After the American Music Awards in January 1985, Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson led a group of over 40 musicians (and also La Toya Jackson) in recording “We Are The World” to raise money for African famine relief under the name USA for Africa. We take star-studded tributes and fundraisers for granted these days, but in terms of sheer wattage and media hype, none of them can hold a candle to USA for Africa. This was a “just stand in the back and look pretty, Harry Belafonte and Smokey Robinson – we don’t have any lines for you to sing” collection of talent.
The biggest pop stars to miss the recording session were Madonna and Prince. I don’t know why Madonna wasn’t there, and I’m not going to bother to look it up. The fact that most people don’t know is a sign that most people don’t care. And if Prince had decided to leave the club at 2:00 AM instead of 3:00 AM that morning, no one would have cared about his absence for long either.
But in the wee hours of the morning, one of Prince’s bodyguards punched a photographer outside a club and wound up in jail, and the optics were bad: Prince partying all night while the rest of the industry was “checking their egos at the door.”
There are many different accounts of the night’s events, but this excerpt from Alan Light’s book quotes several people in Prince’s inner circle and seems to present things fairly. A few of the more incriminating rumors are refuted (some sources reported that Prince was a last-minute no-show; Light makes it clear that Prince never offered to sing), but Prince comes off as tone deaf at best, ignoring his managers Albert Fargnoli and Alan Leeds:
Dude, the eyes are on you, okay? You just cleaned up. The two biggest things on the planet tonight are this recording session and you, and everybody is going to want to know why that’s not one thing. So take your awards and keep your ass in the hotel. You cannot run the clubs the way you usually do, with two bodyguards, chasing girls. Not tonight, not while this is going on.
For a few weeks, Prince was pilloried in the media, from the Los Angeles Times to Saturday Night Live…
I am also the world!
I am also the children!
I am the one who had to bail them out
Now ain’t that giving?
Still, once the smoke cleared, there wasn’t much of a scandal here. Prince himself didn’t punch anybody, and it’s clear that “We Are The World” didn’t need him. The quote from an organizer that made the rounds at the time (“The effort would have been much more marketable with Prince’s participation”) is tough to swallow. There have been few things in history more marketable than “We Are The World.” It was the biggest selling single of the entire decade. It can be argued that Prince raised more money for USA for Africa by contributing an unreleased track (“4 The Tears In Your Eyes”) to the We Are The World album than he could have by singing a dozen words or less on the single. (I know I wouldn’t have bought the album if not for the Prince track.)
Beyond that, it’s clear that Prince didn’t need “We Are The World” either. Today it’s hard to believe that “We Are The World” was the biggest selling single of the 1980s. When you hear “Raspberry Beret” or “Money For Nothing,” it’s easy to imagine that it’s 1985 again. When you hear “We Are The World,” you… wait, you never hear “We Are The World”! Half of the remaining FM stations in this country blast eighties hits all day, but “We Are The World” gets in the mix about as often as “The Curly Shuffle.”
The song raised a lot of money and awareness, and every successful celebrity fundraiser that followed owes a debt to it. But musically, the song has not endured, and it does not rank among the best work of just about anyone on that stage. I would guess that in 2016, most young adults aren’t very familiar with the song. Time hasn’t been kind to the lyrics either; they range from self-absorbed (“We’re saving our own lives!”) to clunky (“It’s time to lend a hand to life”). “As God has shown us, by turning stone to bread” is a nice enough sentiment, although, reached for comment, God simply stated, “No, I didn’t.” (There is no biblical basis for that lyric.)
There are many theories to explain Prince’s absence, ranging from shyness to arrogance, but Wendy Melvoin’s claim that “he thought the song… was horrible” is a believable one. Would Prince’s vocal on the best-selling single of the decade have even warranted a mention in his obituary? Probably not.
The subtitle to the excerpt from Light’s book is “At the apex of his success, Prince made a high-profile decision that damaged his reputation for years.” Manager Bob Cavallo boldly states, “I believe that moment is what made people ambivalent about his greatness” and that it took two decades for Prince to live it down.
Yes, it’s true that Prince would never again experience the white-hot superstardom of Purple Rain. I don’t believe that anyone else has, either. But I don’t think “We Are The World” had anything to do with it. A month before Prince made that “high-profile decision,” he made a conscious decision to float back to earth. He put the finishing touches on Around The World In A Day, an album with the implied subtitle “Thanks, But I’m Done With The White-Hot Superstardom Of Purple Rain.”
To me, the only lasting legacy of Prince’s “We Are The World” scandal is the song “Hello,” and I’ll have more to say about that B-side later in the week.