Let me count the ways. There is apparently a pop music critics debate about whether this song, which was a bigger deal at the time, or "Do They Know It's Christmas?" the earlier English attempt at charity schlock rock which has a stronger melody and has weathered well, was better. Ooh! Ooh! Ooh! I know the answer, teacher! Call on me! Call on me! My arm is soooo tired from holding it up waiting for you to call on me! The answer is "Don't call this a question of any importance whatsoever!"
I bring prejudices to this performance. We had long since gotten rid of the TV and I did not listen to popular music stations on the radio. I may have heard it before it showed up in Gethsemane Lutheran Church one Sunday in 1985, with charming 14 y/o girls signing it for the deaf along with a cassette tape as the special music that week. We had no deaf people, of course, nor were we embarking on a deaf ministry, much as that was needed at the time. At least it wasn't liturgical dance.
Lots of the money raised went to teaching about birth control and food production, and much of that which went for food went to officials who promised to make sure the food got to the right people. I think some did get through to actual hungry people. You could make good arguments that such education was more needed and would do more good in the long run but...that wasn't what they said they were doing. 10% was kept in America for domestic poor food programs. It had very little effect.
I also noted right up front a certain vacuity, which PJ O'Rourke summarised better than I could in his excellent book Give War A Chance.
We are the world [solipsism], we are the children [average age forty]. We are the ones to make a brighter day [unproven], so let’s start giving [logical inference supplied without argument]. There’s a choice we’re making, so let’s start giving [true as far as it goes]. We’re saving our own lives [absurd]. It’s true we’ll make a better day [see line 2 above], Just you and me [statistically unlikely]. That’s three palpable untruths, two dubious assertions, and nine uses of a first person pronoun, not a single reference to trouble and anybody in it and no facts. The verse contains, literally, neither rhyme nor reason. And these musical riots of philanthropy address themselves to the wrong problems. Death is the result of bad politics.
Yet I know that what irritates me most powerfully is how it still strikes a chord in the rock-music liberals of my own generation. I have one quite close to me who has made numerous references to it over the years, both what an important moment it was in the history of America waking up to its responsibilities in the world and noticing that we were not the only people on the planet, but also, what a pivotal, transitional time it was for rock music in general, of the older, established musicians handing the baton to a younger generation, who were going to carry the dream of the 60s forward and make it a better world. They way those younger singers asserted themselves, even in the presence of these august elders...
No really. He talks like this, as recently as last year. He's 65. And he is not the only one, if you check in on people who write about the history of rock music. They choke up about this. Bob Dylan wasn't going to even come, until he heard that Ray Charles was coming. Ray Charles! He saw that the real Civil Rights crowd, not just the young ones, were getting involved! (seeing that this was the third multi-star charity concert Dylan had come to, I find this hard to credit.) It was the first time that so many big name celebrities had devoted themselves to a cause (Uhh, WWII? USO?)
Okay, I thought America noticing what was wrong in the world and thinking we had important responsibilities about that was what had the CIA involved in overthrows and got us into Vietnam, which were considered bad things by this group. Every schoolchild in the 50s and 60s heard their parents say "Eat your dinner. There are children starving in India/China/Africa." I think we did actually know. Maybe it was mostly rich pop stars who had forgotten and needed documentaries on TV to remind them.
As for passing the baton, well there were some Jackson brothers younger than Michael...and Sheila E was 27...but I think people mostly mean the thoroughly-irritating Cindy Lauper, who was nearly 32 at the time, because she had that weird hair and seemed like a kid, and it was such a surprise when she asserted herself when it was her turn, as if she had talent. Like right in front of Paul Simon and Dionne Warwick and everything. Maybe Huey Lewis & the News, who were born around 1950 but had only recently become stars? That younger generation? Have we noticed that any particular baton was passed to them? Or Lauper? Or the Jacksons, excepting Michael? If so, they seem to have dropped it and left the track.
But it was a twofer. You could pretend you were helping African hunger and show you were still keeping up with what's hip. It's both a candy and a breath mint, Darlene! 1985 is not looking so accidental...
It was not in any way the first virtue-signalling. That has likely been around since about two days after the world's oldest profession got started. Nor was this novel with American liberals. Once they figured out that the 60s protests in Selma and the like were going to be filmed and on the news, and there was going to be police protection that didn't want a riot, you suddenly couldn't keep those earnest white people away. I suppose there was something to Live Aid being famous black people who got to virtue-signal right along with famous white ones - that hadn't happened much before, and it was a mark of cultural unity and progress. Conservatives had their own virtue-signalling of course, because it's very equal-opportunity, but this was going to be an MTV, modern-media event, which meant repeated airplay. Turkish Delight, really.
There was a Mother Earth News article in the 1970s that was a shortened version of Four Arguments For the Elimination of Television. One of its points was that politics was going to become increasingly performative, like the Munich Olympics, and less based on real events. Terrorists as well as politicians were going to play for the camera. Whoa, did that ever turn out to be true, and this video is front-and-center. The commodification of caring.
Let me suggest that the unrecognised but probably dominant reasons that made this necessary were that Vietnam was too long ago to get people excited, and Reagan was just starting his second term, despite everyone knowing that he was going to bring in fascism - any day now! But they didn't care. So the good people of the world had to show that they not only cared, but they Cared, and they CARED. We are the world, not you bastards.
The Simpsons get the last, best word.