With events like Live 8 and Live Earth geared more toward raising consciousness than money, we got to wondering what had happened to that other staple of celebrity charity, the all-star single.
The 1984 Band Aid song "Do They Know It's Christmas?" — which featured U2, Boy George, Duran Duran, Sting and George Michael — raised millions for victims of famine in Ethiopia and spurred the first wave of charity singles. The U.S. version, "We Are the World," followed a year later, with USA for Africa enlisting Michael Jackson, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles and Bruce Springsteen for famine relief.
From there, it was a blur of songs, some great (Artists Against Apartheid's 1985 track "Sun City," which protested South Africa's racial segregation and included Dylan, Springsteen, Little Steven, Miles Davis, Joey Ramone and Ringo Starr); some forgettable (the 1985 heavy metal entry "Stars" by Hear 'n Aid, featuring members of Dio, Iron Maiden and yes, Spinal Tap); and some just plain weird (2005's indie "Do They Know It's Hallowe'en," a Band Aid satire by the North American Hallowe'en Prevention Initiative to raise money for UNICEF, featuring Beck, members of the Arcade Fire, Peaches, Feist and Karen O).
In the past two decades, there have been benefit songs for Nancy Reagan's antidrug campaign, rainforest preservation and West Coast gang truces. In 1986 there was even a mock Ramones Aid video, in which the godfathers of punk lampooned the whole business with their phony "Hands Across Your Face" charity.
With a few notable exceptions (Elton John's 1997 charity remake of "Candle in the Wind" in honor of Princess Diana), most of these tunes haven't come close to the funds raised by the Band Aid/ USA for Africa singles more than 20 years ago.
"When those songs came out, it was the height of MTV, before the Internet, before the multi-artist collaboration at every awards show, and it was something unique to see all these artists from different genres coming together to do something," said Silvio Pietroluongo, associate director of charts for Billboard magazine.
"I think overall, there is a general feeling of wanting to do something and not quite knowing what to do," Alicia Keys told MTV News on Saturday at Live Earth (see "Kanye West, Fall Out Boy, Alicia Keys Are Out Of This World At Live Earth"). "So when things like a big single, or something where people are all performing at one time or one place, you feel the momentum. ... But the reason why it doesn't quite happen so much anymore? I don't know. I'm not sure."
"We Are the World" received an incredible amount of attention and airplay, partly because of the gimmick factor of seeing such world-famous chart-toppers as Jackson and Springsteen rub elbows and the novelty of the "who is singing what?" aspect of the single, according to Chicago Tribune rock critic Greg Kot.
"People were talking about that song around the watercooler, but what's happened since is the novelty wore off," Kot said. "My theory is that hip-hop stole that thunder with all the cameos you see by artists on everyone's records. That has worn the luster off some of those all-star teams."
"It's kind of seen as corny to do that now," AFI's Jade Puget said.. " 'We Are the World' that was very now and happening. But to do that now, it's kind of like 'Oh that's kind of silly' to have Lionel Richie in there singing and stuff. ... It'd be kind of laughable even if it was supposed to be serious. I don't know if that's gonna work in 2007."
And while fund-raising by musicians remains a noble cause, the most notable thing about recent charity singles is that many have been announced with great fanfare and have either never happened or have fizzled out on delivery. Consider the following:
» Michael Jackson's 9/11 benefit "What More Can I Give" finally dropped with a thud as a digital file two years after the terror attacks with a little-heard track featuring Celine Dion, 'NSYNC, Mariah Carey and Destiny's Child. Jackson also claimed to be putting together a Hurricane Katrina benefit single called "From the Bottom of My Heart" with Snoop Dogg, R. Kelly and Ciara, but that song has yet to be released (see "Michael Jackson Working On Katrina Song — But With Whom?").
» Reports surfaced in 2004 that Timbaland was prepping an all-star single called "The World Is Ours" to benefit the YouthAIDS organization. The song was to feature Missy Elliott, Justin Timberlake, Bubba Sparxxx and Kiley Dean, but it was never released.
» Another 9/11 song, a remake of "We Are Family" with original members of Chic, Diana Ross, the Pointer Sisters and Patti LaBelle, also disappeared without a trace, as did the 2001 do-over of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," to benefit African AIDS charities, with 'NSYNC, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Jennifer Lopez.
» Super-producer Rodney Jerkins was slated to release yet another "We Are Family" remake last year, with stars like Mariah Carey and Mary J. Blige, but the project to benefit victims of Hurricane Katrina never materialized.
» A tune that did come out, but to little fanfare, was the Katrina benefit "Come Together Now," a rap/pop tune that featured everyone from Celine Dion and the Game to Jesse McCartney, Nick and Aaron Carter, Ruben Studdard, Joss Stone, Chingy and Wyclef Jean; the video was introduced by a somber Sharon Stone. The song was also intended as a benefit for the victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami.
» Sharon Osbourne got in on the action in 2005 with a redo of Eric Clapton's "Tears in Heaven" to benefit the victims of the Southeast Asia disaster. The song featured Ozzy and Kelly, as well as Elton John, Pink, Mary J. Blige, Gwen Stefani, Velvet Revolver and actor Robert Downey Jr. Because of the delay in its release, that single also eventually benefited the victims of Hurricane Katrina as well.
Count Kelly Clarkson among those who would pitch in for a superstar charity single — "As long as it's making money and going to the right places and helping people, why the heck not?" — though she understands why the projects have a hard time getting off the ground. "I think people now are just so jaded and think everything is so cheesy," she told MTV News at Live Earth. "It's sad because, like, you're cooler than Diana Ross and all the other people who have done it? No, you're not. You're cooler than Aretha? I don't think so. People get so caught up in being cool and rock and roll. And they're lame. People, you're not that cool. No one's that cool."