Thirty years ago, over two dozen artists gathered to sing what became the fastest-selling song in history, the iconic “We Are the World.” The fact that Harry Belafonte and Ken Kragan were able to get so many music stars to record together for charity was an amazing feat, but the song would have been so much more powerful had the lyrics been given deeper consideration.
While Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson did a commendable job, especially with the theme and the chorus, their lyrics contain several cliches that have somehow reduced the song’s impact over the years. It has even sunk to being lampooned on various TV shows since then, most effectively in the “We Are the Old” scene in an episode of the Married with Children sitcom.
Making fun of what should be a sacred bonding of humanity occurred partly because the triteness of the lyrics make the song seem somewhat less sincere than intended. Listeners were likely not thoroughly inspired by overused phrases like “lend a helping hand” and “when you’re down and out,” nor by “Love is all we need.” The Beatles had made that last sentence a cliche the minute it hit number one almost twenty years before.
The song could have been so much stronger, considering that the two greatest American songwriters were there to help its cause. Paul Simon and Bob Dylan, already on hand to sing a verse, might have better served the song by contributing to its lyrics. Simon had recently helped bridge several continents with his Grammy-winning Graceland album, and Dylan had been fighting injustice since the early 1960s.
As if Simon and Dylan were not enough, the organizers could also have conferred with others on the set. Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nelson, and Billy Joel, all three award-winning songwriters themselves, undoubtedly could have solidified the lyrics. The excellent songwriter of Fleetwood Mac, Lindsay Buckingham, was also present to enhance the backing vocals on the chorus.
Springsteen’s powerful gift of self-reflection could have given the song more of an appeal to white adult males, guys who might not respond emotionally to Jackson or Richie. Nelson would have provided a lyrical voice for fans of classic country, while Joel and Buckingham would certainly have infused some bouncy rhyme into what could have been an effective bridge as a segue to the last verse.
The absence of these brilliant songwriters did not hinder the sales of “We Are the World” which, aided by a touching video of all the stars sharing the vocals, reached number one quickly after its release. The song’s legacy, though, would be much more revered had the world’s best songwriters been allowed to collaborate on the lyrics.