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CHIRP's fall fundraising drive is in the books, and it was a great, humbling success. It also got us thinking about the music world's greatest fundraising weapon: the charity single. In the spirit of pop philanthropy, I went back into the archives to answer an age-old question: has there ever been a charity single that didn't suck?
1) Artists United Against Apartheid - "Sun City" (1985)
Benefits: Anti-apartheid charities
Organized by: Steven Van Zandt
Notable Acts Represented: Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen & Little Steven, Gil-Scott Heron, Joey Ramone, Lou Reed, Peter Gabriel, Ringo Starr, Keith Richards & Ron Wood, Run-DMC, Afrika Bambaataa, Kurtis Blow, Grandmaster Melle Mel, Jimmy Cliff, George Clinton, Bonnie Raitt, Darlene Love
Why It Doesn't Suck: The subject matter. Most charity singles are used solely as fundraisers, following the well-meaning (but sometimes misguided) Western tendency to throw money at a problem until it goes away. "Sun City" did that, too, raising millions for anti-apartheid charities upon its release in 1985. However, Artists United Against Apartheid took their commitment a step further. In addition to singing on the record, every artist involved took a pledge not to play Sun City, the infamous whites-only resort that became an emblem of South African inequality. The song was a form of self-policing, calling out both the horrors of aparthied and the tacit approval of those horrors given by artists (including Elton John and Queen) who chose to accept gigs at the resort.
2) Lou Reed - "Perfect Day" (1997)
Benefits: Children in Need
Organized by: The BBC
Notable Acts Represented: Lou Reed, David Bowie, Emmylou Harris, Tammy Wynette, Shane MacGowan, Dr. John, Evan Dando, Laurie Anderson, Tom Jones
Why It Doesn't Suck: The song selection. The equation for most charity records is simple: one well-known or up-and-coming band, plus one ubiquitously popular pop song, equals one huge check for OXFAM. Usually, this gets you something like a Westlife cover of "Uptown Girl." Sometimes, though, it nets you an all-star take on Lou Reed's best song. In 1997, "Perfect Day" was already riding a wave of renewed popularity after its memorable appearance in 1996's Trainspotting. Thus, when the BBC needed a song to showcase the network's commitment to musical diversity, they went for Reed. The result was a cover that paired the BBC's slick production and varied musical acts with Reed's exquisite songwriting. The network had a hit on its hands, and soon issued the song as a single in support of its Children In Need charity. Plus, it greatly reduced the degrees of separation required to connect Shane MacGowan and Tom Jones.
3) North American Hallowe'en Prevention Initiative - "Do They Know It's Hallowe'en?" (2005)
Organized by: Nicholas Thorburn and Adam Gollner
Notable Acts Represented: Arcade Fire, Beck, David Cross, Devendra Banhart, Les Savy Fav, Islands, Rilo Kiley, Dntel, Roky Erikson, Thurston Moore, Sloan, Wolf Parade, Karen O.
Why It Doesn't Suck: The originality. No matter how you feel about "We Are The World" as a piece of music, there's something undeniably uncomfortable about (relatively) rich Western performers singing treacly songs about problems that will never affect them personally. Islands' Nicholas Thorburn agrees. In 2005, he and Adam Gollner of Desserts wrote "Do They Know It's Hallowe'en?", a song that combats America's real menace: Dracula and fun-size Snickers bars. Described by the New York Times as "a trick entreaty," the song flips the usual sermonizing script, with singers from Thurston Moore to Jenny Lewis "[asking] for global assistance in fighting the horrors of All Hallows' Eve." The song had it both ways, satirizing Band Aid's smug First-World-ism while retaining its charitable spirit. Now, it also acts as a time capsule of mid-'00s indie, preserving a time when Devendra Banhart was still edgy and America's biggest bands were actually Canadian.
4) Fucked Up - "Do They Know It's Christmas?" (2009)
Benefits: Justice for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, D.T.E.S. Power of Women Group, and Sisters in Spirit
Organized by: Damian Abraham
Notable Acts Represented: Fucked Up, GZA, Vampire Weekend, Bob Mould, Tegan and Sara, Yo La Tengo, Broken Social Scene, David Cross, Andrew W.K., TV on the Radio
Why It Doesn't Suck: The cover. "Do They Know It's Christmas?" is a lot of things. Massively successful? Yes. Culturally insensitive? You bet. Responsible for a flood of inferior imitators? Have you heard "Tears Are Not Enough"? Debates aside, Bob Geldof's holiday behemoth is also responsible for one of the single greatest album covers of all time. Just try to pick your favorite part the image that graces the front of Fucked Up's 2009 take on the single. Hell, just limit it to lead singer Damian Abraham's Santa costume. Is it the mussed-up hair? The bellowing mouth that you know reeks of recently chugged peppermint schnapps? What about the festive nipple peeking out from Santa's open coat? There are no wrong answers, only opportunities to reflect on the true meaning of the season: listening to David Cross, Andrew W.K., and GZA sing about a 25-year-old famine.
5) WFPK's After Dark - "The Super Bowl Shuffle" (2014)
Benefits: Reading Is Fundamental
Organized by: WFPK's Sean Cannon
Notable Acts Represented: My Morning Jacket, Man Man, Les Savy Fav, Scott Aukerman (host of Comedy Bang! Bang!), pro wrestler Colt Cabana, Internet cat Lil' Bub, comedians David Wain, Kyle Kinane, and David Hill
Why It Doesn't Suck: The ensemble. When Sean Cannon of WFPK's After Dark wanted to remake the "Super Bowl Shuffle," he didn't limit his ensemble to well-known indie rock musicians. Those guys are still present, and include Man Man's Honus Honus, Les Savy Fav's Tim Harrington, and My Morning Jacket frontman (and surprise sax soloist) Jim James. However, it's the non-musicians that turn in the most memorable performances. Scott Aukerman stays true to himself (and his well-documented history as a charity-single enthusiast) with his mathlete-style delivery, and Colt Cabana adds some off-the-cuff humor with his between-takes asides. However, the biggest star is internet cat Lil' Bub, whose mews add a challenging counter-melody that unlocks the song's inherent compositional complexity. "Good job, Bub," indeed.
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