Heal the World: 20 Songs for a Good Cause
“Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent,” Victor Hugo wrote in 1864 — approximately 120 years before Band Aid was a thing. Songs have long been powerful vehicles for social change, either through the messages contained in their lyrics, or as high-profile celebrity fundraisers. Early folk tunes carried rebellious subtexts designed to drive listeners to action (or at least keep the faith) and later songs by the likes of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan were imbued with the sound of change.
As music transitioned from a performance-based medium to a primarily recorded one, mega-production benefit singles became the splashiest way to make a statement through song. Some became instantly hummable anthems, and others feature the vocal stylings of Jean-Claude Van Damme. Hey, it’s all for a good cause.
“Bangla Desh” by George Harrison (1971)
While working together on the documentary Raga in the summer of 1971, George Harrison’s longtime friend and mentor Ravi Shankar informed the former Beatle of a humanitarian crisis unfolding half a globe away. The nation of East Pakistan (formerly East Bengal) had endured a devastating cyclone the previous November, leaving more than 300,000 dead. Inaction and general apathy from the ruling West Pakistani government prompted a push for liberation, as Eastern nationals declared themselves the independent country of Bangladesh. The move sparked a bloody war, with West Parkistani troops committing genocidal acts against Bangladeshi citizens. Adding to the catastrophe, refugees found their passage to safe harbor in northeast India hampered by torrential rains and flooding. Shankar, a native Bengal, urged Harrison to use his global influence to render aid. “I was in a very sad mood, having read all this news,” Shankar told Rolling Stone, “and I said, ‘George, this is the situation, I know it doesn’t concern you, I know you can’t possibly identify.’ But while I talked to George he was very deeply moved … and he said, ‘Yes, I think I’ll be able to do something.'”
Over the course of six weeks, he hastily assembled a star-studded lineup for two benefit shows at New York’s Madison Square Garden, slated for August 1st. Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, Billy Preston, Leon Russell and the band Badfinger all gamely signed on, but Harrison needed something more to earn some advance hype — and dollars. “I got tired of people saying, ‘But what can I do?’ Also, the reluctance of the press to report the full details created the need to bring attention to it,” he wrote in his 1979 memoir I Me Mine. “So the song ‘Bangla Desh’ was written specifically to get attention to the war prior to the concert.” Recorded at L.A.’s Record Plant in early July, the Phil Spector co-production begins with Harrison’s introduction to the crisis (“My friend came to me with sadness in his eyes / Told me that he wanted help before his country dies”) before calling on listeners to “help us save some lives.” The track was rush-released, hitting stands just days before the New York concert dates. Its striking sleeve featured a startling UPI image of a mother and her starving child, along with news clippings detailing the atrocity, and information on how to donate to the emergency relief fund.
A standout number at the Concert for Bangladesh shows, the song would reach Number 23 on Billboard chart. Along with the ticket sales and the accompanying triple-disc live album, “Bengla Desh” helped raise millions for Bangladeshi aid. Equally important, it helped establish a blueprint for rock charity singles and large scale benefit shows to come. “The Concert for Bangladesh was just a moral stance,” Harrison later said. “These kinds of things have grown over the years, but what we did showed the musicians and people are more humane than politicians. Today, people accept the commitment rock ‘n’ roll musicians have when they perform for a charity. When I did it, they said things like, ‘He’s only doing this to be nice.'”
“Don’t Drive Drunk” by Stevie Wonder (1984)
Stevie Wonder has a long history of using his music for social change, dating back to his achingly earnest 1966 version of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” The Motown wunderkind’s 1981 single “Happy Birthday” became an anthem for the campaign to make Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday, and it remains a beloved song of celebration to this day. The same can’t be said for “Don’t Drive Drunk.” One of the more on-the-nose activism songs in the pop music cannon, the well-intended tune was included on the Wonder-led soundtrack to The Woman in Red, and used as the centerpiece for a US Department of Transportation PSA. In addition to a music video and 30-second television ad spot, the campaign included a poster, which was placed in 16,000 high schools, featuring Wonder’s image above the words “Before I ride with a drunk, I’ll drive myself.”
“Do They Know It’s Christmas?” by Band Aid (1984)
The age of the celebrity supergroup charity single truly began in October 1984, when Boomtown Rats singer Bob Geldof watched in horror as footage of the worsening Ethiopian famine played across his television screen as part of a BBC News documentary. He was still haunted by the images a week later when a chance encounter reunited him with an old friend, Ultravox frontman Midge Ure, who was just as troubled by what he had seen on the report. The men decided to channel their outrage into a new charity single.
The plan grew significantly larger in scope after Geldof made some calls to the British pop community. “I rang Sting and he said, ‘Yeah, count me in,’ and then [Simon] Le Bon. He just immediately said, ‘Tell me the date and we’ll clear the diary,’” Geldof told Melody Maker in 1984. “The same day I was passing by this antique shop and who is standing in there but [Spandau Ballet’s] Gary Kemp, just about to go off on tour to Japan. He said he was mad for it as well and to wait 10 days till they got back in the country… suddenly it hit me. I thought, ‘Christ, we have got the real top boys here,’ all the big names in pop are suddenly ready and willing to do this… I knew then that we were off, and I just decided to go for all the rest of the faces and started to ring everyone up, asking them to do it.”
Now they needed a song. Recording an old standard would cost royalties, thus eating into the proceeds, so they adapted a semi-complete tune Geldof had written for the Boomtown Rats, tentatively titled “It’s My World.” Following a yuletide overhaul by the pair, the result was “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” — a song to, in Ure’s words, “touch people’s heartstrings and to loosen the purse strings.”
The group assembled at Sarm West Studios on November 25th, 1984 was a venerable who’s who of recent UK chart toppers. The verses were sung by Paul Young, Boy George, George Michael, Le Bon, and Bono (respectively), while the “Feed the world” chorus featured Geldof, Ure, David Bowie, Phil Collins, Paul McCartney, Status Quo, Bananarama, Paul Weller and many others. The singers had not heard the track in advance, and learned their lines on the spot with the help of a demo tape Ure prepared. This caused a minor incident with Bono, who was not pleased with having to sing the acidic “Tonight, thank God, it’s them instead of you” passage. “I told [Geldof] I didn’t want to sing the line,” Bono recalled in the book U2 by U2. “He said, ‘This is not about what you want, OK? This is about what these people need.’ I was too young to say, ‘This is about what you want.’ But it was his show and I was happy to be in it.” Despite Bono’s misgivings, the line became one of Ure’s favorite parts of the song. “I had originally sung it on the guide vocal an octave lower, and he just decided to let it rip, and it was phenomenal,” he told Songfacts in 2015. “Electric. It was just sensational.”
The vocal track was completed in one marathon 24-hour session, and — amazingly — in shops just days later, credited to “Band Aid.” Thanks to a massive publicity campaign and an hourly push on BBC radio, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” shot to number one in the UK, where it remained the biggest selling single until Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind 1997.” In addition to the tens of millions of dollars it raised worldwide for Ethiopian famine relief, the song helped sew the seeds for Geldof and Ure’s Live Aid concert the following year. Though some have criticized the tune’s musical shortcomings, Geldof remains defiant. “Please, it’s a pop song. Relax,” he said in a 2014 interview with The Telegraph. “It’s not a doctoral thesis.” Ure echoed the sentiment in his 2004 autobiography. “It is a song that has nothing to do with music. It was all about generating money… The song didn’t matter: the song was secondary, almost irrelevant.”
“We Are the World” by USA for Africa (1985)
Quincy Jones is traditionally viewed as the mastermind behind the apex of all charity singles, but it was actually Harry Belafonte who instigated the idea in the wake of Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” Seeking to make a star-studded Yankee equivalent to alleviate the Ethiopian famine, Belafonte contacted entertainment manager and fellow activist Ken Kragen, who drafted clients Lionel Richie and Kenny Rogers, as well as Stevie Wonder. But the production escalated once Jones and his extensive Rolodex were brought into the mix. He called in Michael Jackson to write the song with Richie and Wonder, and word of the collaboration quickly spread throughout the highest reaches of the music industry. When Wonder was forced to bow out due to prior commitments, the remaining pair retired to the Jackson family’s Encino estate to pen an anthem to order — though not fast enough for Jones’ liking. “[Michael] and Lionel were there hangin’, sitting around talking about Motown and old times,” the producer recalled in his book, The Complete Quincy Jones: My Journey & Passions. “I said, ‘My dear brothers, we have 46 stars coming in less than three weeks, and we need a damn song!” They were still finalizing the words for what became “We Are the World” the night before the first sessions began.
On January 28th, 1985, the biggest stars in the music world drifted into Hollywood’s A&M Studios, many coming straight from the American Music Awards happening across town that same night. Aware that doing a charity record in black tie sent the wrong kind of message, Jones urged casual attire, and famously issued a friendly warning to all concerned: “Check your egos at the door.” Jackson recorded his parts first around 9 p.m., and by 10:30 the full session was under way. In addition to Richie, Wonder, Rogers, and Jackson, soloists included Paul Simon, James Ingram, Tina Turner, Billy Joel, Diana Ross, Dionne Warwick, Willie Nelson, Al Jarreau, Bruce Springsteen, Kenny Loggins, Steve Perry, Daryl Hall, Huey Lewis, Cyndi Lauper, Kim Carnes, Bob Dylan, and Ray Charles. An A-list backing choir of 20 was filled out by the likes of Bette Midler, Smokey Robinson, The Pointer Sisters, LaToya Jackson, Waylon Jennings, and Band Aid architect Bob Geldof.
Even though the celebs showed up, there was still some in-studio dissent about the track, which some felt was a little too saccharine. “Most of us who were there didn’t like the song, but nobody would say so,” Billy Joel told Rolling Stone in 2005. “I think Cyndi Lauper leaned over to me and said, ‘It sounds like a Pepsi commercial.’ And I didn’t disagree.” Prince went so far as to decline to participate in the project, though his reasons for doing so are disputed. He ultimately contributed a track to the full length album that accompanied the single, but Huey Lewis took his solo on “We Are the World.”
The sessions continued for nearly 12 hours, and by 8 a.m. the following morning only Jones and Richie remained in the studio. What they had on their hands would break records. Released on March 7th, 1985, the song became the fastest-selling American pop single in history up to that point, moving 800,000 copies within three days of its release, and eventually selling upwards of 20 million worldwide — making it the bestselling single of the decade. All told, it raised over $63 million in humanitarian aid for Africa and the United States. For Jones, it remains a highlight of his celebrated career. “Here you had 46 of the biggest recording stars in the entire world in one room, to help people in a far-off place who were in desperate need,” he recalled in a 2015 USA Today interview. “I don’t think that night, that experience, will ever truly be duplicated again. I know and believe in the power of music to bring people together for the betterment of mankind, and there may be no better example of this than the collective that was ‘We Are the World.’”
“Tears Are Not Enough” by Northern Lights (1985)
After Quincy Jones wrapped “We Are the World,” he put in a call to Canadian super-producer David Foster asking him to record a similar song with musicians hailing from the Great White North. Jones wanted to include the track on his full length We Are the World album, but the deadline was tight. Foster, working with his manager Bruce Allen, had just nine days to turn it around. Allen set about securing the talent, while Foster began adapting a song written by Paul Hyde and Bob Rock of the Payolas, a Vancouver New Wave band he was producing at the time. Using their title “Tears Are Not Enough” as a starting point, Foster composed his own melody before kicking it to over to Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance for lyrics. Vallance’s wife, musician Rachel Paiement, contributed a French verse for authentic Québécois flavor.
On February 10th, 1985, a cadre of over 50 of Canada’s biggest entertainers — including Adams, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Geddy Lee, Anne Murray, and Dan Hill— gathered at Manta Studios in Toronto for the session. “The West and East Coast of Canada weren’t exactly on the best of terms, musically,” Foster later told the CBC. “We were bringing them together for the first time.” Ironically, given the song’s subject matter, Mitchell arrived at the studio suffering from severe hunger pains due to a bout of stomach troubles. “We get in the studio, and the engineer says he can’t record ’cause he’s picking up some weird rumbling sound coming from my direction,” she told the Chicago Tribune in 1985. That wasn’t the only delay in the studio. Foster famously asked Young to do another pass on one line, believing the Godfather of Grunge was a little flat. “That’s my sound, man,” Young replied.
The final version of “Tears Are Not Alone” was released as a single that May, raising $3.1 famine relief projects and Canadian food banks.
“Sun City” by Artists United Against Apartheid (1985)
With “Sun City,” Steven Van Zandt took aim at both the South African policy of Apartheid, as well as artists who broke the UN-sanctioned cultural boycott of the nation by performing at the titular resort in Bophuthatswana — a nominally independent state created by the segregationist Afrikaaner government to house impoverished Blacks who had been forcibly relocated. The guitarist journeyed to the country in 1984 during his split from the E Street Band, hoping to learn more about the conditions that the American media only hinted at. “I couldn’t find out much about South Africa at the time. All I was hearing was they were putting in government reforms, and things were improving down there,” he told the Hollywood Reporter in 2013. “So I went down there twice in ’84, just to do the research. Of course, I found out that there was not any reforms really going on. Apartheid was not something you could reform; it had to be eliminated entirely. And so I decided at that point to sit down and figure out a strategy as to how this could be eliminated.” With the help of journalist Danny Schechter, he began writing a track to serve as a rallying cry for the declining anti-Apartheid movement.
Briefly considered for a spot on his 1987 solo album Freedom — No Compromise, the song quickly evolved into a considerably bigger project. Along with Schechter and producer Arthur Baker, Van Zandt approached a host of artists to participate in the recording. “I was gonna maybe have five or six artists on it, then it turned into 50 artists,” Van Zandt later said. Taped piecemeal in four different cities as artists became available, “Sun City” eventually stretched to a sprawling six-and-a-half minute epic that blended rock with jazz and nascent hip-hop. “Fifty-eight stars agreed to be part of it, and the fact is, many more wanted to be part of it when they found about it,” Schechter said in a 2013 WBUR radio interview. “There were no more lines to sing.” Luminaries including Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Run DMC, George Clinton, Grandmaster Melle Mel, DJ Kool Herc, Jackson Browne, Bono, Lou Reed, Pete Townshend, Keith Richards, Ringo Starr, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Bonnie Raitt, Joey Ramone, and Pat Benatar all agreed to participate, adding immense power the defiant refrain: “I, I, I, I, I, I ain’t gonna play Sun City!” So many artists lent their services that the song gave way to a seven-track, 45-minute album featuring songs by Bono and Peter Gabriel.
Its unusual genre melding and lengthy runtime made it too unwieldy to be a radio hit, but sales from the project raised over $1 million for anti-Apartheid efforts, and the video’s regular broadcast on MTV helped make Apartheid a mainstream issue in the United States. “It just completely re-energized the entire movement, which it really frankly needed at the time,” Van Zandt reflected in 2013. “We had that ability with that kind of firepower. They want to ignore you. It’s only when you get in their face and they can’t ignore you that you might get something done.” South African Apartheid policies were dismantled following a series of negotiations in the early Nineties. The first truly free election open to all South Africans after decades of white minority rule resulted in the appointment of Nelson Mandela as the nation’s first Black chief executive.
“Dancing in the Street” by Mick Jagger and David Bowie (1985)
This oft-maligned duet of the Motown stomper was initially planned, at Bob Geldof’s request, as a cross-continental collaboration during 1985’s Live Aid broadcast, with Jagger performing at John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia and Bowie at London’s Wembley Stadium. When it was discovered that the satellite link’s split-second lag time would make the vocal swaps unworkable, the concert idea was scrapped and they decided to record the song in a traditional facility as a charity single. Jagger joined Bowie at Abbey Road Studios, where he was hard at work on the soundtrack for Absolute Beginners, and together they finished the synthed-out Martha & the Vandellas update in four hours. “We banged it out in just two takes,” Jagger told Rolling Stone in 2007. “It was an interesting exercise in how you can do something without worrying too much.” That same day they traveled to the London Docklands to shoot the music video with director David Mallet, which was to be shown twice during the Live Aid concert telecast. It went on to have a longer life on YouTube, where the duo’s enthusiastic leaping and overzealous dance moves — to say nothing of Bowie’s leopard-print jumpsuit and Jagger’s electric green shirt — helped the clip achieve infamy in the viral video realm. “It was fantastically Eighties!” the Rolling Stone later marveled. Any crimes against style can be forgiven as the song raised millions for African famine relief.
“That’s What Friends Are For” by Dionne & Friends (1985)
Before reuniting pop maestro Burt Bacharach with longtime muse Dionne Warwick, “That’s What Friends Are For” was initially recorded by Rod Stewart for the soundtrack to Night Shift — Ron Howard’s 1982 comedy about two friends running their own prostitute ring. Bacharach and his co-writer/wife Carole Bayer Sager felt that that tune deserved a fate more illustrious than closing credit music. “The record company didn’t want to consider it as a single for Rod because they thought it was too soft,” Bayer Sager says in The Billboard Book of Number One Hits. “The song quietly slipped into oblivion.” How it wound up revived as a smash charity single is contested: Warwick has said she heard the song after falling asleep in front of the television one night, while Bayer Sager claims she presented it with a batch of new material as they began recording her Friends album. Whatever the case, Warwick decided to invite Stevie Wonder to record a vocal take for a duet, and Bayer Sager showed up to the session with actress Elizabeth Taylor — then deeply engrossed in helping launch the AIDS research organization AmFAR. Over the course of their conversation, the benefit concept was born. Elton John, who had previously asked Wonder to play harmonica on his 1982 song “I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues,” was enlisted at the advice of Arista Records chief Clive Davis, as was Gladys Knight.
With each part recorded separately, Bayer Sager and Bacharach labored to assemble the piece into a cohesive whole. The completed track sailed to the top of the charts within weeks of its release in November 1985. As well as earning Grammys for Best Performance by a Duo or Group and Song of the Year, “That’s What Friends Are For” raised millions for AmFAR and made great strides in helping erase the stigma that was still associated with the disease. “Those who felt they didn’t want to be involved with it — to be seen giving money or being heard talking about the crisis — that song was an avenue to reach out,” Warwick later reflected.
“Stars” by Hear ‘N Aid (1986)
Dio bandmates Jimmy Bain and Vivian Campbell were attending a 48-hour charity “radiothon” at the L.A. station KLOS when they made a startling realization: they were basically the only heavy metal musicians there. They mentioned this to their bandleader, multi-octave shouter and devil horn pioneer Ronnie James Dio, and together they hatched a plan to correct this grievous wrong and record a charity record that truly rocked. Penned by the trio, the result was called “Stars.”
On May 20th, 1985, Los Angeles’ A&M Records studio — the same facility where “We Are the World” was cut just months earlier — played host to a heavy metal summit that has seldom been equaled. Dio shared lead vocals with Eric Bloom, Don Dokken, Kevin DuBrow, Rob Halford, Dave Meniketti, Paul Shortino and Geoff Tate, with backing help from 30 others including Yngwie Malmsteen, Vince Neil, Mick Mars, Neal Schon and even Harry Shearer in full Spinal Tap persona. “I imagine most of the fans assumed we all knew each other,” Halford said in an interview with Louder Sound. “We didn’t at all. In fact for the first few hours, I think most of us were looking at ￼￼￼￼each other the way we got portrayed in rock magazines… Once we’d let our guards drop a bit the feeling was just tremendous — to sit down and talk with people I’ve always admired.”
The group, under the banner Hear ‘N Aid, tackled the vocals first, before spending the following day on the nine 12-bar guitar passages from Campbell, Malmsteen, Schon, Eddie Ojeda, George Lynch, Craig Goldy, Brad Gillis, Buck Dharma, Carlos Cavaz. Needless to say, egos made the session somewhat fraught. “You put a bunch of Eighties guitarists in the same room and, of course, there’s going to be competition for bragging rights,” Campbell recalled. “They were even arguing about who had the biggest hair.” Ted Nugent, miffed that he wasn’t asked to join in on the guitar throw down, reportedly yelled, “If you let me play guitar on the track, them kids won’t be hungry no more!”
Contractual problems held the song up for months before it was finally released in January 1986. The single, and the accompanying album, raised a reported $1 million for African famine relief in its first year, with the funds earmarked for agricultural machinery.
“We’re All in the Same Gang” by West Coast Rap All-Stars (1990)
The late Eighties saw an alarming spike in gang warfare across the country, prompting the hip-hop community to speak out. KRS-One assembled his Boogie Down Production band mates and a collective of East Coast MCs (including Kool Moe Dee, Heavy D, and Public Enemy) to record the single “Self Destruction,” which topped the rap charts in 1989. The West Coast responded in kind the following year with “We’re All in the Same Gang,” a song condemning the increasingly bloody feud between rival Los Angeles outfits the Crips and the Bloods. Fourteen of the most influential West Coast hip-hop acts contributed verses to the seven-and-a-half minute track, including Tone Loc, Young M.C., M.C. Hammer, Ice-T and Dr. Dre (who served as producer). The piece was conceived by Michael Concepcion, a former Crips member who had been paralyzed in a gang-related shooting. “I wanted to stop these kids from making the same bad mistakes I did,” he told the Washington Post in 1990.
The rhymes warned Black youths against fighting among themselves, particularly in light of the racial tension endemic in American society. “Yo, bullets flying, mothers crying, brothers dying,” Dr. Dre rapped with MC Ren. “Lying in the streets, that’s why we’re trying / To stop it from falling apart and going to waste / And keeping a smile off of white face.” A music video, filmed on location at the Nickerson Gardens public housing project in Watts — gangland grand zero — helped earn the song mainstream exposure on MTV. A year after its release “We’re All in the Same Gang” was nominated for Best Rap Performance at the 33rd Annual Grammy Awards.
“The Star Spangled Banner” sung by Whitney Houston (1991)
The US commenced Operation Desert Storm just 10 days before Whitney Houston strode onto the field at Tampa Stadium to open Super Bowel XXV with the National Anthem. Fears that Saddam Hussein would attack this, the most American of all sporting events, meant that security was at an all-time high. Black Hawk helicopters occupied the Goodyear blimp’s usual place in the sky above the arena, and SWAT teams lay in wait on the roof. “It was an intense time for a country,” Houston remembered in 2000. “A lot of our daughters and sons were overseas fighting. In the stadium, I could see the fear, the hope, the intensity, the prayers going up. And I just felt, ‘This is the moment.’” She took her place at the 50-yard line and gave what many consider to be the performance of her career.
Or did she? In later years, it became public knowledge that the NFL demands what they call a “protection copy,” or pre-recorded version, to guard against illness, weather, and other potential calamities that can occur on the big day. Houston had taped her version, backed by the Florida Orchestra, in just a single take two weeks prior to the Super Bowl. That’s what an estimated 115 million heard on television, while a handful of servicemen and women present on the field listened to Houston pouring her soul into a dead microphone. “It was a time when Americans needed to believe in our country,” she reflected in an interview with People magazine shortly after the event. “I remember standing there and looking at all those people, and it was like I could see in their faces the hopes and prayers and fears of the entire country.”
Due to an overwhelming public response, Arista Records released Houston’s rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” several weeks later on February 12, 1991. It became the label’s fastest selling single up to that point, reaching number 20 on Billboard. The proceeds from the song — some $531,650 — were donated to the American Red Cross Gulf Crisis Fund to provide aid and financial assistance to US soldiers and their families. The single was issued a second time a decade later following the September 11th attacks, with the revenue sent to the New York Firefighters 9/11 Disaster Relief Fund and the New York Fraternal Order of Police.
“Voices That Care” by Voices That Care (1991)
As the Gulf War raged, David Foster and then-wife Linda Thompson sought to write a song that would boost the morale of deployed troops. Together with former Chicago front man Peter Cetera, they crafted what they hoped would be a sort of “We Are the World” 2.0. Instead, “Voices That Care” remains one of the more unusual musical curios of the decade. The vocal lineup reads like a fever dream of early Nineties pop culture, setting soft rockers like Michael Bolton, Celine Dion and Amy Grant alongside actual rocker Jani Lane, country stars Garth Brooks and Randy Travis, plus Bobby Brown and Will Smith. For extra firepower on the “Stand tall! Stand proud! / Voices that care are crying out loud” refrain, they boasted a choir more than 70 strong, containing not only singers but actors (Ted Danson, Richard Gere, Brooke Shields, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dudley Moore, for a start), comedians (Billy Crystal, Jon Lovitz, Whoopi Goldberg), athletes (Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky), and others who apparently had an open date on their calendar. Unfortunately for this well-meaning group of celebs — but fortunately in the broader sense — the active Gulf War conflict had ceased by the time the song was released that March.
“One” by U2 (1992)
Contrary to its message of solidarity, the Achtung Baby standout was inspired in part by discordant relations within the band. The decision to record at Hansa Studios in a newly reunified Berlin exacerbated disagreements over U2’s sonic direction, with Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr. opting for their traditional rock approach, while Bono and the Edge favored industrial sounds and early electro dance records then en vogue on the continent. The band found themselves at a creative stalemate, and Mullen later admitted he “thought this might be the end” of U2. But as they jammed on an early version of “Mysterious Ways,” a distinctive riff fell out of the Edge’s guitar. “Suddenly something very powerful [was] happening in the room,” he recalled in the 2011 documentary From the Sky Down. “Everyone recognized it was a special piece. It was like we’d caught a glimpse of what the song could be.” Within 15 minutes, the refocused group had the musical structure complete. “It was a pivotal song in the recording of the album, the first breakthrough in what was an extremely difficult set of sessions,” Edge told Q in 2005.
The lyrics have been interpreted in a variety of ways since the song’s release in 1992. Some viewed the song as deeply autobiographical, chronicling the band’s attempt to reestablish their musical connection after being artistically at odds. Others felt it was more of a socio-political comment on a post-Wall Berlin. However, Bono himself offered a more nuanced take while speaking to Rolling Stone in 2005. “It’s a father-and-son story. I tried to write about someone I knew who was coming out and was afraid to tell his father. It’s a religious father and son… I have a lot of gay friends, and I’ve seen them screwed up from unloving family situations, which just are completely anti-Christian. If we know anything about God, it’s that God is love. That’s part of the song. And then it’s also about people struggling to be together, and how difficult it is to stay together in this world, whether you’re in a band or a relationship.”
The song’s lyrical genesis likely contributed to the band’s decision to issue the song as a benefit single in February 1992, with royalties donated to global AIDS charities. “The band feels that it is the most pressing issue of the day, and we really have to focus people’s attention to the AIDS plague that has been with us for 10 years,” U2’s manager Paul McGuinness said in a statement at the time. For the single’s cover art, the band chose a photograph by David Wojnarowicz, a New York artist and activist who would die that July of an AIDS-related illness.
“Heal the World” by Michael Jackson (1992)
Speaking to fans during an Internet chat session in 2001, the King of Pop cited this Dangerous cut as the song he was most proud to have created. Penned in his “Giving Tree,” a favorite songwriting spot at the Neverland Ranch, the simple melody and even simpler utopian message of “Heal the World” showcased Michael Jackson’s wish for humanity, and also provided a poignant glimpse of his own psychic scars from his (well-documented) tumultuous upbringing. Following Jackson’s earlier socially conscious work like “We Are the World,” “Man in the Mirror” and “Black or White,” “Heal the World” was more explicit in its humanitarian goals — with a video that eschewed his own superstar visage for footage of orphans in war-torn Burundi. It would also provide a name for his charitable organization, through which he strove to put the lyrics’ altruistic message into practice. Founded in the wake of the song’s release in 1992 with the aim “to improve the conditions for children throughout the world,” the Heal the World Foundation drew millions from Jackson’s Dangerous tour proceeds and Super Bowl XXVII half time show performance fees — plus smaller donations from fans.
“Candle in the Wind 1997” by Elton John (1997)
Princess Diana’s sudden death in a Paris traffic accident on August 31st, 1997, stunned the world, but few were more devastated than Elton John, who had been her confidant for over a decade. Just weeks earlier, they had consoled each other at the funeral for their murdered friend, designer Gianni Versace — now he was tapped to perform at hers. Noting the frequent references to his 1973 song “Candle in the Wind” cropping up in the British press, John contacted longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin to rewrite the Marilyn Monroe tribute as a eulogy for the People’s Princess. Taupin replaced the familiar opening “Goodbye Norma Jean” with “Goodbye England’s Rose,” and within a few hours the new words were in place. “I thought it was very important to project it from a nation’s standpoint,” he told Billboard. “I wanted to make it sound like a country singing it.”
On September 6th, John debuted the song during Diana’s funeral before the 2,000 people crammed into Westminster Abbey — and the billion more watching on television. “Me playing at the funeral was one of the most surreal things I have ever done,” John recalled in a VH1 documentary. “What was going through my mind was ‘Don’t sing a wrong note. Be stoic. Don’t break down and just do it to the best you can possibly do it without showing any emotion whatsoever.’ My heart was beating quite a lot, I have to say.”
After the funeral, John prepared a recorded version of the song, with a string and oboe arrangement courtesy of producer George Martin. The studio take was released as a benefit single on September 12th in the U.K., and 10 days later in the United States, with all royalties and record company profits going to the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund established to continue her humanitarian efforts with her favorite charities. The reaction to the song was instantaneous and astounding. “Candle in the Wind 1997” debuted at number one on Billboard, staying there for 14 weeks — a record for a male solo artist). It ultimately became the bestselling single in the chart’s history, and sold over 33 million copies worldwide, putting it behind only “White Christmas” on the list of bestselling singles ever. During its incredible run, it raised upwards of £38 million for the Fund.
Despite the overwhelming success, John would never perform the song live again. After the funeral, he vowed to only ever play it at the request of Diana’s sons, Princes William and Harry.
“Sing” by Annie Lennox, feat. Various Artists (2007)
A track off her 2007 album Songs of Mass Destruction, “Sing” was inspired by Annie Lennox’s first meeting with South African activist Zackie Achmat at Nelson Mandela’s 46664 HIV/AIDS campaign in 2003. HIV positive himself, Achmat co-founded the Treatment Action Campaign, an organization that fights for AIDS treatment access and prevention. “We need people like [Achmat], he fights the fight,” Lennox told the BBC in 2007. “He refused to take his anti-retroviral medication unless it was made affordable and available to everyone — a hugely courageous thing to do. Before then, I’d been frustrated because I wanted to be more hands-on. I just feel that TAC are doing it where it needs to happen. It really needed to be given support, and I thought that perhaps I might be well-placed to do it.” Emboldened by Achmat’s work, she began writing a song that also incorporated a tune called “Jikelele,” given to her by a group of South African activists called the Generics.
Having completed the basic track, Lennox reached out to high profile women in music, asking them to send in a tape of themselves singing the “Sing my sister Sing! / Let your voice be heard” refrain. “I wrote down a mission statement and sent a letter to a list of women that I thought would be really good contenders,” she told the New York Times. Nearly all responded, resulting in a chorus of 23, including Celine Dion, Gladys Knight, Pink, Faith Kill, k.d. lang, Sarah McLachlan, Shakira, Bonnie Raitt, Joss Stone and Madonna — who added a little extra. “Lo and behold, Madonna’s track came back and she’d sung the second verse, which was a huge bonus,” Lennox continued. “I was really touched, for Madonna is very rigorous in what she gets involved in and for her to do that for me, I was thrilled to bits.”
The single version was released on December 1st, World AIDS Day, in 2007, with proceeds going towards TAC. The cover came emblazoned with a manifesto from the artist, reading: “Several years ago I personally witnessed Nelson Mandela, standing in front of his former prison cell on Robben Island, addressing the world’s press. His message was that the pandemic of HIV/AIDS in Africa was, in fact, a genocide. Since that time I resolved to do as much as I can to bring attention to the HIV/AIDS crisis.”
“Just Stand Up!” by Artists Stand Up to Cancer (2008)
One year after Annie Lennox’s “Sing” dropped, producers L.A. Reid and Babyface assembled another pop diva summit under the banner Artists Stand Up to Cancer. Fifteen mega-talented women, including Beyonce, Rihanna, Mariah Carey, Miley Cyrus, Fergie, Mary J. Blige, Ciara and Carrie Underwood came together to sing the Babyface/Ronnie Walton track “Just Stand Up!” in an effort to raise money and awareness for the Stand Up to Cancer foundation. Released on September 2nd, 2008, nearly all of the stars would come together again three days later to perform the track live on the one-hour multi-network “Stand Up to Cancer” telethon. The single would narrowly miss the Top 10, peaking at number 11 on the Billboard charts that autumn. The campaign and telethon have since raised over $100 million for cancer research.
“Ronan” by Taylor Swift (2012)
Maya Thompson began blogging as a way of processing her grief after her toddler Ronan was diagnosed with stage four neuroblastoma in the summer of 2010. Called Rockstar Ronan, the site provided agonizing updates on the little boy’s condition to family and friends. “A few weeks into it, I remember writing that I had a feeling this blog was going to get dark and ugly and scary, because it’s a horrific thing to go through,” Thompson told the New York Times. “I wasn’t willing to sugarcoat any of this. I think a big part of why nothing gets done with childhood cancer is that everybody wants to wrap it in a cute little bow with cute little bald kids. But it’s so sad.” She continued writing even after Ronan’s death the following May — three days before his fourth birthday — penning raw and heart-rending open letters to her late son.
Unbeknownst to Thompson, Taylor Swift was among the millions who had started following Ronan’s story. In November 2011 she got a call from the superstar inviting her backstage at her upcoming concert in Phoenix. “She told me how she had been reading our blog for over a year, and her parents had been reading it and they were all devastated and touched by it,” Thompson recalled of their talk. “I remember crying and she was crying.” Then, the following September, Swift reached out again to say she had written a song for Ronan, with lyrics taken from the blog. Having secured Thompson’s blessing, Swift debuted the composition the next week on the 2012 Stand Up to Cancer telethon. The single version was released on iTunes a short time later, where it quickly became the number one song on the platform, with more than 220,000 downloads in its first week. Swift donated her profits to cancer charities while Thompson — who was credited as cowriter — put her portion towards a foundation established in her son’s name.
To date, Swift has only ever performed the song one other time: at the Glendale, Arizona stop of her 1989 World Tour on August 17th, 2015, with Thompson was in the audience.
“This Is for My Girls” by Kelly Clarkson, Chloe x Halle, Missy Elliott, Jadagrace, Lea Michele, Janelle Monae, Kelly Rowland & Zendaya (2016)
First Lady Michelle Obama commissioned legendary songwriter Diane Warren to pen this “global call to action” to raise funds for the Let Girls Learn initiative and the #62MillionGirls campaign, which aim to bring education to women across the globe. Warren delivered “This Is for My Girls,” and tapped a host of female powerhouses to sing it. Kelly Clarkson and Kelly Rowland took turns leading the group, which also included Janelle Monae, Zendaya, Lea Michele, Jadagace, and Chloe x Halle, through the empowering chorus: “This is for my girls, all around the world / Stand up, put your head up, don’t take nothing from nobody / This is for my girls, stand up and be heard/ This is for my ladies, my sisters all over, this is for my girls.” Missy Elliott took the lead for the final verse, contributing rhymes urging young women to stand tall.
“It’s kind of like ‘We Are the World’ meets ‘Lady Marmalade’ with these strong voices and strong women,” Warren told Billboard at the time. “When was the last time you heard a song like this or a record that had this many amazing divas on it? I’m really proud.” The track was unveiled just before Obama gave her keynote address at the South by Southwest music festival in March 2016, where she moderated a panel with Warren, Elliott, and actress Sophia Bush. Many of the featured artists expressed their pride on Twitter — including Clarkson, who wrote: “#This IsForMyGirls Education is key to opening minds and doors to opportunities that are absolutely possible!”
“1-800-273-8255” by Logic, feat. Alessia Cara and Khalid (2017)
When Logic made the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s nondescript 800-number the title of his song, he helped cement the lifesaving digits into the popular consciousness. Raised by parents who struggled with addiction, Logic (born Sir Robert Bryson Hall II) had battled anxiety for years before he decided to write a song that specifically addressed mental health. “I spent six figures of my own money to get a tour bus and do a fan tour for my second album,” he explained to Rolling Stone in 2017. “I surprised fans at their houses, and we’d eat food and play video games. People kept saying, ‘Your music saved my life.’ I was like, ‘What the fuck?’ And then I thought, ‘What if I tried to save a life with a song?’” The track opens with Logic rapping from the perspective of a hotline caller, before Alessia Cara and Khalid offer words of lyrical support. “1-800-273-8255” became the centerpiece of Logic’s third album, Everybody, and emotionally fraught work that also tackled a variety of sociological issues. Within three weeks of the song’s release that April, NSPL calls rose 27%. This would rise to more than 50% after Logic performed the song in August at the 2017 MTV Video Music Awards alongside Cara and Khalid. While sharing the stats from the NSPL on Twitter, the artist declared it “the most important song I’ve ever wrote.”
Lizzo, Madonna Join Chorus of Artists Who 'Strongly Denounce' Anti-LGBTQ+ Bills
- 'Fundamental Human Rights'