WE AREN’T THE WORLD
By Morgan Ames
The Olympics Opening Ceremony brought us the three minute version of “We Are the World 25 for Haiti,” put together with enormous vision and heart by Quincy Jones. But it was also disturbing. How could modern celebrities make so much money and be so lost outside their own boxes? Has the business changed so drastically that there is no way to show these un-apprenticed souls what simple, straight ahead performing is about — the kind where it doesn’t matter if there are cameras or not. You just bring it. Outside their comfort zones, in this carved and ripped project, many of them come over as well-meaning but oddly helpless at being themselves.
There was a last minute space problem at the old A&M Records, where the original video was recorded. Quincy had a soft spot about it and wanted to do the new version there. Michael Jackson must have been on his mind. Nobody knew till too late that Studio A was not large enough to hold this production. Once there, artists had to shear off to other recording rooms to concentrate on…what?…oh yeah, themselves and their solo lines. Ironically, it suited. Modern artists often record with each other by sending incomplete tracks from one person’s studio to the next. Each puts on his/her part, totally controlled and vibed, then sends it on. At A&M that night, these solo moments were elaborately covered, each so-so note caressed on film and made too important, not to mention over-emotionalism while singing (or failing to sing) a few notes as if they hadn’t already sung them several times while honing their grimaces for the camera, knowing that pitch correction would be done afterward if necessary. More important than the song’s effect was…oh yeah…the overwrought solo lines.
Interspersed was the large group of celebrities who sang the choruses, some of whom didn’t seem to get what was going on, even if this was a song to which some of them were potty trained. Tony Bennett and Barbra Streisand? Tits on a bull. Josh Groban? There’s no way these performers can downsize to one line and not look weird – a glossy 20 pound sausage in a one pound skin. Music conducting and supervising? Brilliant. Song? Classic. Filmmaking? Uncomfortably beautiful. Rapping? More tits on a bull.
But Quincy is wise. Reportedly, the piece has already brought millions to the relief effort. Quincy has loved rap/hip hop from the first moment he heard it. He embraced the history, the social movement, the blow-out energy. Unfortunately, what dragged along with these elements into the sales spotlight was a pretty savage sense of music, proudly unschooled. Money poured in. (Imagine the surprise of the record company execs, which the hip hop community bypassed completely.) Soon the rest of the business scrambled up to the money. In place of musical settings we got dense, trance-y rhythm tracks, over which the dialogue that is called lyrics was overlaid. In place of signing more musical artists, we got video elites, hooded sweatshirts, ripped abs, crotch women and belligerence. In place of songs came production deals. The apprentice system was gone.
Today, with notable exceptions, mostly old school, this is what has replaced songs in the music making industry. The switch from songs to tracks has been largely unconscious,– except to people who were making music before the switch. We noticed. We are still perplexed. How could hip hop wipe away generations of accepted musicality and craft, and so quickly? Did no one have a hunger for a melody anymore? Not surprisingly, musical elements are seeping back into the mainstream but they are primitive. They have no history and must reinvent the wheel, one simple chord at a time.
With his huge heart and finely crafted musical talent, rarely recognized for what it is, Quincy is somewhere in the middle. He has done a lot of good for individuals, especially brilliantly talented ones like Will Smith who were already well on their way to success when they met him — and they all come to do homage to him once they make some money and buy the bling they do not yet know is cheesy. (They learn though.) He showed them about humanity and success together and all of us need a model for that. But does the subject ever come up with rappers about Quincy sitting alone in a sweaty room writing charts for the Basie band and Sinatra, charts so skilled and inspired that they became a part of the fabric of our lives to this day? He knew his craft. By his standards, how many young pop artists even know what craft is? They think they do. You can bet Q knows the difference.
Quincy-love has inadvertently created a dark side. Through sheer magnetism and authority, Q has blended the anti-musical, pro-ignorant elements of hip hop with mainstream music. Music, being the lighter energy, flew from sight. Maybe it would have happened that way anyway, but it’s been a sorry, if accidental, use of his power. “We Are the World 25” is a grave example. The three minutes chosen out of the seven-minute video to show at the Olympics, featuring rappers, was designed to bring in dollars and it did. But wasn’t it also meant to show off the best of current American music culture? What it actually showed was one over-inflated slice. Quincy loves youth and newness, but he knows what he knows and has his limits. In this case he organized, at which he is unbeatable, and then showed up to conduct. And that was for Haiti.
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Morgan Ames is a multi-hyphenate in the Los Angeles music scene. She apprenticed with Quincy Jones for three years. She sang and contracted back-up singers for Queen Latifah for the opening of the 2010 Super Bowl (“America the Beautiful”), for Celine Dion (God Bless America”) for the 9/11 telethon, and LeeAnn Rimes for the 2002 Olympics Opening Ceremony. She conducted singers on stage for Paul McCartney at a Green Peace concert at the Hollywood Bowl (“Hey Jude”).
Morgan has written songs with Johnny Mandel, Dori Caymmi, Bob James and others; her songs have been recorded by Diane Schuur, Roberta Flack, Peggy Lee, to name a few; and she’s performed with, among others, Chaka Khan, Mariah Carey, John Williams and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. Her voice can be heard in films such as “King Kong” and “Van Helsing,” and the TV shows “According To Jim” and “My So-Called Life.”
She co-produced “Diane Schuur and the Count Basie Orchestra” which was #1 for 33 weeks on the Billboard jazz charts and garnered two Grammys, one for a song she wrote with Frank Foster (“You Can Have It”). As if all that wasn’t enough, Morgan also taught songwriting at UCLA for four years, and has written more than 100 liner notes, including Miles Davis and Quincy Jones albums. She can be reached at: Morgan Ames.