There is a cliché that suggests that when you do not know what to say you should rather just keep quiet. This week I wish to apply this to music; if you don’t know what to sing then rather just keep quiet. Before I elaborate I wish to stress that I am going to try very hard not to sound like my parents. They would always tell me when I was growing up that the music I was listening to was rubbish and that the beats from their era would be everlasting.
Now whilst it is true that I am an addict of 80’s and 90’s music I have not turned my back entirely on the artists of the 21st century even if they are not necessarily to my taste. I could sit here and write that there is no modern day Tina Turner, Michael Jackson, Ray Charles, Prince or Cindy Lauper. I could lament that nobody today can release a power ballad like Def Leppard or Meat Loaf. But since I am so often reminded not to compare eras (the Sampras-Federer debate springs to mind) I shall refrain.
However when a bunch of artists get together to copy a work of art from 25 years ago then they themselves are inviting the comparison. In 1985 Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie joined forces with Quincy Jones and a star-studded ensemble to record We Are The World; a charity single intended to raise money in the fight against African famine – a worthy cause nobody will deny. Now 25 years on Ritchie and Jones assembled another all-star cast for We Are The World 25; this time aimed at raising funds for the victims of the Haiti earthquake disaster – another worthy cause no doubt about that.
The problem is that since it is almost identical save for a slight tweaking of the lyrics plus the addition of a rap verse at the end, it encourages the inevitable comparison. Jones and Ritchie, whose efforts are commendable, should be lambasted for what is effectively reinventing the wheel. Remaking this classic that had the desired impact at the time is akin to somebody repainting the Mona Lisa – it is just not done. Do you honestly think there is anyone out there that could do a better version of Bohemian Rhapsody, Purple Rain or Hotel California? Whoever tries inevitably humiliates themselves.
Our original first verse is kicked off by Lionel Ritchie who segues into Stevie Wonder followed by Paul Simon, Kenny Rogers, James Ingram, Tina Turner and Billy Joel before Jackson and Diana Ross sing the first chorus. These distinctive and iconic voices easily overshadow Justin Bieber, Nicole Scherzinger, Jennifer Hudson, Jennifer Nettles, Josh Groban, Tony Bennett and Mary J. Blige. With the exception of Groban none of the others have what I would term an iconic singing voice. This is followed by the audacity of including Jackson’s original chorus (technology is not always good) but this time sung with sister Janet. I have not mentioned the word previously but perhaps the only adjective appropriate here is sacrilegious.
The 1985 version goes on to showcase the talents of Dionne Warwick, Willie Nelson, Al Jarreau, Bruce Springsteen, Kenny Loggins, Steve Perry, Daryl Hall, Huey Lewis, Cyndi Lauper, Kim Carnes, Bob Dylan and Ray Charles. The 2010 version features Barbra Streisand, Miley Cyrus, Enrique Iglesias, Jamie Foxx, Wyclef Jean, Adam Levine, Pink, BeBe Winans, Usher, Fergie, Nick Jonas, Toni Braxton, Mary Mary, Isaac Slade, Lil Wayne, Carlos Santana (on guitar), Akon, T-Pain, Kanye West and an excruciating rap by LL Cool J, Will.i.am, Snoop Dogg, Busta Rhymes, Swizz Beatz and Iyaz.
Now there is no doubting these modern-day artists will secure their places in music history; which is not saying much since Milli Vanilli have a safe spot in the annals of performing arts, but out of the current crop I invite you to point out who the 21st century version of Warwick, Nelson, Lauper or Dylan is. For that matter do you spot a Charles or a Boss amongst that bunch? The likes of Streisand and Santana of course are exempted since they are already legendary and this is meant to be a then-and-now comparison. That said most of the artists on the updated We Are The World are relatively well-established; they have been around for a decade or have released a few albums already. Dare I say it but unfortunately for the music connoisseur you are even left wondering what was the bigger disaster; Haiti’s devastation or We Are The World 25?
Call me nostalgic. Call me reactionary. Call me old-fashioned if you will but I am sticking to my perspective: If you don’t know what to sing then rather don’t sing at all. This applies to recording artists as much as it does to shower specialists.
Heal the world. (A greeting that perhaps means even more this week)
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