Kanye West

37. Patti Austin
38. Bizzy Bone
39. Ethan Bortnick
40. Jeff Bridges
41. Zac Brown
42. Brandy
43. Kristian Bush
44. Natalie Cole
45. Harry Connick Jr.
46. Hayden Panettiere
47. Kid Cudi
48. Faith Evans
49. Melanie Fiona
50. Sean Garrett
51. Tyrese Gibson
52. Anthony Hamilton
53. Keri Hilson
54. Julianne Hough
55. India.Arie
56. Randy Jackson
57. Taj Jackson
58. Taryll Jackson
59. TJ Jackson
60. Al Jardine
61. Jimmy Jean-Louis
62. Ralph Johnson
63. Joe Jonas
64. Kevin Jonas
65. Gladys Knight
66. Benji Madden
67. Harlow Madden
68. Joel Maddern
69. Katherine McPhee
70. Jason Mraz
71. Mya
72. Freda Payne
73. A.R. Rahman
74. Nicole Richie
75. Raphael Saadiq
76. Trey Songz
77. Musiq Soulchild
78. Jordin Sparks
79. Robin Thicke
80. Rob Thomas
81. Vince Vaughn
82. Verdin White
83. Ann Wilson
84. Brian Wilson
85. Nancy Wilson
86. Nipsey Hussle
87. Fozworth Bentley

After listening to the remake for the first time, I thought it was better than expected. The arrangement was quite similar to the original, as RedOne himself said that he didn't want to mess around with it too much, besides updating the beats a little to make it more contemporary. And contrary to what most critics are saying, I quite like the rap segment in the final third of the song - I thought it melded well with the song and didn't sound out of place. I felt it did well as a remake of the iconic anthem.

However, if you really want to compare it with the original, there are more criticisms to be made for sure.

Firstly, do we really need 87 voices on the song? Yes, it's all for charity and lending a helping hand, but there also has to be a balance and compromise in terms of what works for the song. The strange thing is, even with half the number of people, the chorus on the original sounds bigger and fuller than on the remake. Maybe they're just better singers, can project their voices better, can sing in harmony better, or maybe it's just pure studio wizardry. But I definitely feel the chorus on the remake sounds a little weak and not in sync all the time. Not as rousing and heart-stirring.

Secondly, the voices on the original blended better as they went from one solo to another. There seemed to be more thought when selecting the artists and their lines, such that the transitions were smooth and there wasn't a "what was that?" moment. For example, in the remake, the Miley Cyrus-Enrique Iglesias transition just didn't work for me. And Tony Bennett seemed really out of place.

Thirdly, the individual singers on the original were stronger and sang with much more conviction. To be brutally honest, there are just too many mediocre singers on the remake. I'm referring to real singers, as in, people who can carry a tune, and not just entertainers, people who are so-called entertainers and happen/pretend to sing. For example, what's Justin Beiber doing here? (Answer: Randy Phillip is one of the executive producers for this project and he also manages Justin Beiber)

Fourthly, how many of the artists on the remake are going to be around and still kicking it 25 years from now? Whereas on the original, we've had a good number of legends and artists who are still highly respected today - Stevie Wonder, Tina Turner, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Ray Charles, Billy Joel, Diana Ross, Dionne Warwick, even Cyndi Lauper, to name a few. Fergie, Jamie Foxx, T-Pain, Adam Levine to be future legends? I don't think so.

I know one of the major grouses for the remake is the use of auto-tune. Well, I'm neutral to that. I don't like it personally, but it does appeal to a certain audience (the hip-hop community), and if it makes them donate to the cause, I'm fine with that. Because ultimately, that's the goal of this project, to reach out to people of all walks of life and get them to contribute to Haiti.

Then again, you might say, aren't you contradicting yourself? That's what having Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus and The Jonas Brothers is for - to reach out to the tween market and get them to contribute too? Yes, that's partly true, but I would have preferred having people in that demographic who can really sing, for example even Taylor Swift would have been a better choice. And artists who are destined to be future legends, like Beyonce, Alicia Keys, even Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake.

Criticisms aside, there are a few standout performances on the remake. I thought Celine Dion, P!nk, Jennifer Hudson, Mary J. Blige and Josh Groban did well. As did the rap segment performers, including Kanye West.

Integrating Michael Jackson to the remake is a nice touch, but Janet's "duet" with him was a huge letdown. Mainly because Janet was singing the same part as MJ, not a harmony, and MJ was mixed much louder than Janet. I couldn't even hear her! It would have been more meaningful had Janet sang the response to MJ's line, "When you're down and out, there seems no hope at all".

But my guess is that Janet's involvement came at the last minute, and they wouldn't have Usher give up his spot even for Janet, perhaps at Usher's insistence (since he's been so intent on being the next King Of Pop, overtly acting and mimicking MJ during his Memorial and Grammys tribute performances). Lionel Richie said that Katherine Jackson personally requested for Janet to be a part of it. It's a sweet idea, but poorly executed.

We Are The World 25 For Haiti (such a cubersome title) is not the only charity single to benefit Haiti. Simon Cowell has already put together and released an all-star cover of R.E.M.'s hit Everybody Hurts, and it duly debuted at #1 in the UK this week. It sold 453,000 copies and became the UK's fastest-selling charity single of this century.

WATW25 should also reach #1, like the original 25 years ago. But given that charity singles are a dime a dozen these days, it is unlikely the remake will earn as much love as the original. The original scooped up four Grammy Awards in 1986 including the two biggest awards - Record of the Year and Song of the Year.

You can call WATW25 whatever you want - a lazy, unoriginal, uninspired rehash of a classic anthem, or a fresh, updated, contemporary take of MJ and Lionel Richie's beloved tune - but let's not detract from its most important mission, which is to raise funds to rebuild Haiti. It's no classic for sure, but it should do what it's supposed to do.

For more information about the project, visit

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