I was very young when the song We Are the World came out. How young? Well, it was a time before CDs (I owned big, square-shaped albums by bands like Men at Work), we had just gotten our very first microwave oven – which was the size of a desk on steroids – and I don’t think that Combos had been invented yet. It was a simpler, less convenient, pretzel-without-cheese kind of era, and it’s not a time I go back to in my head all that often because I prefer to think only of decades when my hair looked good. But last week, when I read an article about how this year is the 30th anniversary of the song being recorded, I clicked on a link and I watched the music video. I don’t think I’ve seen that video in well over twenty years, but every single feeling the song generated in me then came rushing back like a nostalgic tidal wave in a way that was far more emotional than I ever expected.
That song was a big deal to me back then. I remember very little about my childhood, but I remember almost everything about when the song and the video and the Behind the Scenes HBO special came out. I remember being very excited that certain artists were involved: Cyndi Lauper, Tina Turner, that guy my father liked (Bob Dylan), and – most of all – Bruce Springsteen. My sister was a Bruce fan too, but she was far too enmeshed in her Michael Jackson obsession at that time to have the capacity to divide her focus. I mean, she was really into him. She had her very own sequined glove and she cried once when she got into trouble for biting me because her punishment was that she couldn’t get a Michael Jackson door poster.
When the video premiered on MTV, both of us were in front of the television set in my mother’s room – and we were transfixed. A bunch of things resonated immediately during that first viewing. There was that moment when a man came onscreen (I later found out that his name was Ray Charles) and I watched him play the piano and belt out a verse and I was completely captivated by his obvious and supreme talent and I thought to myself, who is this guy? I liked that a lot of the participants were wearing those officially-licensed USA for Africa sweatshirts but that Springsteen wasn’t and instead he kept his black leather jacket on. I was mildly confused as to why Dan Ackroyd was there, Blues Brother or not, and I know that I loved every single second of that song and that video and that my sister and I would sit for hours and just wait for it to come back around in the rotation like we had with Thriller.
(Speaking of Thriller, that video utterly terrified me, but all that meant was that I was perversely drawn to it. It wasn’t even the zombie attack or the corpses rising from the grave to dance or even that creepy look towards the camera Michael Jackson gave at the end while demonic laughter rang out under the track – though that last image was personally responsible for a good week and a half of blood-curdling nightmares; it was actually the disclaimer at the beginning of the video that scared the shit out of me. Do you remember that disclaimer? It said something about how the artists involved did not support the ideas of the occult. It was a time when I didn’t officially know what the word “occult” even meant, but there was something about the connotation of the word and what it sounded like and that I kind of maybe knew that it referred to something cryptic and violently-mystical, and the whole thing left me feeling shaky. Still, I made myself watch. It felt almost like a challenge, and I look back now as an adult who both loves and teaches horror films and I realize that Thriller was probably my very first exposure to scary entertainment – besides the times I watched Cookie Monster play Alistair Cookie on Monsterpiece Theater, though that might not fully count as horror since it was hosted by a furry blue monster.)
We Are the World and the message behind it sunk in. I pledged money to that charity. I participated in Hands Across America – my sister still has the shirt, but I was always really bad at saving things – and I see now that the song was my first real exposure to digestible and understandable philanthropy. It was a populist kind of charity, and that’s not a bad thing; it made me aware of something I hadn’t much known about before.
My sister and I bought a copy of the single and I very vividly recall the two of us poring over the pictures on the back of the album’s sleeve. We counted how many images Springsteen appeared in versus how many Michael Jackson was in. It was like a weird competition we were engaged in for no real reason whatsoever, but it mattered. She liked to tell me that Bruce looked constipated when he sang and I liked to tell her that Michael Jackson’s bunchy white socks looked stupid and I know that we each got very upset when those accusations were brought up, which – of course – meant that we both kept doing it because we were young and we were sisters and our mother worked so we were home alone and I guess there wasn’t a sweater to fight over on that particular afternoon.
What’s funny to me is that just a few days ago I came upon that online article that ranked the participants of the event. I’m an adult now, but I still felt a full-fledged stake in the fact that Springsteen had better land somewhere in the top five. He was – he came in at number five, but I considered writing a viciously scathing letter to the author of the article for forsaking him to rank Cyndi Lauper at number three. I didn’t end up doing it; I heard somewhere once that part of being an adult is learning to exercise restraint, but I did need to take a few calming breaths and it all really made me laugh with the obvious realization that I clearly still feel invested in a song that came out so many years ago.
(Michael Jackson was ranked number two. I’d call my sister to let her know, but I’m really not in the mood for gloating. Some sibling rivalry just refuses to die.)
But it was the rewatching of the video that took me someplace unexpected. I felt as though I went spiraling through the decades and back to my childhood living room where I landed with a metaphorical thud next to a beige couch that was covered in throw pillows in the colors of peach and sea foam. I’d forgotten so much – and the details I did remember happily confounded me by serving to once again reiterate that memory is a very subjective and fucked up thing.
I’d forgotten that the video starts with a spinning picture of Earth, but as soon as it came onto the screen I immediately remembered the sound of the gong that would be happening next and I smiled when I heard it. I was still smiling when Lionel Richie sang the song’s first line. It’s been a very long time since I’ve heard any Lionel Richie – I haven’t pretended to be dancing on the ceiling for quite a while – and I guess it’s easy to forget just how beautiful and soulful somebody’s voice can be, and his really is – it’s like the auditory equivalent of a really decadent topping covering some really good ice cream. But what also occurred to me in that moment of deciding what kind of ice cream I’d toss my Lionel Richie Magic Shell on top of – Phish Food – was that my sister and I used to say that he had the nicest face with features that were so well-arranged and that he appeared to be a very kind person. Now, I have no idea if he really is that kind or if he’s desperately fighting an impulse to morph into a serial killer, but that there even could be a latent killer instinct inside of a pop star wearing a gold blazer was the kind of thing that simply didn’t occur to me when I was a child.
So much more came back so quickly. I got to see what Kenny Roger’s original face looked like – it looked like a real human face, not one that’s been overly injected with Restylane or with the honey mustard dressing from his Roasters franchise – and I saw that moment when Willie Nelson kind of squinted as his voice went into a true twang. I had a moment of surprise because I hadn’t remembered that Paul Simon was even there and there were a few singers whose names I just didn’t know anymore. I looked at the masses of layered necklaces wound around Cyndi Lauper’s neck and I recalled instantly the moment during the Behind the Scenes special when Quincy Jones had to tell her to remove them because they were jangling during the recording. I remembered how Kim Carnes got only a two-word solo (“When we…”) and how funny I used to think that was. Only as an adult can I see that it would be an honor to be included in a group like that in any way and that one can look at getting to sing two whole words by yourself with nothing but gratitude once you understand how the world really works.
I felt as though I had shimmied myself into a memory canon and then been shot back in time to a world where Steve Perry ruled the airwaves. I’d forgotten how good his voice is too, and I immediately pictured him standing at the bottom of a staircase in the Oh, Sherry video and I saw it perfectly in my mind – the entire thing – and I joke about it all the time, but I think it might really be true: the reason I don’t know math or geography is because my mind is stuffed to the overflowing brim with other essential bits of knowledge, like the color shirt Steve Perry wore in a music video in the eighties.
But it was Springsteen’s appearance that made tears spring to my eyes. He looked so young! And he looked way taller than he does today, so either he was surrounded by incredibly short people that night or he was wearing boots with a hidden heel back then.
I hope he didn’t get blisters.
His first solo involved singing the lines, “We are the world. We are the children,” and he did it in his husky Springsteen growl that has probably been the most defining and recurring sound that has cushioned my entire life. Later on, when he performed a duet of the chorus with Stevie Wonder (Stevie fucking Wonder!), I thought, “oh – he’s about to lick his lips before he sings that next line,” and then he licked his lips and I shook my head again at how bizarre the process and the filtering of memory is and at how that visual moment might have read as sexual for some girls, but it never did to me because Springsteen has always been intertwined in my head with memories of my father, and there’s only some aspects of Freud’s theories that I’m willing to buy.
During that glorious mass chorus, there were singers who were holding hands and lots of big hair cut in asymmetrical styles and Jacksons as far as the eye could see and Michael – the clear leader – was wearing his gold-emblazoned jacket and his sequined glove and his bunchy white socks and his voice was exquisite. But I have to say that I didn’t even understand his style back then, during the days when everybody seemed to collectively agree to pretend that any of it made any kind of real sense. And it wasn’t as though I had such stellar fashion myself, happily skipping down that unpaved road to shop at discount boutiques that sold the trendy shit inspired by movies about pilots and strippers so I had a leather bomber jacket just like Maverick and cut-off sweatshirts spilling out of the drawers of my dresser and I spent evenings practicing how to take my bra off through the sleeve of one of those sweatshirts – like the demure exotic dancer did in Flashdance – and I became a pro at it.
I actually took off my bra like that last night.
Retaining knowledge has always been very important to me.
Back in the wistful glow created by watching the video, I flashed back to the first time I saw it with my father.
“Um, he doesn’t have a great voice,” I said to him about Bob Dylan. I felt badly about possibly disparaging one of his heroes, but the whole thing felt confusing. Was I the only person who couldn’t hear a melody when that guy sang?
“No, he doesn’t,” my father agreed, but then he explained that what Dylan was known for was his songwriting, not his singing, and I sort of understood.
I would understand it far better in later years when I heard a recording of The Byrds singing Mr. Tambourine Man and I found out it was Dylan who wrote that song and then I sought out his other work and I listened to his provocative poetry disguised as lyrics and I became a convert. But what I remembered about his experience in USA for Africa was that he felt too inhibited to record his solo in front of the entire group so he did it privately in a booth. Back then I’d found his timid nature kind of weird. Looking back today, I find it oddly comforting to realize that there evidently was a time period when attention was not our society’s greatest commodity.
Will we ever return to that mindset? The newest season of Keeping Up With the Kardashianspremiered last night and I think that show is now in either season ten or eleven, so you do the math. I’m betting it will end in some kind of negative number.
But returning to the present and the ways in which one music video swung me back to the past so quickly that I’m kind of shocked I didn’t end up with whiplash, I couldn’t help but recall that the days when We Are the World came out were not the easiest of days. My parents were newly divorced. I missed how my father would tuck me in at night and how he would arrange my flowered comforter perfectly. My mother talked a lot about how we had no money, and that was probably true, but it made me feel very anxious at a time when I should not have known anything about family finance. I was one of only three kids in my entire grade who had divorced parents and some kid commented on that and the fact that I was Jewish, two things I hadn’t known I was supposed to be ashamed of, and the confusion that was such a heavy part of the scenario was maybe the most stunning part.
I escaped from a lot of the concerns and the fears about those days by watching television and by reading. I still escape that way – for what other reason can one person consume an entire season of House of Cards in a single day if she has nothing to escape? Does any fully happy person worship Frank Underwood? Back then, though, my choices in escapism entertainment were of the more comforting variety. I liked watching sitcoms, especially the ones in reruns because it felt reassuring to know the ending to a story. And, like any kid who had recently watched that rocket ship take off for the moon and felt the kind of excitement generated by MTV, I watched that channel for hours. I’d actively hope and pray to get to see certain videos and often I’d end up thinking that maybe I was clairvoyant or something if right before one video ended I’d start chanting Lucky Star, Lucky Star in my mind and then all of a sudden there she would be – Madonna, writhing across a floor in a half-shirt – and I’d wonder if I had actual powers.
If I had been blessed with any kind of powers, I wasted them over the years by choosing to chant for things like songs to get played during concerts or for a good parking space at whatever Giants Stadium is called now. I should have banked those powers and then used it all on something really good, like a devilishly handsome soulmate with some edge, but it’s not like I can go back to the past and do anything over. But by clicking on a link that led me gently by the hand back to some days where my pain has been muffled and the only thing that really appears anymore is what was glorious about the moment, well, it kind of allows me to believe in some kind of magic.*
(*The use of the word “magic” should not lead any reader to make the connection that the writer of this blog has any affiliation with the occult. In fact, just the word occult still scares the bejeezus out of her, and for that she continues to blame Michael Jackson and not Bruce Springsteen, who does not look constipated when he sings, no matter what her sister might try to tell you.)