A bold claim is made in the title of Bao Nguyen’s The Greatest Night In Pop, a new documentary that premiered on Netflix this week. Nguyen’s film depicts the conception, execution, and aftermath of “We Are The World,” the massive-selling charity single released in 1985 to raise money and awareness for the battle against African famine. The song was written by two of the era’s biggest artists, Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, and involved a galaxy of stars from a variety of genres — including Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Willie Nelson, Cyndi Lauper, and a couple dozen more — singing in the now-familiar “celebrity choir” format that “We Are The World” helped to codify for future celebrity do-gooder anthems.
“We Are The World” did do a lot of good in its time, raising around $60 million and paving the way for the Live Aid concerts in Philadelphia and London later that year that brought in millions more dollars to fight hunger. But the song has also been associated with the excesses of celebrity self-regard and hubris. Do you remember that embarrassing viral video from the pandemic era of various famous people singing “Imagine”? That’s the long tail of “We Are The World” right there. Also: It’s a pretty corny song! Part call-to-action and part guilt trip, “We Are The World” probably could not exist in these more politically divided, cynical, and mediated times. The level of naive earnestness on display grounds the song in a very different era. (Turns out that just you and me did not make a better day, after all.)
Nevertheless, The Greatest Night In Pop is a very fun documentary that got me thinking about an inescapable song from my grade school years. The movie makes a convincing case that even if you think “We Are The World” is mawkish and overblown, it was kind of a miracle that it all came together. The talents that were assembled for the recording session truly make for a fascinating mix of geniuses and one-hit wonders.
So, who did the best job on “We Are The World”? Let’s figure it out. Two things to note before we get started.
1. I am focusing primarily on the solo singers. The ones only in the choir will not be ranked, as their individual performances are difficult to assess.
2. This is not about the overall careers or singing abilities of these singers. I only care about what they do on “We Are The World.” In other words: Huey Lewis will get his flowers!
Pre-List Entertainment: The Top 5 “Wrongly Relegated To The Choir” Singers On “We Are The World”
5. Waylon Jennings
Here’s something I learned from the movie: Waylon actually didn’t stick around for the choir. He walked out of the studio when Stevie Wonder suggested singing some of the lyrics in Swahili. Imagine Waylon Jennings singing “We Are The World” in Swahili! The mind reels in amazement at this scenario. But he shouldn’t have been “choir-only” to begin with. Because Willie Nelson was also in the studio, and Waylon and Willie should have been paired at some point. For all of his genius, the song’s producer Quincy Jones apparently was unfamiliar with the greatness of “I Can Get Off On You.”
4. Lindsey Buckingham
This was Lindsey in his post-Go Insane/pre-Tango In The Night era, when he had the Eraserhead hairdo and oozed smoldering cocaine mania. His energy was all wrong for a charity single, no doubt, but that’s precisely why I wish he was more in the mix.
3. Smokey Robinson
He sang “The Tracks Of My Tears.” You don’t put the guy who sang “The Tracks Of My Tears” in the choir, even if it’s 1985 and that guy now has a deeply unappealing mustache.
2. Bette Midler
Three years later she earned the title of Queen Of The Schmaltzy ’80s Pop Ballad with “Wind Beneath My Wings.” But she needed to be in the starting lineup for the decade’s ultimate schmaltzy pop ballad in 1985, not put on the sidelines.
1. Harry Belafonte
The documentary makes it clear that the singer/actor/activist was one of the most respected people in the room. He’s the one who picked up the phone and talked Lionel Richie into doing “We Are The World” in the first place. And how do they repay him? By sticking him next to Dan Aykroyd on the top riser! The indignity!
Now let’s get to the proper list.
The 21 Soloists On “We Are The World,” Ranked
21. Paul Simon
Take a look at that photo above. The bad vibes emanating from Simon are palpable. Based on the video evidence, he was the worst hang in the room. In the documentary, Kenny Loggins quotes Simon making the following joke: “If a bomb falls on this place John Denver’s back on top.” Keep in mind that Simon was still one year away from putting out Graceland, and his career wasn’t in much better shape than Denver’s. In that context, the John Denver crack just seems mean-spirited. Later, we see Paul getting pissy with Kenny Rogers when Kenny can’t nail a high note. Or maybe he’s just annoyed to be stuck with The Gambler and not an A-lister like Stevie or Bruce. Either way, he’s a buzzkill.
20. Kim Carnes
The singer who in retrospect seems the most super-glued to the 1980s. I’m old enough to remember hearing “Bette Davis Eyes” on the radio when I was (very) young, but the average person in 2024 won’t recognize Kim Carnes (or Bette Davis). It doesn’t help that she has very little to do. She sings literally two words: “when we.” And then she’s overshadowed by Huey Lewis and Cyndi Lauper. (More on them later.)
19. Billy Joel
He’s only ranked this low because he’s under-utilized. His beard, however, is excellent.
18. Tina Turner
The most egregiously under-utilized singer in the entire “We Are The World” arsenal. Vocal arranger Tom Bähler explains in the doc how he carefully placed the singers where he did in the song and the studio, to maximize their musical and visual power. His reasoning with Tina is that he liked the warmth of her voice in the lower register. And he’s right — she sounds great. But what about the part at the end of the song, when several of the male singers get the chance to kick some ass, gospel-style? Tina should have had a spot in that section, screaming her head off like it’s “Better Be Good To Me.”
17. James Ingram
You know who Tina could have replaced in the “kick some ass” part of the song? No offense but it has to be James Ingram, a fine singer who doesn’t have the gravitas of the other legends who bring “We Are The World” home.
16. Kenny Rogers
He hit that high note with Paul Simon shooting lasers into his skull. Many would have folded under the pressure, but Kenny knew when to hold ’em.
15. Kenny Loggins
This is prime soundtrack era Loggins — it’s one year after Footloose and one year before Top Gun. A journeyman folk-rocker turned yacht rocker turned ’80s movie tunesmith, Kenny was finally a big deal, kind of. 1985 is possibly the one year in his life when he would have been considered famous enough to deserve being in that room. And he does his blue-eyed soul thing beautifully. My one unanswered question: Was Kenny’s frequent collaborator Michael McDonald considered for “We Are The World”? Can you imagine the backing vocals Mike could have laid down? It would have definitely taken the song to another level. World hunger would probably be cured by now.
14. Diana Ross
The anti-Paul Simon. According to the doc, her vibes were off the charts. At one point, she walks up to Daryl Hall, says “I’m your biggest fan,” and asks for his autograph. This is Diana Ross! Of The Supremes! And about 200 hit songs! After that, everyone was asking for everyone else’s autograph. Diana set the tone for the minimized egotism and communal affection that made the recording of “We Are The World” possible.
13. Willie Nelson
We didn’t get to hear him with Waylon, which is a crime, but I actually love his pairing with Dionne Warwick. They sound really good together! They should have made an album of duets. (They still could!)
12. Dionne Warwick
All of the singers I’ve mentioned so far weren’t given a lot to do, which hurt their ranking. But Dionne found a way to make a meal out of the small morsel she was given, hitting the “Welllll!” on the entry with beautiful sophistication. (She is also, naturally, a very good interview subject in The Greatest Night In Pop.)
11. Bob Dylan
1985 might very well be the worst year of Bob Dylan’s professional life. Many believed that he was a has-been, including Dylan himself. And “We Are The World” was his nadir. The behind-the-scenes footage of Bob struggling with his part — and Stevie Wonder and Quincy Jones coaching him on how to sing like Bob Dylan — already existed on YouTube before the documentary. But the movie offers more background that makes the sequence even more painful to watch. It’s not that he sounds bad. He can’t even get the words out. His voice shrinks under the pressure. The panic in his eyes is unnerving. It’s the most vulnerable this famously impenetrable man has ever looked on camera. When Bob finally manages to get through his vocal, there’s an affecting moment when Dylan says to Quincy, “That wasn’t any good,” and Quincy embraces Bob and tenderly assures him that the take was perfect. And Bob does, in fact, sound reliably Dylanesque on the track.
10. Al Jarreau
This classy R&B/jazz legend gets bonus points for sounding as good as he does given that he was apparently wasted on wine and barely able to get through his one line. One observer in the doc says that Al was “a little over the top in the alcohol section,” which has to be the least efficient way to say “drunk” possible. Though I refuse to believe that Al was the only intoxicated person in that room. This was L.A. in 1985! And it was the night of the American Music Awards! Intoxication was in the air!
9. Daryl Hall
This had to be one of the best days of Daryl’s life. He nailed his vocal, his hair was perched at maximum “lion’s mane” majesty, Diana Ross asked for his autograph, and — best of all — his long-time musical partner and sworn life-long enemy John Oates got stuck in the choir.
8. Steve Perry
Pure, uncut arena-rock gold. For about three seconds, Steve Perry turns “We Are The World” into a power ballad about how the road ain’t no place to start a family as long you don’t stop believin’ with open arms. His voice is male romantic longing in its most intensely melodramatic audio form. When he sings “We Are The World,” it sounds like a song that a mulleted man would put on while making love to his lady on a waterbed covered with tiger-print sheets.
7. Huey Lewis
Here’s another thing I did not know before I watched The Greatest Night In Pop: The part that was reserved for Prince on the off-chance he decided to show up (he didn’t) was eventually given to the least Prince-like person in the room, Huey Lewis. (Sheila E. meanwhile snuck out of the session once she realized that her main purpose for being there was luring Prince away from the Mexican restaurant he was hiding out at that night.) But once he was put on the field, Huey proved that he belonged. His greatest feat — aside from affecting some truly fantastic “soulful white guy” faces — was devising an extemporaneous three-part harmony part for himself, Cyndi Lauper, and Kim Carnes that kicks the song up a notch.
6. Cyndi Lauper
The best entry of anyone in the song: “Well well WELL WELLLLLLL!!!!” Real “Kool Aid Man bursting through the door”-level stuff. Then she miraculously turns “change” into a three-syllable word. As if my respect for this performance could be any greater, the doc reveals that Cyndi had to remove about 87 different bracelets and earrings because they were making too much noise during her vocal. Just incredible work all around.
5. Lionel Richie
I had to at least put him in the top five, given that he was the quarterback of the team. Though Lionel doesn’t do much singing on “We Are The World,” he was in “Patrick Mahomes in the second half of the 2024 AFC Championship Game” mode. A game manager who kept the operation on track and pointed toward glory.
4. Michael Jackson
The most spine-tingling moment in The Greatest Night In Pop is when MJ is alone in the studio, singing his part, and you are reminded that in spite of everything else about MJ he has one of the most extraordinary voices in the history of humankind. After that scene, I automatically put him at No. 1 on this list. But when you listen to the actual song, you realize he’s in there less than you remember. While Richie was wise to go into game manager mode, I feel like MJ was held back more than he should have been. He could have dominated “We Are The World.”
3. Ray Charles
The top three singers are ones who kick the most ass at the end of “We Are The World.” The ones who testify while the choir sings the chorus over and over for several minutes. The first of this trio is the man most responsible for bringing gospel dynamics to the secular musical world. When you hear Ray Charles, it’s like the voice of God commanding the audience to empty their wallets for a worthy cause.
A Quick Scenario Before The Top Two: What Does A “Modern” Version Of “We Are The World” Sound Like?
Jack Antonoff is the Quincy Jones. Phoebe Bridgers is the Lionel Richie. She co-writes the song with Taylor Swift, the contemporary analogue to Michael Jackson. Paul McCartney plays the “elder statesman” Ray Charles role. Bob Dylan plays the “music’s social conscience” Bob Dylan role and remains extremely awkward. Frank Ocean, like Prince, is invited but doesn’t show up. John Mayer is the “40-something-year-old soft-rock star between career peaks” Paul Simon-style buzzkill. Rihanna is the Diana Ross-esque iconic diva with the best vibes. The most surprisingly good pairing is Chris Stapleton and Bruno Mars. The least effective pairing is Lorde and Dave Grohl. The song is streamed one billion times on the first day of release and never again afterward.
2. Bruce Springsteen
His voice is ravaged from the Born In The U.S.A. tour. It looks like he hasn’t showered since flying out of Buffalo. His jaw is the size of Alaska. If this isn’t the single coolest Bruce incarnation of all time, it’s in the running. In the doc, Bruce comes this close to calling “We Are The World” a bad song, settling instead on deeming it “broad.” But he sings it like he’s doing “Badlands” at the Meadowlands. The conviction is unreal. The raspiness is captivating. The Bossness is undeniable.
1. Stevie Wonder
The unquestioned peak of “We Are The World” is when Bruce and Stevie are belting their hearts out into each others’ faces on the split screen. Every time I see that I think, Just make the whole song this! This is so sick! I ultimately give Stevie the slight edge over Bruce because of his MVP performance behind the scenes as well. Not only did he coach up Bob Dylan on how to affect a Dylanesque vocal delivery, he also at one point walked Ray Charles to the bathroom. (A person in the doc inevitably calls it a “blind leading the blind” moment.) Yes, he also inadvertently chased off Waylon Jennings. But Stevie Wonder won “We Are The World” like it was an Album Of The Year Grammy in the 1970s.
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.