All week we'll be talking about the best and worst ideas in music this year — click here to see all the stories. Write us at firstname.lastname@example.org if anything in the business or culture struck you as particularly effective or shockingly misguided in 2010.
"We Are the World," the charity single by which all other charity singles are measured, turned 25 this year — just in time for the decade's first humanitarian crisis.
Released in 1985, "We Are the World" was like nothing music fans had ever witnessed. With Quincy Jones, Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson at the helm, the project brought together dozens of musical megastars to benefit African famine relief. The impact was massive: multi-platinum sales, months of radio airplay, tens of millons of dollars raised for the cause. And so, when the song's silver anniversary coincided with a major disaster — the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that decimated Haiti in January — there seemed only one thing to do.
Recorded February 1 in a marathon session, "We Are the World 25 for Haiti" was an ambitious update. It boasted an all-new lineup, ranging in age from the pubescent Justin Bieber to the octogenarian Tony Bennett. It incorporated modern twists: Auto-Tuned solos by T-Pain and Akon, a rap break penned by Will.I.Am, a dash of creole from Wyclef Jean. After debuting at the Winter Olympics, the remake entered the charts at number two and sold a quarter-million downloads in three days.
And then, just as suddenly, it was gone. A few weeks after its release, WATW25 had been all but abandoned by radio. Media coverage tapered off, and the single spent the remainder of its time on the charts languishing behind Ke$ha"s "TiK-ToK." What happened?
At least some of it came down to taste. Critics far and wide slammed the track, dismissing the rap verse as pandering, the Auto-Tune as straight-up tacky. The choice of talent took some heat as well; with over 80 participants, the group included more than a few sub-celebrities. Saturday Night Live parodied the song a few weeks later and gleefully pointed out the D-listers ("It's Fonzworth Bentley!/He was the fella who held the umbrella for P. Diddy!").
But taste isn't everything. WATW25 may have been overwrought and underwhelming, but it also had the misfortune of being released in 2010, when just about every principle that made the original WATW a success has been dismantled. To justly compare the two, one must first acknowledge a few big-picture truths about our time:
1. Music doesn't sell like it used to. Arts fundraising tends to marry a good cause with an exclusive product. Back when music had to be bought to be heard, that model applied — people's charitable concerns and selfish interests could be yoked together effectively. No longer.
2. Consumers are more empowered than ever. When a handful of broadcasters controlled all the content, hammering you with a message was child's play. That control has dissolved, and even the most powerful messengers have to fight for attention.
3. Getting informed is easy. A two-second Google search will turn up countless relief groups for any cause, each of which has four or five ways to accept donations. We know how to send our money to Haiti; we don't need Quincy Jones to do it for us.
4. Fame isn't what it used to be. Gone are the days when celebrity implied inaccessibility. Thanks to reality TV, everyone's a star — and thanks to Twitter, we know more about stars than we could ever want. Intimacy is the norm, not the exception.
5. Collaboration is commonplace. These days, 80 pop stars in one room isn't a milestone, it's a Kanye West album.
The question naturally arises: How can the charity song adapt to the digital age? Can the forces that broke a once-mighty revenue model be repurposed for good?
A few artists are already having a go at it. Within a week of its premiere, the WATW25 video had inspired a massively collaborative "YouTube Edition," which urged viewers to donate to Jones and Richie's nonprofit We Are the World Foundation (the tribute has four million views and counting). The Bay Area duo Pomplamoose tried a more focused approach — fans can only get the band's new Christmas EP by donating to a local book drive (about 6,500 have so far).
Whether the charity song will survive the era of weak ties and long tails remains to be seen. But if it does, the glamour and grandeur of "We Are the World" probably won’t be a part of it.