Monday, July 13, 2009


I've been working on this entry on and off for three weeks. In that time it has started and stopped and grown, veered, screeched, righted itself and changed direction, but never really gotten anywhere. Near the beginning it took on the theme of 'survival' as I read more and more about General Motors, the growing jobless and homeless, uprisings in Iran over the recent election, and a girl who fell from the sky and lived to tell about it. What does it mean for us to survive (as an economy, a political system, a globalized world, an individual)? And, more importantly, where lies the line when surviving turns to thriving, or vice versa?

Then, amongst these global questions, came a rash of high profile deaths - literally. First David Carradine, under the most exposing of circumstances, then Ed McMahon, who could no longer be saved by the cash rich and taste poor Donald Trump. Then Farrah, who seemed to be resisting her cancer by playing it out in a made for TV movie with the hopes of a happy ending. And then, within hours of her death, the King of Pop.

Unlike the others, Michael Jackson's death is rapidly transforming into a new and greater form of survival. The gaps in his home life are being filled in by previously absent film clips of a near normal dad playing chess with a near normal child -- except this marble and gilded chess set cost nearly $90,000 and the two year old, shockingly blonde child is wearing a white satin tux. His musical life, which was heading down what some people thought was a comeback dead end, has magically and beautifully been resuscitated. What a bittersweet treat it has been these last two weeks to rediscover the sound of his musical innocence in the air all of a sudden like dandelion seeds. Or to remember again the flood of altruism and awareness that "We Are the World" initiated.

Think back. Angelina Jolie, queen of global star causes today, was 10 when those 45 artists led by Michael, Lionel Richie, and Quincy Jones responded to the famine in Ethiopia with their greatest, creative arsenal. The single sold 7.5 million copies in the US alone, 3 million in album form, and went on to raise over $63 million for African famine relief. The door might have been cracked open by Band Aid and Farm Aid, but "We Are the World" was as much strategy and scheduling miracle as song.

I remember seeing the video for the very first time and recognizing immediately the intentional musical merging of black and white, pop and soul, old stars and new. There is a democracy to the voices through the structure of duets, singles, duets, chorus, and the alternating intensity of crescendos and lightness. No line is completed by a single singer, but started by one, shared in the middle, finished by a second. Stevie Wonder joins Lionel Richie, Paul Simon completes the thought; Kenny Rogers joins in, then takes over. Tina Turner, her usual rowdiness deferred to God's great big family, is paired -- magically, surprisingly, beautifully -- with Billy Joel, channeling a long lost John Lennon perhaps -- you know love is all we neeeeeeeeed.

Then, the chorus starts in quiet, shiny solo -- a toe tapping, glove wearing, angelic sounding Michael Jackson at his not-yet-old and not-still-young best self. We are the world, we are the children, we are the ones who make a brighter day so let's start giving. And as he glitters in brocade jacket, eye shadow, perfectly shaped curls and delicate, high pitch voice, you really believe that it makes complete sense - that we ARE the children, that we ARE the world, that we CAN make a brighter day if we just start giving. Jackson's voice is not heavy with intensity or emotion like everyone else's is, he's simply calm, silvery and certain.

His seraphic chorus floats over to Diana Ross, who briefly takes the lead, then Dionne Warwick mixes with Willy Nelson (!), joined next by Al Jarreau, and then the great, gravelly voice of the Boss, who looks 25 years old, fresh from New Jersey, if he's a day. Kenny Loggins meets up with Steve Perry (Steve Perry!?!) who's joined by kiss-on-my-list Daryl Hall, Huey Lewis, and Cyndi Lauper (who supposedly had to redo her part because her clanging jewelry made so much noise). White, black, blonde, red, afroed, mustached, smiling, grimacing, loud, soft, famous. Cyndi Lauper's yeah yeah yeah yeah-s capture perfectly the sense of individuality expressed solely in service of the far more magnificent and significant collective.

Bob Geldof had tried to duplicate his "Do They Know It's Christmas?" fundraising single with US stars, but, much to his frustration, it never materialized. As quoted in a March, 1985 article in the LA Times, reflecting on the "We Are the World" recording, "I shouldn't have had to call them in the first place. After they heard what we did with Band Aid...., they should have been calling me. I don't care what they had to do, even if it meant canceling shows. Lives are at stake."

Somehow, that's just not how we seem to work. Go to central London for any length of time, stand in the ruins of John Soane, and you realize, in cold hard stone, America is an adolescent nation by comparison - not yet old but not quite still young. In some ways, it is a huge relief, just to see how far we have come in so short a time. Perhaps it is our capitalist democratic frontier roots, but we don't flock to the cry of necessity so much as wander slowly towards need like a light, a kind of 'build it and they will come' mentality of altruism. "We Are the World" was a success because it was so good, not because it was such a good idea.

Forty-five artists participated in "We Are the World" and at least 50 others who expressed interest were turned away. Prince never showed up; Pat Benatar and Madonna were otherwise engaged. When Quincy Jones sent out the demo tapes he also included the now famous directive to "check all egos at the front door". The fact that that happened was as much of an accomplishment as simply getting 45 of the most famous singers of the mid1980s in the same room at the same time, happily.

People die all the time, shocking and sad as it may feel, but those who are famous are often displayed - in life and in death - as role models and stereotypes for the rest of us. Who do we want to be like, who do we see as influences, who do we shun? In this media saturated world, we are quick to judge what is given to us shallow, free, and often unfiltered. If the comeback "This Is It" tour would've been a disaster, would we ever have returned to the innocence of "I'll be There"? What is survival for each of us, and how do we make certain that we do our best to not live at that low limit, but to thrive as individuals in support of the larger collective?

Is it true, as a friend of mine recently reminded me, that "every man's death diminishes me" (MVF via Ernest Hemingway via John Donne)? What are we to make, then, of this month of loss, ending not so insignificantly with Dr. George Tiller being gunned down by a hypocritical pro-lifer? What are we to make of the deaths in Iran, the willingness to sacrifice for the cause so much bigger than oneself? Maryam, a 36-year-old woman flashing peace signs to passing cars and yelling for her candidate, says to a TIME magazine reporter, "Let them beat me. My country is going to waste. What am I in comparison?" Or of those in Iraq still, and Afghanistan? Somewhere between Maryam, Dr. Tiller, and Michael Jackson -- but not equivalent to any of them -- lies the balance we are willing, and able, to fight for. No, we are not embarrassed, nor should we be, by our individual successes and accomplishments, but as I've told many aspiring and talented students, it's not what you have, it's what you do with what you have that really matters. It's not where you go (Harvard University or Santa Monica State, New York City or Tulsa), it's what you do once you get there that counts.

We must be the world, without being the whole of the world. We must be the children, without being children. Our better day must be a better day for everyone, large and small, young and old, black and white, gay and straight, disco, pop, blues, country, and techno -- and everything in between. Life all of a sudden seems very short, and simultaneously infinite, beautifully eccentric, and very, very full of possibilities.

See the video here.
Read the LA Times article here.
Read the Wikipedia entry with stories, participants, and disputes here.

The image is my diagram of the first verses and chorus of "We Are the World", the way duets and singles lead, overlap, part, and rejoin. As an architect, it's the way I make sense of things.

1 comment:

lcsamuels said...

An addition from my friend Frances:

We are at the very beginning of time for the human race.
It is not unreasonable that we grapple with problems…our responsibility is to do what we can, learn what we can, improve the solutions and pass them on.
It is our responsibility to leave the men and women of the future a free hand. In this impetuous youth of the human race,
we can make grave errors…This we will do if we say we have the answers now, if we suppress all discussion, all criticism, saying
“This is it, man is saved!” and thus doom man, confined to the limits of our present imagination

permit us to question—to doubt, that’s all—not to be sure.

-Richard Feynman from The Pleasure of Finding Things Out