Perhaps you’ve heard something about the current 30-year anniversary celebration of The Breakfast Club. (The anniversary was covered on ABC, Fox, CNN, and hundreds of websites.) Nothing against that outstanding film, but it never climbed higher than #3 at the box office, and wasn’t dominating pop culture 30 years ago. Would you like to know what was? Furthermore, would you like to hear an entirely different take on it, that no one has ever offered before?
On March 7, 1985, the fastest- and biggest-selling single of all time was released. Thirty years ago, during a week that Billboard dated April 13, 1985, the song hit #1, and eventually sold more than 20 million copies. “We Are The World” was written by Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson, produced by Quincy Jones, and performed by a group of all-stars dubbed USA for Africa with the expressed intent of delivering humanitarian aid to famine-stricken Africa. Let others give hagiographic salute to the artists; let others debate whether the song was a noble effort or noblesse oblige. 30 years later, there’s one given that should be beyond debate. Yet for some reason, it has remained beyond discussion…until now.
“We Are the World” destroyed the careers of everyone involved with it.
Perhaps “destroyed” is a little harsh, but the music careers of everyone in USA for Africa, if charted on a bell curve, began their downturns after the song’s release, and never, ever reached their pre-“We Are the World” heights. (With two minor exceptions, noted below.) However many people it helped, whatever else “We Are the World” was, it was the beginnings of the declines of many of the most popular artists of our (or any) lifetimes. “We Are the World” was Titanic, the 300 Spartans, Icarus’s sun, a poisoned chalice, and Lehman Brothers rolled into one. The song began, “There comes a time, when you heed a certain call…” but it turns out that they shouldn’t have picked up the phone.
What’s equally strange is that the inverse is somehow true: then-star musicians who were well-qualified for, but did not sing on, “We Are the World” seemed to blossom after the famous single came and went. Furthermore, as we’ll see, musicians who sang on other supergroup charity singles followed those up with flourishing careers. Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson were basking in the unprecedented glow of the largest-selling album of all time, Thriller; who would have suspected that their next project would Wanna Be Snakebiting Something?
(Before we begin: we’ve given a “curse pass” to musicians who charted prior to 1963, like Ray Charles, Willie Nelson, Harry Belafonte, Bob Dylan, Smokey Robinson, and Waylon Jennings; no one was expecting their bell curve to rise again.)
Let’s take a look at the evidence. Let’s journey back to the popular artists who really dominated 1984 and 1985, find out why they did that, and speculate about why Quincy Jones favored – and didn’t favor – them with that fateful phone call. And let’s look at pictures from that time! In each of the following pairs, the former musician(s) was part of USA for Africa, and the latter was not (to their everlasting relief):
1. Michael Jackson vs. U2
Michael Jackson boasts the best adult career of any child star, beginning with The Wiz (1978) and Off The Wall (1979)…but did it have to go so wrong so quickly? It’s true that no one could have – and no one has – topped the stunning success of Thriller (1982), the highest-selling album of all time. Thriller sold at least 42.4 million copies, and that’s 10 million more than the second-highest-selling one. But did the follow-up, coming two years after he co-wrote “We Are the World,” have to be so…Bad? And did his face have to start looking so…much like a wax mask? Of all the people on this list, you know Michael’s story, and there’s no point in belaboring it here. But it still hurts to remember that when we saw him sing “we are the world,” he was on top of that thing he said he, uh, was; not long after, he withdrew from it, barely to be seen in public again. If only the man in the mirror (shades) had changed his waaaaays.
Let’s begin by making it clear that being part of a charity-oriented assemblage doesn’t mean that your career has to suffer afterward. The group that inspired USA for Africa, Band-Aid, recorded “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” in late 1984. The recording included U2 (you can really hear Bono belt “Well tonight thank God it’s them insteaaad of you!”) and U2 went on to…how to put this? a little more success after the song than they’d had before. At the very least in terms of sales numbers, in no way shape or form can anyone consider 1984 the peak of the U2 bell curve; at earliest, that would have to be either The Joshua Tree (1987) or Achtung Baby (1991). It’s all right, Quincy, it’s all right, it’s all right, careers move in mysterious ways.
2. Lionel Richie vs. Phil Collins
Lionel Richie had a super seventies with the Commodores, and an ebullient eighties as a solo artist…right up until he co-wrote “We Are the World.” Anyone would have been hard-pressed to match the success of his mega-album Can’t Slow Down, which spent all of 1984 in Billboard’s Top 10, had five Top 10 singles (two #1s), and more than three years in Billboard’s Top 200 on its way to 20 million albums sold. But its follow-up, Dancing on the Ceiling (1986), despite the #1 song “Say You, Say Me” (which was released months before the rest of the album), just…wasn’t. Unfun fact: Richie had a #1 song in each year of the 1980s up until 1986, when “Dancing on the Ceiling” hit a ceiling at #2, apparently occasioning Richie to go on a ten-year hiatus. Hello? Is it Lionel’s career you’re looking for?
Phil Collins, who went solo around the same time as Lionel Richie (1981-ish), spent the first half of the 1980s played on many of the same stations as Lionel; now, as then, it’s easy to hear, or just imagine hearing, “In the Air Tonight” followed by “Endless Love” or “You Can’t Hurry Love” followed by “All Night Long.” Phil Collins wasn’t part of USA for Africa, but had gamely played drums on Band-Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” when it was recorded in November 1984. Scant days later, Collins released “One More Night,” a single that hit #1 around the time (January 1985) of the release of its album, No Jacket Required, which went on to sell 25 million copies and win the Grammy for Album of the Year. Oddly, that understates how much Phil owned 1985 and 1986; his voice and drums were all over beer commercials and episodes of Miami Vice, he had a mega-hit with “Separate Lives,” and he propelled his band Genesis to its highest-selling album ever (Invisible Touch, 1986). In 1986 Phil and Lionel were living – living – separate lives.
3. Cyndi Lauper vs. Madonna
There are debut albums, and then there’s She’s So Unusual (1983), which sent four singles into Billboard’s Top 5, put Lauper on the cover of Rolling Stone, Time, and Newsweek, and made her into a common topic of discussion in 1984. Was MTV contractually obligated to play “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and “Time After Time” once an hour, or did it just seem that way? Then Lauper’s follow-up, True Colors (1986), was released, did mediocre business, and Cyndi seemed to disappear from MTV forever. When she was asked to sing on “We Are the World,” should Lauper have had a “Change of Heart”?
Nice dodge, Madge. Or credit timing: Madonna’s super-stardom probably arrived two weeks too late to get an invitation to USA for Africa. “Like a Virgin,” her first #1, had held the top spot for about six weeks when “We Are the World” was recorded and Madonna appeared on the cover of Time. Many people (including one quoted by Time) said that Madonna’s sexual persona would never be able to outlast Lauper’s four-octave voice and quirkier style. Yeah, they said that…and then Madonna went on to own the second half of the 1980s as few performers have owned any half-decade. This is the kind of thing that makes USA for Africa look like a curse for some, a blessing for others. Don’t go for second best, baby, and the Madonna we know never has.
4. Bruce Springsteen vs. Neil Young
As in the case of the Gloved One, Bruce Springsteen had a decades-long career selling millions more albums than most musicians will ever think about…nonetheless, post-USA for Africa, the Boss’s bell curve began to slope down, in this case after Born in the U.S.A. (1984), which sold around 30 million copies worldwide. It’s true that no one could have possibly replicated a success like that, but it’s also true that many fans seemed befuddled by the follow-up, Tunnel of Love (1987), which was quiet, introspective, and sometimes difficult. Similar furrowed brows greeted his next few albums. Let’s be clear: Bruce is a legend, full stop. But would he have been a bigger one if he hadn’t tripped over the cursed branch of “We Are the World”? Time slips away, leaves you with nothing mister but, boring stories of…glory days!
Perhaps Quincy thought Neil Young was too Canadian (though Jones did invite Dan Aykroyd, who was also Canadian-American). Surely Jones could easily have invited Young based purely on merit; Young released a new, often strong album every year from 1966 to 1984. But having dodged the USA for Africa bullet, Young went on to a third act rare in American music: he charted his biggest hit, “Rockin’ in the Free World,” in 1989, toured with proto-grunge acts while being cited by the likes of Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder, and released Harvest Moon (1992), his best-received and best-selling solo album. Where was Springsteen’s Harvest Moon? Thus did the legend of the man from the Canadian prairie fail to rust, not fade away.
5. Stevie Wonder vs. James Brown
Kids, Stevie Wonder dominated the 60s, the 70s, and the first half of the 80s like no one else you have heard of, with the possible exception of Diana Ross. Every time critics dismissed him, he blindsided them (sorry). In 2009, Billboard ranked him as one of its five all-time singles artists, just after the Beatles, Madonna, Elton John, and Elvis. In 1983-84 he was more relevant than ever: everyone from grandmothers to babies were humming “Ebony and Ivory” and “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” and when Stevie wasn’t hanging with Eddie Murphy on Saturday Night Live, he was successfully lobbying President Reagan to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a holiday. And then…to be fair, his next album, In Square Circle (1985), spawned a few minor hits. The Wonder-iffic bell curve held steady in 1985-86, not falling but certainly not rising. Only with Characters (1987) did Stevie’s drop really begin, never to return. Stevie’s power was so strong that he staved off the worst of the USA for Africa curse for about another year.
Like Wonder, James Brown was an inveterate hit-maker of the 60s and 70s who was inveterately sampled by hip-hop artists of the 90s. Quincy obviously could have invited the Godfather of Soul to fill up his Rushmore card with Belafonte and Dylan and Charles. Indeed, Brown’s unusual rasp would have made a welcome cameo. Let’s not say here that Soul Brother No. 1 had a post-1985 resurgence to compare with Neil Young’s, but Brown became curiously huge in Reagan’s second administration. He appeared in Rocky IV (late 1985), and his song from the film, “Living in America,” returned him to a sort of icon status. Blame it on Good Morning Vietnam (1987) if you want, but Brown’s 1965 song “I Got You (I Feel Good)” was absolutely everywhere in 1988 in a way that you couldn’t say about any song by Wonder – or many other then-charting musicians. Brown finally cleaned up his personal messes and toured then and for the rest of his life as an American legend; did missing the mess of “We Are the World” have something to do with it? Papa don’t take nooooooo mess.
6. Daryl Hall (and John Oates) vs. George Michael
The disintegration of Daryl Hall and John Oates wasn’t a slow tapering of a bell curve; this was one of pop’s biggest careers careening off of a cliff. Like Lionel Richie, Hall and Oates came into 1985 having had #1 songs in every year of the 1980s and many, many other hits besides – 1984’s was “Out of Touch.” It’s not only that pop’s most successful-ever duo broke up just after “We Are the World.” It’s also that Daryl Hall’s solo career fizzled like a firecracker in a monsoon. After dominating the charts for almost 15 years, post-1985, you couldn’t have found Hall on the back of a milk carton. Of all the artists to hit the third rail of USA for Africa, these guys absorbed the worst of the electric shock. Maybe they were just out of touch, out of tiiiiime.
The reason this isn’t an unfair comparison is that George Michael left the duo Wham! about the same time that Hall left the duo Hall and Oates. Hall and Michael were both good-looking, blue-eyed blond-pompadour crooners who’d sung on Africa-relief singles; Michael was part of Band-Aid. But Michael’s duo, post-Africa-relief single, dominated 1985 with three huge #1 songs. Also, George Michael’s post-Wham! career arguably exceeded Wham!’s, with a succession of #1s, chart dominance, and MTV ubiquity. Yes, things eventually went very wrong, but unlike Hall, Michael’s bell curve in no way peaked during his time on the Africa-relief ensemble. Hall should have known better than to cheat a friend, and waste the chance that Michael’d still give him.
7. Tina Turner vs. Aretha Franklin
There’s no space here to recap the fascinating, mercurial pre-80s career of Tina Turner, but let’s say that 1984 was a keystone year for her: she roared back to prominence with Private Dancer (1984), an album that sold 11 million copies and charted “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” which earned the Grammy for Record of the Year. Just before Quincy Jones called her, Turner even shot a starring role in a movie, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985). It would be wrong to say that Tina had a Daryl Hall-like drop-off after “We Are the World.” Her 1984 comeback assured her at least touring success for the rest of her life. But still…in 1985, didn’t it seem like she would have one or two more Private Dancers in her? Her follow-up, Break Every Rule, broke only the 4-million mark in sales, and subsequent albums sold less…though they did slightly better in Europe, where Tina eventually relocated. She never made another movie. What’s famine relief got to do, got to do with it?
This is one of those “sliding doors” what-if? scenarios where cause and effect start to blur. Three years younger than Tina, Aretha Franklin was, like her, a soul-chart mainstay with rare pop breakthroughs prior to 1984. I love Aretha’s 1970s albums (and I know I should “accen-chu-ate the positive”), but they never made her a lot of money; nor did she earn a fortune from “Respect,” a song she didn’t write. “We Are the World” was recorded during Aretha’s weeks of recording Who’s Zooming Who? (1985), which went on to become her first platinum album. The next three years brought hit singles like “Freeway of Love,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Sisters are Doing It For Themselves” (with Annie Lennox) and “I Knew You Were Waiting For Me” (with George Michael), proving that this legend had a lot more gas in the tank (and making Aretha far more money than anything she’d done before). You could argue that Tina’s comeback paved the way for Aretha to be taken more seriously. You could argue that because Quincy dissed the Queen of Soul, people wanted her more than ever. What you can’t argue is that it was in the late 1980s, after missing USA for Africa, that Aretha finally got the appropriate amount of R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
8. Steve Perry (Journey) vs. Eddie Van Halen (Van Halen)
Journey didn’t start with Steve Perry, but it was only after he joined it, in 1977, that it became one of the supergroups of the late 1970s and early 80s. In 1983, teenagers voted it their favorite rock band. Then its lead vocalist, Steve Perry, thought to make a solo album, and “Oh Sherrie” hit #3 in 1984. So far, so good. Then Perry sang on “We Are the World,” and…okay, this is getting less funny. Perry’s mother became fatally ill, and Perry was too distracted to fully participate with their new album. (Like Phil Collins with Genesis, Perry hadn’t meant to leave Journey.) Raised on Radio did manage to come out in 1986, but fell far short of sales expectations, and the group disbanded. Furthermore, Perry’s future solo work never came anywhere near the heights of “Oh Sherrie.” Oh Steve-ee. You shoulda been gonnnnnne, after Quincy called your phone.
Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson knew Eddie Van Halen pre-“We Are the World”; he had memorably played lead guitar on MJ’s “Beat It.” They could well have asked him and/or Van Halen then-lead singer David Lee Roth into the studio for USA for Africa. Now, it’s true that 1984 (1984) was technically Van Halen’s top-selling album, but it doesn’t really feel like the peak of their bell curve, because unlike 1984, their next four albums (with Sammy Hagar as lead vocalist) all hit #1 on the Billboard album chart. Furthermore, with the release of For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (1991) and the song “Right Now,” Van Halen enjoyed a cultural ubiquity – that song was friggin’ everywhere, including domination of MTV – that they didn’t have before or since. Considering the curse, maybe Eddie just got lucky that Quincy wasn’t considering a guitar-solo for “We Are the World.” Or maybe Quincy did ask him, and he thought he’d might as well jump.
9. Jackie, LaToya, Marlon, Randy and Tito Jackson vs. Janet Jackson
As “We Are the World” was coming together, the call went out to the Jackson family. Here’s who showed up to support little Michael: Jackie, LaToya, Marlon, Randy, and Tito. Not exactly who you were hoping for, right? The best days for most of this motley crew were in The Jackson 5, and by 1985, The Jackson 5’s best days were a distant memory. LaToya is a special case, and if Playboy and reality TV count as career highlights, perhaps we can say she broke the USA for Africa curse. However, in terms of music, her career highest-charting single came in 1984, “Heart Don’t Lie,” which peaked all the way at…#56. In many ways, LaToya is a tragic case, and we’re really not here to dwell on that. We’re here to marvel at the fact that one of the three Jackson siblings who somehow brilliantly decided not to join the “We Are the World” party was…
Janet Jackson. How the heck did 17-year-old Janet know? Wouldn’t a one-night gig with Michael and Quincy have seemed like a good idea? She was but a couple of years removed from Good Times and Fame, though that would hardly prove to be the peak of her fame. She made two albums as a teen, using her family connections, and then decided, “I just wanted to get out of the house, get out from under my father.” She found Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and their appropriately named album Control made history, not only exploding on the charts and radio, but also providing a bridge from 80s pop to something closer to hip-hop. And somehow the follow-up, Rhythm Nation 1814 (1989), was even bigger. Janet owned the late 80s and early 90s…OWNED THEM. And she just missed having been part of USA for Africa. When I think of…that (so in love), that (so in love)…
10. Billy Joel vs. Tom Petty
For six years beginning in 1977, Billy Joel was the biggest solo artist in America, until the Michael Jackson supernova heated up in mid-1983. Joel’s biggest albums were The Stranger (1977), 52nd Street (1978), Glass Houses (1980), The Nylon Curtain (1982), and An Innocent Man (1983), the latter of which sent six singles to the Top 30, a record for Joel. And then…well, by now you know. His post-USA for Africa album was The Bridge (1986), not a failure, but it sold about a third as many copies as An Innocent Man. (Joel later told Performing Songwriter magazine that it’s not a good album.) The follow-up, Storm Front, sold more, but nowhere near his early-80s peak. Joel was in the midst of personal and professional upheavals, and he never again gathered the producers and band members that worked so well with him during his peak years; he released one more rock album and then retired from rock. Billy don’t care what I say anymore this is his life; America went ahead with their own lives and left him alone.
Joel’s voice has never been his strongest suit; imagine the charge of Petty’s colorful drawl replacing Joel’s on “We Are the World.” Petty and Joel are almost the same age, and unlike Joel in 1985, Petty had prior experience with charity-minded musical assemblages; Petty had played at the 1979 MUSE concert (Musicians United for Safe Energy). Like Joel, Petty (with the Heartbreakers) had a string of hits in the late 70s and early 80s (though Petty’s “I Need to Know,” “Refugee,” and “The Waiting” were never as big as “Just the Way You Are,” “It’s Still Rock’n’Roll to Me,” or “Tell Her About It”). But here’s the thing: after USA for Africa ignored him, Tom Petty got huge. In midsummer 1985, MTV rotated the video for “Don’t Come Around Here No More” far more heavily than any of Petty’s previous work. In 1987 he helped found the Traveling Wilburys, and in 1989 he released Full Moon Fever, Petty’s best-selling album and a more successful one than any album released after the Reagan Administration by almost any other “We Are the World”-er. Successive albums in the 90s also performed very strongly. Comparatively, the chart placements of every other USA for Africa veteran (MJ excepted) were Freeeee! Free fallin’!
11. Diana Ross vs. Whitney Houston
Kids, one reason Billboard called Diana Ross the “Female Entertainer of the Century” was that she had more re-inventions than Madonna. With the Supremes, she pushed Motown and girl-groups into the rock conversation. Going solo, she starred in successful films, hit #1 again and again, and was even one of the queens of disco for a while. Unlike Donna Summer, she shifted gears in the 1980s and seemed set for a torch-song ballad decade, charting soft hits like “Endless Love,” “All of You,” and “Missing You.” And then…USA for Africa struck. Her next album, appropriately titled Eaten Alive (1985), barely got airplay for the also appropriately titled “Chain Reaction”; within a year, the Top 40 permanently shut its doors to Diana. She spent fortunes on various comeback attempts throughout the 1990s, to no avail. The snakebite poison from “We Are the World” was just too powerful; Ross ran out of re-inventions. Baby, baby, where did your career go?
Now, wait a minute, this isn’t a fair comparison. Well, they are the two most beautiful women ever to sing #1 songs, full stop. But yes, unlike most of our comparisons, Ross and Houston were hardly peers, and one can’t expect a 40-year-old woman to have the same success in front of her as a 21-year-old woman. The crazily missed opportunity here is that Dionne Warwick could have easily brought her first cousin Whitney to Quincy’s studio. At the time, Warwick knew that Houston was working on her debut album with producers including Jermaine Jackson (another curious no-show at USA for Africa, whose solo career doesn’t rise to the status of a bell curve one way or the other). Bullet dodged, the album Whitney Houston was released in February 1985 – between the recording and release of “We Are the World” – and went on to become one of the most successful debut albums ever, launching a career that defined the late 80s and early 90s much as Ross had defined the 70s. It’s simply a shame Diana never officially passed the torch-song torch. I believe that children are our future; what if they’d brought Whitney in and let her lead the way?
12. Kenny Loggins vs. Don Henley
Kenny Loggins had been part of a successful 70s duo and went solo to considerable acclaim in the early 80s. He won Grammys in 1980 and 1981, then tickled the nation’s toes with the title track from Footloose (1984), which took him to #1 for the first time. After “We Are the World,” Loggins sung and wrote some less-memorable soundtrack songs, the best of which was Top Gun’s “Danger Zone” which peaked at…#2. Do you think Loggins had a Full Moon Fever in him? Heaven help this man, no. Still, how could Loggins have known that saying yes to Quincy would be taking the highway to…the danger zone?
Seems weird that Quincy wouldn’t have invited either lead singer of what was then, and is now, the biggest-selling American band of all time, the Eagles. Henley was on the charts with “The Boys of Summer,” so it’s not like he was hibernating. As it was, that song’s album, Building the Perfect Beast (1984), went triple-platinum, but after a few more hits, he released The End of the Innocence (1989), which went…you guessed it, platinum six times over, making it his highest-selling solo album. Technically, post-“We Are the World,” Henley never reached his Eagles heights, but as with Steve Perry and Daryl Hall, we’re talking about the solo career. Thinking back on Quincy’s decision…well, those days are gone forever, I should just let ’em go but…
13. The Pointer Sisters vs. Chaka Khan
The Pointer Sisters had 13 Top 20 hits between 1973 and 1984; the last few, from the album Break Out (1983; named after the video game, I hope? NICE!) were among their biggest – “Jump (For My Love),” “I’m So Excited,” and “Neutron Dance,” the latter of which also featured on Beverly Hills Cop (1984). And then…like Daryl Hall, they plunged off the map. Check the wikipedia page if you dare. They shuffled labels, producers, writers, even lineups…nothing ever got them anywhere near where they’d been in the first half of the 1980s. The USA for Africa curse smacked them harder than most, though it’s true that there’s no way to control it, it’s totally automatic.
As lead singer of Rufus, Chaka Khan played many of the same concerts (and radio stations) as the Pointers in the 70s. In the early 80s, she piled up a few minor hits, and her “I Feel For You” was hanging around #3 on the Hot 100 when USA for Africa formed and Quincy chose not to call her. Then something weird happened; the song held on and on, staying in the Top 40 for the first half of the year. When Casey Kasem counted down 1985’s top hits, “I Feel For You” was #5. It was as though just the act of missing “We Are the World” was a magic wand for her (or anyone’s) work. Khan went on to the appropriately titled hit “Through the Fire” and a generally fulsome post-1985 career. Did Jones even consider her? Was the decision right down to the wire? Even through the fire?
14. Huey Lewis and the News vs. Run-D.M.C.
The decision to invite Huey Lewis and the News has always bugged me more than the others, because if you look at this list of 45 artists picked for all-time posterity, you see that one-ninth of the names are…News?! How does Quincy fill his white-guy quota with the “I Want a New Drug” guys when people like James Taylor and John Mellencamp and David Byrne and Michael McDonald were just sitting around? And maybe that’s the point – maybe Quincy wanted some harmonizers who wouldn’t ask a hundred questions. But when I think about Lewis being handed Prince’s solo (“But if you just believe, there’s no way we can fall”)…come on, the band had had Sports (1984) and its four top-ten hits, and that’s it. Huey and the boys never had a subsequent album sell as many records as Sports, though they weren’t as snake-bitten as some, charting their biggest hit in the summer of 1985 with “The Power of Love” (we’ll just take the technicality there and point out that they’d recorded it before USA for Africa). This is almost more Jones’ fault than any of the others; not only did he send their career in the wrong direction but he chose the wrong band in the first place. Yes it’s true (yes it’s truuue), Huey’s not happy to be stuck with that.
Rock the bells! Let’s admit it, if Quincy was looking to fill his blue-eyed soul card, he probably wasn’t going to call Run D.M.C. – but hey, Quincy, no hip-hop whatsoever? (A blind spot regarding rap may have been the Achilles heel that put Jones career on its own post-USA for Africa bell-curve slide.) It’s not like “We Are the World” couldn’t have used a little more street flavor. And this gives us the chance to point out that Run-D.M.C. performed on the charity-single “Sun City” in 1985, notably before Raising Hell (1986) came out and made them the Kings of Rock and Rap. So it’s not like they weren’t available. More than in any other case, then, let us thank Quincy for not picking up that phone, and through his non-curse, allowing hip-hop to break through to the mainstream. Good thing Quincy never said to walk this way! Or talk this way.
15. Kenny Rogers vs. Bonnie Raitt
If anyone during the 1980s personified “New Country” or what you might call crossover country music, it was Kenny Rogers. After establishing his country bona fides with a series of late-70s duets with the legendary Dottie West, Rogers recorded crossover hits like “Don’t Fall in Love With a Dreamer,” “Lady,” “The Gambler,” “Through the Years,” “We’ve Got Tonight,” and his duet with Dolly Parton, “Islands in the Stream,” which in 1983 became the last country song to hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 until the year 2000 (!). It’s not fair to say that “We Are the World” ended Rogers’ career, but afterward he shunted off to country, never to record any other songs that your non-country friends know. Is it possible that when Quincy called him, Kenny didn’t know when to hold ’em or know when to fold ’em?
A quick phone call was all Quincy had to make; Raitt had already co-organized the 1979 benefit concert MUSE (Musicians United for Safe Energy), and was open to leftist causes, as when she said yes to Steven Van Zandt in 1985 on the song “Sun City.” But was she famous enough for Q? In short: yes. She’d been on the cover of Rolling Stone and had sporadic hits between 1974 and 1984, and she was already a lot more interesting than Kim Carnes (“Bette Davis Eyes,” 1983, and almost nothing else), whom Quincy did manage to corral. Not having drank from the poisoned USA for Africa chalice, Raitt crushed the 1990s, first with Nick of Time (1989), then Luck of the Draw (1991), then Longing in their Hearts (1994). Now that’s giving ’em something to talk about.
16. Sheila E. vs. Anita Baker
We know what you’re thinking. Of course all these artists’ best years were behind them – obviously Quincy had to ask legends, not give votes of confidence to the latest hot talents! Oh really? Besides his decisions to bless (well, curse) Cyndi Lauper and Steve Perry’s brand-new solo careers, please consider these two artists. Sheila E. (short for Escovido) was an up-and-comer and Prince protégé who’d appeared in Purple Rain (1984) and landed a Top 10 hit with (the great song) “The Glamourous Life.” I mean, if Sheila E. hadn’t been part of USA for Africa, who knows how far she might have gone! Instead, her first post-“We Are the World” song was “The Love Bizarre,” which charted lower than “Glamourous,” and then…well, you know the story by now. If that’s what we are, this curse is rather bizarre.
Anita Baker was an up-and-comer who was at about the same level as Sheila E.; her debut album, The Songstress (1983), had four singles, including “Angel,” which in 1984 hit the Top 5 on the R&B chart. Anita Baker would go on to release Rapture (1986), which would sell 8 million copies and chart four huge singles, including “Sweet Love” and “Caught Up in the Rapture.” Having avoided the “We Are the World” curse, she became ANITA BAKER, a staple on a certain kind of smooth-jazz Vegasy circuit for years to come. The point is that while assembling USA for Africa, Quincy, perhaps fatigued from dealing with other A-listers, apparently lost his ear for talent. Was he caught up in the rapture of Prince?
Prince was invited to be part of USA for Africa, but declined. He did contribute a song to the larger album. And if he had sung on “We Are the World,” we might have tried to make a Springsteen-like argument against him, starting with the fact that Prince’s biggest-selling album, Purple Rain, preceded the recording of “We Are the World.” Yet compared to the holding pattern that was Springsteen’s post-“We Are the World” decade, the second half of Prince’s 1980s had the vitality of an artist trying every tool in the box. He wrote some of the biggest hit songs Chaka Khan, Sheena Easton, The Bangles, and Sinead O’Connor would ever have. He worked at a furious pace on fascinating albums like Around the World in a Day (1985), Under the Cherry Moon (1986), and Sign ‘O’ The Times (1987), made a nine-song album for the biggest movie of 1989 (Batman), and changed his name to a glyph. This goes down as a split decision. Nothing compares, nothing compares to Prince.
James Ingram was invited, sang solo, and even padded the “We Are the World” “outro” with soulful vocals. Ingram was Quincy’s project; he’d sung two songs on Quincy’s album The Dude (1981), both of which became Top-20 singles and earned him Grammy nominations like Best New Artist. The question: was Ingram’s career better or worse after “We Are the World”? You could make either case. He did have hits on either side of the song, including “Just Once” (1981) and “Baby Come to Me” (1983), and “Somewhere Out There from The Land Before Time” (1987) and “I Don’t Have the Heart” (1990), his only solo #1. And yet…half of your friends have never heard of James Ingram. His career never quite broke out. It’s like he took the USA for Africa snakebite venom, but somehow developed a partial immunity, keeping his system stable, but preventing it from making leaps and bounds. Just once, can we figure out what Quincy was doing wrong?
No cheating: raise your hand if you even knew Bette Midler was part of “We Are the World.” Midler actually became a movie star for a while there with Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986), Ruthless People (1986), and Beaches (1988), the last of which provided occasion for the song “Wind Beneath My Wings,” Midler’s biggest hit. Somehow, Bette avoided the curse. Was that because she hung out in the background, not getting anywhere near a solo mic? Did you ever know that Quincy’s still Bette’s hero?
Unlike Midler’s, Paul Simon’s voice on “We Are the World” is clear, and his career was already fading, fading…until it was rejuvenated by South African musicians and the album Graceland (1986), which went on to become Simon’s top seller. At the “We Are the World” session, Simon asked Jones and Belafonte what they thought of him traveling to South Africa to make music, factoring in apartheid and America’s partial embargo against the country. Turned out that Simon went with their blessing. It’s not to say that Simon’s career was directly saved by “We Are the World,” but isn’t it interesting that the one mega-A-list musician whose career did NOT peak with “We Are the World” made the greatest subsequent effort to work WITH Africans and not just as a gesture TO them? Or maybe that’s just a crazy theory. Still crazy? Still crazy. Still crazy after all these entries.
So what did it all mean? Probably a vast coincidence. Probably 1984 was an unusually fecund year in pop music, not least because Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones’ Thriller tide lifted other boats (Springsteen, Prince, Tina Turner) into the level of Johnny-Carson-makes-jokes-about-it zeitgeist that no album or musician in, say, 1988 could have done. Probably the music tides were, with or without USA for Africa, turning away from the soft-pop of the early 80s and toward the dance music and heavier beats/chords of the late 80s. Probably…but maybe there was something about “We Are the World” which saturated people’s desires for these musicians. Maybe “We Are the World” was like your favorite uncle showing up drunk one Thanksgiving, trashing the house, and afterward…you still love him, but more warily. Maybe Quincy Jones, the author of dozens of pre-1985 hits like “Soul Bossa Nova,” depleted the last of his musical mojo. Blame it on the bossa nova?