The 81 musicians, singers, and actors who took part in Artists for Haiti's "We Are the World 25 for Haiti" did something tangible. I'm not here to praise the record, but it's hard to be cynical about the reasons it exists: Every bit helps. If that includes gathering to remake a song that had serious problems to begin with, so be it. That said, it's going to take something drastic for "25 for Haiti" not to end up being 2010's biggest musical disaster.
It's not as if there isn't competition—namely, another benefit recording, Helping Haiti's version of "Everybody Hurts," in which mastermind Simon Cowell sicced Leona Lewis, Susan Boyle, Mariah Carey, Michael Bublé, Jon Bon Jovi, James Blunt, and a dozen others upon R.E.M.'s greatest piece of slush. It's a remarkably bad song choice—the lyrics plea with a friend, or the listener, not to commit suicide, and suicide is not even close to the list of Haiti's problems, whatever Pat Robertson says about the nation having "[sworn] a pact to the devil" hundreds of years ago. It's also difficult to imagine a group of performers, and performances, more antithetical to what R.E.M. represented—restraint, for starters. When Carey does her word-swallowing hiccup on the refrain, the message is clear: Everybody hurts, but I am a true diva.
By contrast, true divadom is what "We Are the World" was about from the beginning. That's one reason "25 for Haiti" is so bad: Who, besides the people involved in making it, thinks the original USA for Africa recording of "We Are the World" outlasted its moment? People don't go around listening to this song for pleasure, do they? The financial role of a remake is hardly in question, but otherwise, what could it possibly have to say?
It's worth remembering the circumstances under which "We Are the World" first appeared. In 1985, the song was, along with Live Aid, the culmination of a bullish comeback from a music business that had been on the brink of collapse. In 1979, the bottom fell out of a disco boom the biz had been artificially inflating by glutting the market—the Ethel Merman disco album and its many equivalents coming home to roost, so to speak. Records had long been considered "recession-proof," but at the turn of the '80s, they began to run on course with American's slumping finances: Unemployment neared 11 percent in 1982, the highest rate since the Great Depression.
The emergence of MTV and, especially, Michael Jackson's Thriller turned that around, fueling a pop resurgence that brought the biz back to its feet and sparked intense competition among pop musicians aiming for as big an audience as Jackson's. Albums didn't just go platinum, they went megaplatinum: In the U.S., the five album of the year nominees at the 1985 Grammy Awards—Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A., Prince's Purple Rain, Cyndi Lauper's She's So Unusual, Tina Turner's Private Dancer, and the winner, Lionel Richie's Can't Slow Down—have sold a combined 49 million copies. By 1988, the record industry was earning twice what it had 10 years earlier, when it was flush with megasellers by Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles, as well as the Saturday Night Fever and Grease soundtracks.
"We Are the World" was cowritten by Jackson and Richie, and entitlement, hopelessly, is all over it. The lyrics are dumb: "Send them your heart so they'll know that someone cares/And their lives will be stronger and free." (No, they won't.) Critic Greil Marcus pointed out that the line "There's a choice we're making/We're saving our own lives" almost subconsciously sneaks in the tag from Jackson's Pepsi ad campaign the year before, "The Choice of a New Generation." The Quincy Jones–produced backing track resembled a musical greeting card. Wittingly or not, Jackson and Richie had written a valedictory—a "My Way" to raise money for people for whom a line like "love is all we need" could not have been more insufficient.
"We Are the World" is a lousy record with a weird proviso: It contains a handful of genuinely great vocal performances. Not all of them, lord knows: Springsteen attacking his verses like the Big Bad Wolf comes to mind. Forget about the big, bland-out chorus; what we enjoy remembering are moments like Lauper jumping in with three shouts of "Whoa," or Bob Dylan translating the melody into his own language, or Ray Charles stating the "saving our own lives" line so authoritatively that, for a second, he makes the song's silly sentiment seem significant.
There's nothing even close to that on "25 for Haiti," not least because its context couldn't possibly be more different. The music business has been collapsing for half a decade, minimum, along with lots of other media enterprises, and nobody in Artists for Haiti is likely to save it. (Not even the Black Eyed Peas, whose sales seem impervious to changing models.) The bravado that fueled "We Are the World" and Live Aid—the sense that, having solved its own financial problems, the music business could take on the world's—is now a bad joke swathed in nostalgia.
Of course, that's not what makes "25 for Haiti" a bad record—the production and performances take care of that. Whatever else you can say about the original, it sounded coherent, like one thing. This sounds like a bunch of bad ideas stitched together. Just like the business they're all sinking alongside, it's every performer for him- or herself, and the result is a menagerie of grotesques. My involuntary response upon seeing Fergie in shades urging everyone along was to yell "Shut up" at the screen. Wyclef's self-proclaimed hat tip to Springsteen's shriek is one of the most jarring things I've ever heard. When is Jamie Foxx finally going to put Ray Charles back in the ground? (To say nothing of the exhumed Michael Jackson solo bits.) The Auto-Tuned parts fit in like a cap gun at a dinner party. The rap break makes the original lyric seem like a model of precision. Justin Bieber? Give USA for Africa this much: They knew better than to open with Menudo.
It's beyond question that anyone who wants to give to Haiti relief efforts should just do so and not worry about musicians as middlemen. (My money went to the Red Cross.) But if you want to learn something about Haitian music without resorting to Wyclef's Kreyol squawks, three recent options stand out. In reverse chronological order: On February 3, the Mad Decent blog put up a head-spinning DJ set by DJ Still Life called "Rebel Rap: A Mix of Haitian Rap Kreyol" featuring rough-and-ready locals like Guerilla Sun, Chale Republic, Patriyot Clan, and Devil Click (www .maddecent.com/blog/2010/02/03/rebel-rap). For a smart thumbnail overview from someone who knows his stuff, Peter Shapiro's "A History of Haitian Music," on Thedailyswarm .com, comes complete with myriad YouTube embeds of tracks by such compas artists as Coupé Cloué, Les Shleu, and Tabou Combo (www.thedailyswarm.com/headlines/daily-swarm-exclusive-peter-shapiros-history-haitian-music). Finally, late last year Harte issued the 10-CD box set Alan Lomax in Haiti. Lomax made these recordings in 1936 but never released them because the sound was such rough going. They've been cleaned up considerably, though listening can still be an effort. Nevertheless, it's a mammoth education, with proceeds going toward relief efforts. And you don't have to wonder what the hell Vince Vaughn is doing there.