Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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A Song for You

Here's what I want to say up front: by any reasonably objective critical standard, USA for Africa's "We Are the World" is a good (maybe great) record where Band Aid's "Do They Know It's Christmas?" was a bad (or terrible) one. Forget meaning momentarily, stop telling me rock and roll can't feed the world, and just think voices. Now more than ever, the aesthetics of British pop are conceptual. I can like the way Paul Young and Boy George sing, and you, I suppose, can like the way Midge Ure and Tony Hadley sing, but we ought to agree that what puts our Britfaves across isn't vocalism per se--it's framing, a closely imagined aural (and visual) image that helps the singing signify. That's why Band Aid can't cut the generic chorus-with-solo structure Bob Geldof devised for his superstar supercause. USA for Africa can because the same structure has long been the motherlode of American pop singing. The choir, it's called.

With its medium-fast tempo and Eddie & the Hot Rods hook, "Do They Know It's Christmas?" is a half-assed rock record. "We Are the World" is an audacious pop record, one that brings together two consciously genteel strains of black music: the mass-choir style developed by James Cleveland and the middle-class crossover mode epitomized by Lionel Richie, who rushed to the "We Are the World" session immediately after hosting and sweeping the American Music Awards. Although Michael Jackson composed it, the simple declarative melody is based on two fragments by Richie and fits right into the oeuvre of a man who's made millions tailoring music to titles like "I Love You" and "Hello." So do the words, written jointly by Richie and Jackson. Richie's love songs are always generalized to blanket the broadest conceivable audience anyway, and "We Are the World" simply reunites his benign romanticism with the pious Christian good will whence it comes.

Even before we get to the predictably muddled lyric or the predictably murky motives of the rich people who sing it, we note that something intellectually suspect is transpiring here: the latest variant on the apparently ineradicable platitude that music is the universal language. If you like, "We Are the World" is no more than lowest-common-denominator MOR dignified with a religious tinge and put in the service of toothless one-worlder do-goodism. There's confirmation in the opening lines, the first utterly vague and the second utterly banal: "There comes a ' time when we heed a certain call/When the world must come together as one." With notable exceptions--Springsteen and (in his warped way) Dylan; committed world-hunger crusader Kenny Rogers; instigator Harry Belafonte, an actual pink--these are performers who are scrupulous not to say chickenshit about keeping their social views, if any, out of their work. I doubt that it's occurred to most of them that the star system USA for Africa so pragmatically exploits takes for granted inequities not unrelated structurally to the problem they think they want to solve. Sometimes I'm afraid all "Money Changes Everything" means to Cyndi Lauper is that she'll never have to take the subway again, and the last time Ray Charles impressed so many important people at once was when he lifted his voice in song at the Republican convention.

The philosophical term that encompasses such evasions is idealism--the theory that mind and spirit precede and bear a determinative relationship to material things. Those who possess lots of material things often profess idealism in the hope of persuading those with fewer that they're doing all right. But I don't think self-interest is the only reason idealism and its political correlative, universalist humanism, prove so irresistible to musicians, who spend their lives immersed in a reality that can't be seen or touched or for that matter fully grasped intellectually. I think it's because there's a portion of truth there, even though it usually gets mushed up in translation. If the Sex Pistols' "Bodies" can help me understand why some people loathe abortion while Graham Parker's "Squeezing Out Sparks" can't, then "We Are the World" can do the same for universalist humanism while "Do They Know It's Christmas?" can't.

Talent and tradition make a lot of the difference. It's no fault of Bob Geldof, who did his damnedest to enlist bigger and better (and non-Brit) names in the project, but not only can't Band Aid's Bowie and McCartney and Sting compete with Michael and Lionel and Bruce as box office or with Dylan and Smokey and Brother Ray as history, they can't compete with such lesser lights as Steve Perry and James Ingram and Dionne Warwick as vocal technicians. Whatever compromises multiplatinum or Vegas or middle age have entailed, whatever odium attaches to Diana Ross's vanity or Steve Perry's group, however suspect the presence of Michael's siblings or Huey's News or Quincy's protégé or Ken Kragen's clients, "We Are the World" achieves a genuinely phenomenal concentration of voices. Almost every one of the veterans still calls up extraordinary work on occasion, and while too many of the new guys habitually confuse meaning with technique, the technique they favor is designed to transmit whatever meaning comes near it and is made for this kind of spiritual uplift. The origins of current pop singing in blues and especially gospel is why it focuses as much on simulating feeling--or recreating it, if that sounds too fake--as on rendering musical values. How well it succeeds depends on factors that range from what the sound man had [one line's worth of illegible words] the moment the music is made. I'd guess sincerity contributed mightily to the musical effectiveness of "We Are the World"--that many of these singers meant their words more acutely than they usually manage to. The sound men--producer Quincy Jones, engineer Humberto Batica, and especially vocal arranger Tom Bahler--contributed plenty too. But the way the session apotheosized pop's fondest opinion of itself by bending the most bizwise artistic and commercial calculation to the cause of international cooperation added a resonance of its own. As did the unexampled opportunity it provided for several dozen egomaniacs to cut the shit out of each other. This is one hell of a high-flying lowest common denominator.

But before I start waxing too snotty, let me emphasize that though I reserve the right to carp, it wasn't just the objective critic in me who called "We Are the World" a good record. Truth be told, I love the thing, and not just for its staggering wealth of American voices playing can-you-top-this, or for its shades of irony either. I love it for what it means. Of course there's something delusory about its explicit political content-it'll take more than "a helping hand," or 10 million of them, to end a famine attributable above all to the imperialist cash-crop-for- export syndrome that's ruined so many formerly self-sufficient food producers. But Ken Kragen, the project's in-biz organizer and spokesman (and manages Richie, Rogers, and two of USA for Africa's more questionable luminaries, Kim Carnes and Lindsey Buckingham), has gotten just that point across in contexts he deems appropriate: the gratifyingly straightforward and unsycophantic We Are the World book that Life reporter David Breskin churned out gratis in four days to help the cause, for instance, or the African-made documentary Kragen is trying to get on TV. The same point would have strengthened the starstruck but moving (and recommended) story-of-the-record HBO will premiere May 1. But its absence is perfectly understandable on a record whose prime function is to finance a relief program for the starving--and which carries meanings of its own.

Because it isn't just talent that gives "We Are the World"'s humanism its force--it's also concept, and even words. Where Band Aid's female contingent consisted primarily of Bananarama, USA for Africa is sexually integrated, and also a lot more seasoned, probably too much so--there's no one under 30 on the record who isn't named Jackson (my nominations to replace no-show Prince: Melle Mel and Eldra DeBarge). And of course it's blacker, which is crucial. USA for Africa celebrates a long overdue hegemony that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago--not merely interracial, but with blacks in the forefront and such relatively marginal black artists as Warwick, Ingram, Jeffrey Osborne, and Al Jarreau granted the pride of place they deserve in the pop-vocal firmament AfroAmerican tradition has generated. One reason the singers manage to mean the uplifting lyric is that they're old enough to have lived through the civil rights movement. They've already stood "together as one" and made "a brighter day"--in fact, they're among the rare black people who've reached gospel's Jordan-on-earth. Though their belief that something comparable can be done for their brothers and sisters in Africa may be naive or self-serving (or just wishful or provisional), it does enable them to go at the problem from a more constructive angle: not "Do They Know It's Christmas?" topped off with the appalling "Well tonight thank God it's them instead of you," but "We Are the World," climaxing with the inspirational "There's a choice we're making/ We're saving our own lives."

Needless to say, this wouldn't be America if those lines inspired everyone. I know intelligent people who claim not to understand them, which is more than can be said of my very intelligent friend Grell Marcus in the May Artforum. With textbook postdeconstructionist willfulness, Marcus connects the "We are the children" line to Melanie Klein's theory that infants instinctively try to devour the world: "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." He also complains that by concentrating on faraway lands the feed-the-world movement deflects attention from "American suffering," and in this he has more company--for instance, the country stars who'll donate the proceeds of their hunger record to--note order--"the hungry in the USA and around the world." What relates these two ideas is that both refuse to go along with universalist humanism. Of course, Marcus's refusal comes out of a tough left analysis of philanthropy--the way it buys off conscience, treats symptom not system, and attempts to control inequities that will never be corrected without large-scale surrender of privilege--while the country singers' presumably partakes at least a little of good old-fashioned American xenophobia. Seems only natural that in its genteel MOR way, USA for Africa should try to have it both ways, or neither. where all Band Aid profits went to African famine relief despite Britain's bottomless economic problems, a tenth of USA for Africa's will be devoted to alleviating hunger in America.

Me, I've never trusted the avant-garde line that art doesn't go anywhere until it goes all the way. Art goes somewhere whenever it tests limits, and I don't just mean the high-stakes limits out at the edge of imagination and experience--often the more banal limits of a particular artist-audience nexus will do fine. I can carp about jittery Jarreau and outclassed Dylan, but the likes of Charles and Springsteen (and Lauper) are in inspired form on this record, and several of the participants outdo themselves--listen again to Warwick-Nelson, or the astonishing Steve Perry-Daryl Hall chorus. This isn't superstar arrogance at all--just superstar affluence. Its vocal bounty--sincere, childlike, foolish, pretentious, zany overstated, gorgeous, sentimental, profound, vulgar, expert, soulful--incarnates the emotional and spiritual potential of America as material world. The "we" of the title isn't out to eat the world even at some preconscious level, and it isn't royal or editorial either. It's just trying to reestablish a rudimentary notion of human fellowship at a time when America-first survivalism is rampant in the American mass audience. and among American mass artists. These days, one-world rhetoric feels almost tonic, and USA for Africa certainly finds an appropriate context for it. American music will never fully repay its debt to Africa anyway, and insofar as geopolitical ethics can be grantified--which they can't be and have to be--90-10 seems like a fair starter ratio.

The We Are the World album is number one, too, yet though its eight assorted superstar tracks are far too catchy to dismiss as outtakes-for-charity, they certainly don't put you in awe of American bounty either. The problem is the usual confusion of meaning and technique. Though Springsteen's solid live Jimmy Cliff, Huey Lewis's live update of "Trouble in Paradise," and Prince's specially designed Jesus song speak gamely to the occasion, not a one of them shines like Steve Perry's amazingly unbombastic new "If Only for the Moment, Girl," and the others settle for fungible entertainment. This turns out to be a big risk: moral neutrality is always chancy in a morally charged environment. The desperation of Tina Turner's "I'd sell my soul for total control" is merely obsessive if she's in the throes of eros, rather more ominous once she's entered the selfless-by-definition realm of agape, and while that's clearly just a mishap, I wish I was so sure about Chicago's donation. "Good for Nothing" is the tale of how the lucky-at-life (i.e., rich) protagonist pays a friend's legal fees, helps two artists set up in L.A., and never hears "a single thank you." "All the good that I did was for nothing," Bobby Lamm concludes again and again, and though you keep waiting for the ironic twist or the revelation that giving isn't supposed to have anything to do with getting back, it never comes.

Fiscal analysis is outside the realm of this piece, but it's my impression USA for Africa has some philanthropic smarts. Proceeds will go not just for stopgap food and medicine but for long-term agrarian development and drought control, and the principals are refreshingly un-self-righteous about it--Ken Kragen doesn't pretend that music can feed more than a tiny fraction of the world. I trust the more casual participants--record-buyers, for instance--understand this too. If the money does any good at all, a few of the world's wretched will ultimately be strong and free enough to know that they don't owe anybody any thank yous. I'd like to think that somewhere out at the edge of imagination and experience there was a song that could help Americans realize that, but if there is, it ain't gonna sell five million copies, or move 10 million bucks to Ethiopia either. "We Are the World" is a triumph of mass culture, not of consciousness-raising or unschooled formal audacity. Take it or leave it on its own grandiose, uncritical terms.

Postscript Notes:

Corrected Chicago song title, from "Wood for Nothing."

Village Voice, May 7, 1985