Pop culture history lesson: 'We Are the World' turns 30

Before you go, we thought you'd like these...
Before you go close icon

35 PHOTOS
Michael Jackson we are the world
See Gallery
Pop culture history lesson: 'We Are the World' turns 30
MN - 1988: Pop singer Michael Jackson performs onstage during his 'Bad World Tour' in 1988. (Photo by Jim Steinfeldt/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
PASADENA, CA - 1993: Singer Michael Jackson performs with hundreds of children at the 1993 Pasadena, California, Superbowl XXVII halftime show. The 'King of Pop' performed several songs including 'We Are The World,' during the 15-minute show. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)
PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 31: Michael Jackson performs 'Heal the World' during the Halftime show as the Dallas Cowboys take on the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXVII at Rose Bowl on January 31, 1993 in Pasadena, California. The Cowboys won 52-17. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)
1988: Pop singer Michael Jackson performs onstage during his 'Bad World Tour' in 1988. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
TOKYO - SEPTEMBER 14: Michael Jackson performing on stage during his 'Bad' World Tour in Tokyo,Japan on the 14th of September 1987. (Photo by Dave Hogan/Getty Images)
1988: Pop singer Michael Jackson performs onstage during his 'Bad World Tour' in 1988. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
American entertainer Michael Jackson (1958 - 2009) during his Dangerous World Tour, circa 1992. (Photo by Tim Roney/Getty Images)
LONDON - JULY 15: Michael Jackson performing on stage during his 'Bad' World Tour at Wembley Stadium on the 15th of July 1988.While performing in London, England Michael breaks a world record (as shown in the Guinness Book Of World Records) with 504,000 people attending 7 sold out shows at Wembley Stadium, more than any other artist (Photo by Dave Hogan/Getty Images)
US pop star and entertainer Michael Jackson performs during a concert at Vincennes hypodrome on September 13, 1992. Michael Jackson died on June 25, 2009 after suffering a cardiac arrest, sending shockwaves sweeping across the world and tributes pouring in on June 26 for the tortured music icon revered as the 'King of Pop.' AFP PHOTO/Bertrand GUAY (Photo credit should read BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images)
Michael Jackson (Photo by KMazur/WireImage)
US pop star and entertainer Michael Jackson performs during his first date in Great Britain at Wembley Stadium on July 30, 1992. Michael Jackson died on June 25, 2009 after suffering a cardiac arrest, sending shockwaves sweeping across the world and tributes pouring in on June 26 for the tortured music icon revered as the 'King of Pop.' AFP PHOTO/Thierry SALIOU (Photo credit should read THIERRY SALLIOU/AFP/GettyImages)
US pop star and entertainer Michael Jackson thanks fans after winning three World Music Awards in Monaco on May 12, 1993. Michael Jackson died on June 25, 2009 after suffering a cardiac arrest, sending shockwaves sweeping across the world and tributes pouring in on June 26 for the tortured music icon revered as the 'King of Pop.' AFP PHOTO/Jacques SOFFER (Photo credit should read JACQUES SOFFER/AFP/GettyImages)
Michael Jackson poses at a press conference before a date on his HIStory world tour in 1996. (Photo by Phil Dent/Redferns)
(FILES) US pop star and entertainer Michael Jackson performs during the opening concert of the Asian leg of his 'Dangerous' world tour in National Stadium in Bangkok on August 24, 1993. Michael Jackson died on June 25, 2009 after suffering a cardiac arrest, sending shockwaves sweeping across the world and tributes pouring in on June 26 for the tortured music icon revered as the 'King of Pop.' AFP PHOTO/Pongsak CHAIYANUWONG (Photo credit should read PONGSAK CHAIYANUWONG/AFP/Getty Images)
PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 31: Michael Jackson performs 'Heal the World' during the Halftime show as the Dallas Cowboys take on the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXVII at Rose Bowl on January 31, 1993 in Pasadena, California. The Cowboys won 52-17. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)
(FILES) US pop star and entertainer Michael Jackson (R) and rock guitarist Slash perform the opening number at the 1995 MTV video Music Awards September 07,1995 in New York. Michael Jackson died on June 25, 2009 after suffering a cardiac arrest, sending shockwaves sweeping across the world and tributes pouring in on June 26 for the tortured music icon revered as the 'King of Pop.' AFP PHOTO/Don EMMERT (Photo credit should read DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - NOVEMBER 14: American singer songwriter Michael Jackson performs live on stage at the Sydney Cricket Ground during his 'HIStory' world concert tour on November 14, 1996 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Peter Carrette Archive/Getty Images)
(FILES) US pop star Michael Jackson waves to photographers during a press conference in Paris on March 19, 1996. Michael Jackson died on June 25, 2009 after suffering a cardiac arrest, sending shockwaves sweeping across the world and tributes pouring in for the tortured music icon revered as the 'King of Pop.' AFP PHOTO / VINCENT AMALVY (Photo credit should read VINCENT AMALVY/AFP/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, UNITED STATES: US singer Michael Jackson performs during the Democratic National Committee (DNC) benefit concert, 'A Night at the Apollo', at the world-famous Apollo Theater 24 April 2002 in New York. Jackson, 45, is due to appear in court 16 January to be arraigned on seven counts that include lewd acts against a 14-year-old boy. He has to declare whether he is innocent or guilty of the charges Santa Barbara prosecutors filed against him 18 December. AFP PHOTO/TIMOTHY A. CLARY (Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)
374211 01: FILE PHOTO: Pop star Michael Jackson at a press conference to announce his upcoming concerts to benefit the World Peace Foundation for Children, WPFC, May 15, 1998 in Los Angeles, Ca. Beverly Hills plastic surgeon, Dr. Nicholas Chugay claims to be able to make people look like their favorite celebrity, including Michael Jackson. (Photo by Brenda Chase/Online USA)
(FILES): This September 4, 1999 file photo shows former South African president Nelson Mandela (L) with American pop-icon Michael Jackson, who was given a lifetime achievement award, during the Kora All Africa Music Awards in Sun City, some 120 km northeast of Johannesburg. Jackson died on June 25, 2009 after suffering a cardiac arrest, multiple US media outlets reported, sending shockwaves around the entertainment world. AFP PHOTO / Files / Adil BRADLOW (Photo credit should read ADIL BRADLOW/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - APRIL 24: Michael Jackson performs at a benefit concert for the Democratic Party at the world famous Apollo Theater in New York, United States on April 24, 2002. (Photo by David LEFRANC/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
MUNICH, GERMANY - JULY 4: Michael Jackson performs on stage on HIStory World Tour at the Olympic Stadium on July 4th 1997 in Munich, Germany. (Photo by Bernd Muller/Redferns)
Michael Jackson performs during Democratic National Committee's 'A Night at the Apollo' - Show at Harlem's World Famous Apollo Theater in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by KMazur/WireImage)
Michael Jackson and Dave Navarro perform during Democratic National Committee's 'A Night at the Apollo' - Show at Harlem's World Famous Apollo Theater in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by KMazur/WireImage)
(NO TABLOIDS) Michael Jackson performs during Democratic National Committee's 'A Night at the Apollo' - Show at the Harlem's World Famous Apollo Theater in New York City, New York. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage)
SANTA MARIA, UNITED STATES: US pop star Michael Jackson arrives at the Santa Barbara County courthouse for his child molestation trial Wednesday 20 April 2005 in Santa Maria, California. The mother of Michael Jackson's teenage sex accuser wrapped up five days of crucial testimony 19 April, leaving jurors to ponder her extraordinary story and whether she can be believed. For days, the 37-year-old truck driver's daughter and domestic abuse survivor sat just feet from the superstar in the courtroom, refering to him at one point as 'Goliath' and accusing him of having 'fooled the world.' AFP PHOTO/Stan HONDA/Pool (Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - APRIL 24: Michael Jackson performs at a benefit concert for the Democratic Party at the world famous Apollo Theater in New York, United States on April 24, 2002. (Photo by David LEFRANC/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
LONDON - NOVEMBER 15: Singer Michael Jackson performs on stage during the 2006 World Music Awards at Earls Court on November 15, 2006 in London. (Photo by Getty Images/Getty Images)
LONDON - NOVEMBER 15: Singer Michael Jackson performs on stage during the 2006 World Music Awards at Earls Court on November 15, 2006 in London. (Photo by MJ Kim/Getty Images)
LONDON - NOVEMBER 15: Singer Michael Jackson arrives at the 2006 World Music Awards at Earls Court on November 15, 2006 in London. (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)
LONDON - NOVEMBER 15: Singer Michael Jackson performs on stage during the 2006 World Music Awards at Earls Court on November 15, 2006 in London. (Photo by Dave Hogan/Getty Images)
LONDON - NOVEMBER 15: Singer Michael Jackson arrives at the 2006 World Music Awards at Earls Court on November 15, 2006 in London. (Photo by Dave Hogan/Getty Images)
Michael Jackson at the Earls Court in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Tony Barson/WireImage)
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE
SHOW CAPTION +
HIDE CAPTION

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).

NEWS: Pop Songs Meant For Other Singers

"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."

NEWS: Bieber: I Grew Up Quick

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.

NEWS: Smokey Weighs in on 'Motown: The Musical'

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:

NEWS: Garth Brooks Talks Comeback on ET

"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?")

NEWS: Justin Timberlake Honors Idol Garth Brooks

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.

Read Full Story

From Our Partners