When a culture is shaken by tragedy, they will do beautiful, brave things to help victims, enact change, and show support. For example, by purchasing bad songs.
It’s a noble tradition, and an effective one. As society is broken and in need of healing, the music industry rallies, producing original songs featuring vocalists by the biggest names in the business—a star-stuffed charity endeavor intended to tug at both the heart and purse strings.
From “We Are the World” in 1985 to “Hands,” the Orlando charity single featuring Britney Spears, Pink, Mary J. Blige, Jennifer Lopez, Imagine Dragons, and more that was released Wednesday, the industry’s most famous artists have lent their voices to tracks and to causes that echo our own inner monologues: we care and we want to do something.
They can sing. We can buy.
“Hands,” which also features Kacey Musgrave, Jason Derulo, Selena Gomez, Adam Lambert, Gwen Stefani, Meghan Trainor, Troye Sivan, and RuPaul, is released by GLAAD and its proceeds will benefit victims of the Pulse nightclub massacre, Equality Florida Pulse Victims Fund, and the GLBT Community Center of Central Florida.
All of this is great. The artist roster is great. The cause is great. The message of the song, with lyrics “Doesn’t matter who you love / All that matters is you love,” is great. Britney Spears’s voice, opening the track, is—if you can believe it—great, so great you might cry. The crying is great! It’s an emotional song, manufactured specifically for jerking tears. Tears, as we all know to be true, translates to dollars, and if this song makes a lot of money for Orlando that will be, yes, great.
But, if we’re being honest, “Hands” is not great. These songs never are.
It’s feels crass to wonder it, yet each time one of these singles comes out we can’t help it. Why are charity singles usually so…bad?
This doesn’t take away from the noble, important, beautiful, impactful work that these musicians and these singles do.
But as we listen to “Hands” and the snippet of Jennifer Lopez and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Orlando collaboration this week, not to mention traveling down the road of past charity singles from “We Are the World” to “Sun City” to “Just Stand Up,” we’re realizing that the road to aural hell is paved with good intentions.
This isn’t a unique phenomenon, or one that is specific only to “Hands,” which is powerful and moving but also saccharine, cloying, and bogged down by song-by-number orchestrations, as if a Mumford & Songs ballad was cycled through a Hallmark movie soundtrack generator.
Then there’s the Lopez-Miranda collaboration “Love Make the World Go Round,” a 30-second snippet of which was released earlier this week. On the opposite spectrum of the treacly nature of “Hands,” it is a clubby cacophony of whistles and reggaeton and excessive earnestness.
Going through the history of similar singles you’ll find a similar situation: amazing message, lousy song. Some are, in hindsight, barely still listenable. “Sun City,” released by Artists Against Apartheid in 1985 and featuring the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Miles Davis, Ringo Star, Pat Benatar, and U2, plays more like a commercial for Mortal Kombat video game in the ‘80s does it does timeless single.
“Voices That Care,” released in 1991 in support of the Red Cross and the U.S. Troops fighting in Operation Desert Storm, was led by vocals from Celine Dion, Garth Brooks, Luther Vandross, and Michael Bolton. It is just about as bombastic and cringe-inducingly melismatic as you might expect from reading that list of names.
Maybe it’s just too hard to be earnest and inspiring in both lyric and orchestration without kindling a fiery hell of sappiness, flaming with stilted lyrics, clichés, and plastically patriotic arrangements. Not moved yet? Here’s a key change!
Maybe the cynics in us can barely grin and bear a song like 1986’s “Hands Across America, with Toto singing about how “I can not stop thinking again and again / How the heart of a stranger / Beats the same as a friend” in support of the human chain across the country to raise awareness for charities fighting hunger and homelessness.
“Just Stand Up!” features a murderer’s row of diva vocalists, including Beyoncé, Mariah Carey, Rihanna, Carrie Underwood, and Carrie Underwood. They are singing—and singing their hearts out, it must be said—against cancer. It might be the worst song of their respective careers.
And, of course, there’s the standard bearer: “We Are the World.” An Olympic triumph in the sport of emotional manipulation, grandiose displays of caring—the bigger the vocal run, the more the artist cares—and triteness masquerading as profundity, it is art-as-public-service, the consumption of which might even be a public service in and of itself.
It’s a strange phenomenon, that these songs are rarely, objectively good. When they are, it’s typically because the song is a cover of an already great one, like 2001’s “What’s Going On,” Carrie Underwood’s “I’ll Stand By You” in 2007, or even the Broadway cover of “What the World Needs Now” that kicked off the spate of Orlando charity singles last month.
I feel like a bad person for criticizing these singles. And maybe I am.
Truth be told, I have bought and listened many, many times to almost every single of one of these songs. I typically cry at least once while listening to them. (Hearing Spears’s voice kick off “Hands” destroyed me.) I don’t, perhaps out of guilt, immediately skip them when they come on my iTunes shuffle—though I often really want to.
I think of these songs like the Christmas sweaters grandma knits for you. Dear god are they hideous and you would never choose to wear them, but you put them on because it is the right thing to do and the act of wearing makes you feel good, like you’re doing something to make someone else happy.
Everyone please download “Hands” and “What the World Needs Now” and, when it’s available, “Love Make the World Go Round.” The cause couldn’t be more worthy. Think a little higher, too, of the artists who lent their voices. It’s a noble use of precious time from the busiest people in entertainment—people who we so often think of as entitled and vapid but are, in this moment, being generous and using their celebrity to take a stand.
Feel something when you listen to them, too. Relive the pain, vow to heal, and send love to those the songs were recorded for.
That’s the human thing to do. The critic in us might still cringe and wish the songs were better. Allegedly, though, critics are humans, too.