Pop Culture History Lesson: 'We Are the World' Turns 30

by Whitney Matheson 1:28 PM PST, March 06, 2015

It's hard to bet on the future, but of this I'm certain: Three decades from now, I'll still know every lyric to "We Are the World."

Released 30 years ago this week, the chart-topping charity single occupies at least as much space in my brain as my second-grade teacher (who made our class sing it repeatedly) and my first Sony Walkman (purchased around the time of its release).

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"We Are the World" wasn't just a pop-culture event; it was a bona fide movement. Inspired by the success of Band Aid's 1984 charity release, Do They Know It's Christmas?, entertainer and activist Harry Belafonte came up with the idea to record an American track for famine relief in Africa.

Quincy Jones and Michael Omartian produced the song, which was penned by two of the biggest musicians at the height of their fame: Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie. More than 45 other artists agreed to participate, including Bruce Springsteen, Tina Turner, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles and Willie Nelson. (Also there: comedian Dan Aykroyd, who looked about as out of place then as he does now.)

"Everybody was on the case, and they weren't involved in egos," Quincy Jones said in 1985 of the all-star recording session. "That's one of the key words we had that night: 'Check your ego at the door.' And everybody did."

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Though Band Aid had recruited some heavy-hitters for its holiday single -- Sting, Phil Collins, Bono and Duran Duran among them -- the "We Are the World" lineup packed 10 times the star power and represented pop, R&B, country, rock, folk, soul and other genres.

This diversity boosted the track's popularity while also creating a fun game of "Name That Voice" for listeners. At the time, my 7-year-old self had no problem identifying Jackson and Cyndi Lauper, while my parents were quick to pick out Diana Ross and Paul Simon. (The younger set also enjoyed playing "Mimic That Voice"; I'd say "We Are the World" is responsible for birthing thousands of Dylan and Springsteen impressions.)

And sure, the lyrics don't tell us a thing about the famine in Ethiopia; the line "it's true we'll make a better day, just you and me" could refer to almost anything. But this simplicity helped transform the song into an instant anthem, one that could be belted out by grandmothers, second-grade teachers and 7-year-olds alike.

And there's no doubt "We Are the World" benefited from the age of the music video, an era Jackson helped pioneer. Even today, it's hard to turn away from the A-list cast - and entertained by silly details like Jackson's sparkling socks and Lindsey Buckingham's gravity-defying hair.

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Many charity singles have come and gone since "We Are the World," though none have packed quite the same punch. Also released in '85, "Tears Are Not Enough" is Canada's take on the concept and features Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot, Bryan Adams and other musical Canucks:

Later that year, "We Are the World" alums Stevie Wonder and Dionne Warwick joined Gladys Knight and Elton John for "That's What Friends Are For," a benefit for the American Foundation for AIDS Research:

The era of the supergroup charity single then took a significant hit with 1991's "Voices That Care," a tune aimed to boost morale during Operation Desert Storm and benefit the Red Cross. While that lineup included several popular musicians (Garth Brooks, Luther Vandross, Will Smith, Kenny G), it also featured a random selection of athletes and entertainers, from Gary Busey to Mike Tyson to Downtown Julie Brown:

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"We Are the World" went on to win four GRAMMYs and sell more than 20 million copies worldwide. The recording, which took place hours after the 1985 American Music Awards, was honored at the 1986 AMAs for its impact. The ceremony closed with an all-star "We Are the World" sing-along that included the original cast, Whitney Houston, Johnny Cash, Aretha Franklin, Paul McCartney, Elizabeth Taylor and others:

"We Are the World" was a fairly simple song that came along at a time when, in many ways, the world was a much simpler place. While its success and ubiquity may never be matched - back in '85, more than 6,000 radio stations played it simultaneously -- the concept continues. (In November, for instance, Bob Geldof and his Band Aid 30 supergroup recorded a new version of "Do They Know It's Christmas?")

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No matter what we think of the song itself, "We Are the World" remains a significant pop culture memory for many of us. Beyond singing it in school, wearing the T-shirt and watching the video on VHS (or Beta), perhaps it didn't dramatically alter our lives. But at least it was intended to improve the lives of others ... and give Dan Aykroyd something cool to do on a Thursday night.

Whitney Matheson is a journalist and pop-culture critic who founded USA Today's award-winning blog Pop Candy. Follow her on Twitter at @whitneymatheson.