Call me a hypocrite. Last week I wrote a column about how music had been so effective in helping people deal with their feelings about the nearly unfathomable terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. But now, just days later, I'm on the verge of saying, "enough already."
Increasingly, pop music, which implicitly or explicitly addresses the tragedy, has seemed less like a private source of comfort than something that feels like its about to be forced down the public's throat. Several charity records and events have been planned, and while these efforts seem like a good thing, I worry about the residual potentially career-boosting effect that stars get by tapping into people's genuine feelings of grief. I can't help thinking those who are quickest to want to feel our pain are also the ones who most desperately need to re-endear themselves to us.
Case in point: Whitney Houston - whose alleged drug problem was one of the few other stories that made news last week - is re-releasing her rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner," which was a Top 20 hit during the Gulf War. And though all proceeds go to the New York Firefighters Disaster Relief Fund and the New York Fraternal Order of Police Fund, it's hard not to think that she also benefits from the song. It draws attention away from how her life and career, which has been tarnished by a drug bust and numerous no-shows, is rapidly becoming another kind of American tragedy.
Michael Jackson is also getting into the charity game, making plans to record a tune with Destiny's Child; the Backstreet Boy's Nick Carter and his little brother, Aaron; Britney Spears; and her boy-band beau, Justin Timberlake of 'N Sync. But it's hard to tell whether this is an altruistic gesture on Jackson's part or a savvy way for the embattled pop veteran, who still bears the taint of child-molestation accusations, to tap into a younger fan base by being associated with "TRL"-era stars just as he's about to release a new album.
This Jackson project isn't the only group sing-along planned. There's also a cover of Sister Sledge's disco nugget "We Are Family" in the works with vocals by Sugar Ray, Monica, Sheryl Crow, professional basketball players and members of Congress. This may seem like a nice - if potentially nightmarish to hear - gesture. But, again, a question nags with respect to this tune and others like it: Do such songs really put the focus on victims or those who made the record? What comes to mind when you think "We Are The World" - famine victims or the stars who sang on the tune?
Whenever show business people publicly get into the philanthropy biz, it's easy for the line between selfless acts of giving and stealthy self-promotion to blur. Many of the performers who are about to jump on the charity-record bandwagon should consider the following words that the grande dame of pop, Madonna, offered at one her L.A. concerts last week: "If you want to change the world, change yourself."