We Are The War: 30 Years Ago “Voices That Care” Nearly Killed The All-Star Charity Single
Popular culture in the ’90s was significantly broader, deeper, and more eclectic than millennial nostalgists demand of it. And yet it’s also the source of such striking works of anti-profundity that it’s enough to make those of us who lived through an era of comparative peace and prosperity want to throw it all in the garbage. We’re talking about the kind of schlock that would eventually get so oppressively thick that the only thing available to counter it would be a ruthless irony so poisonous that it threatened our ability to appreciate anything mass-culture at face value. Maybe that’s an extreme stance to take — not as extreme as the taste of Diet Mountain Dew, but close — and yet that’s the only way I’m really able to get at the brief but staggering moment when multiple multi-billion-dollar entertainment industries went all-in on the last gasp of the big post-“We Are The World” all-star charity single wave.
Pop music’s role in wartime has usually been a source of conflict in itself: Vietnam-era hits ranged from ultrasober jingoistic Silent Majority pleasers like “The Ballad Of The Green Berets” to defiant youth-aimed protests like, for instance, “War.” During the first couple years of the Iraq War, you could either concoct some blue state/Broadway-ready first-draft Clash-isms like Green Day, or Dubya-mock your way into a rare case of actual real-world cancel culture like the Dixie Chicks. But between those two wars was another, shorter, more whitewashed conflict: the half-year Gulf War that spanned the latter half of 1990 and the first two months of 1991. With a media blackout that left the most horrifying aspects of the war off cable news and a rah-rah “this will not be another Vietnam” optimism relayed by the United States government, the popular culture blowback against Operation Desert Storm was present — word to Geto Boys — but never particularly dominant enough to stick in our collective cultural memory. What we got for support, however, was profoundly awkward at the time and even more bizarre in hindsight.
So: Anybody here remember “Voices That Care”? Credited to an all-star assemblage given the same name, it was not the unofficial theme of Operation Desert Storm — as this January 1991 AP article confirms, that was Bette Midler’s version of “From A Distance,” along with a handful of others, none of which are “Voices That Care.” To be fair, “Voices That Care” hadn’t even really been conceived in January 1991, and it wouldn’t be released as a single until March 13, 1991 — 30 years ago tomorrow — at which point the war had already been over for about two weeks. Yet this song in particular is a vivid hi-def snapshot of what popular culture was like that year: a work that puffed itself up with a preposterous amount of celebrity star power, collectively concocted by the braintrust responsible for turning post-Terry Kath Chicago into the personification of ’80s histrionic blandness.
If “histrionic blandness” sounds like an oxymoron, hey, sometimes that’s the best way to describe a bizarre committee work like this. Peter Cetera, Chicago producer David Foster, and Hee Haw actress/songwriter Linda Thompson (not “Richard and”) scribbled down some lyrics that seemed carefully calculated to offend as few people as possible. Their song did not so much take a stance about the war itself but one that decreed, stridently but not especially controversially, that our combat soldiers should stay protected and come home safe. Anything else resembling politics or protest was carefully sidestepped: “I’m not here to justify the cause / Or to count up all the loss / That’s all been done before / Just can’t let you feel alone / When there’s so much love at home.” A centrist war song: That’s the ’90s, all right. But “Voices That Care” — otherwise a fairly anodyne and mushy ballad on its surface — careens off into absurdity through a combination of celebrity hubris, bizarre timing, and an unexpected case of overnight-sensation starmaking that would end tragically before the end of the decade.
Let’s look at that latter phenomenon first: If one figure looms out from the schmaltzy gunk of this song — stealing the show from the Poppy Bush Interzone ranks of Bobby Brown, Michael Bolton, and the Nelson twins, not to mention a then-strictly-CanCon Céline Dion — it’s Warren Wiebe. That’s saying something, considering how much Sing It Like You Mean It showboating is going on here in ways that overlap with a “hook every demographic” stiltedness. Is it possible to enjoy post-New Edition Ralph Tresvant and Randy Travis? Soul polymath Brenda Russell and Warrant, represented by lead singer/hatsman Jani Lane? A gospel-caliber Pointer Sisters harmony, startlingly pierced by a gear-grinding no-clutch shift into a couple sunshiny rap bars by the Fresh Prince? What if they’re not just trying to do their best singing, but their most singing? Pointers, Luther Vandross, and (I’ll admit) Dion aside, this song personifies the sounds of early ’90s pop at their hubristic excess — with solos from Mark Knopfler and Kenny G just to provide the instrumental equivalent of lookit-me belting, too. You’d gravitate towards the outsider feel-good story, too.
The thing about Wiebe is that he was a long-schlepping session man out of LA-via-San Diego who had the unfathomable luck of being discovered by Foster and songwriting legend Burt Bacharach back on Valentine’s Day 1987. At the time, Wiebe was 34 years old and in the midst of a revolving-door list of local-band gigs when fame (or at least fame-adjacent renown) struck. By 1989 he got modest notice from a duet with Dion for the largely-forgotten Kirk Cameron debate-club drama Listen To Me. For “Voices That Care,” Wiebe was entrusted to cut the demo for the other singers to follow, but he was so uncannily proficient a singer that he was showcased in the song’s waning moments. Imagine the male prototype for Susan Boyle — an unassuming-looking figure with a surprising voice, in Wiebe’s case often compared to Stevie Wonder’s — and you get the idea, though in other instances he was said to be capable of doing a pitch-perfect Paul Rodgers or Al Jarreau impression. Considering his lack of traditional musical training and education, and the fact that he could be relied on to be perfect on the first take, music bizzers started to regard him as some sort of savant; in the liner notes of his 1995 album Q’s Jook Joint, Quincy Jones himself stated that Wiebe “thinks, feels and sings much more than he says” en route to dubbing him “The Rain Man.”
If Wiebe’s emergence was the semi-patronizing feel-good story of Voices That Care, things got distinctly weirder with the song’s all-inclusive guest list. If the entire vocal contributions to “Voices That Care” consisted of the singers that took turns belting a bar or two, it might be a dated curio. But it’s the choir of the song that elevates things to the realm of the inexplicable. The actual pop singers involved pushed the efforts at harnessing star power to such an extent that it reads like a Rolodex exploding: Paul Anka, Vic Damone, Rick Dees, Donny Osmond, Paul Williams, Gary Wright, Stephen Stills, Sheena Easton, Debbie Gibson, Tiffany, Roger Whittaker, Micky Dolenz, Noddy Holder, Jimmy Buffett — it’s like a ’50s sock hop, a ’70s variety show, and a ’90s teen mall-pop concert all bum-rushed the studio at once, and that’s before even mentioning the film and TV stars that showed up. Just in the “C”s alone you’ve got Kevin Costner, Chevy Chase, Nell Carter, and Billy Crystal, none of whom are the most preposterous names in a shindig that also had room for Henry Winkler and Gary Busey and Martin “Kreese from The Karate Kid” Kove. And William Shatner. And Kurt Russell! Snake Plissken was in this!
I wish I was done. In a move that smartly anticipated the video for Hootie & The Blowfish’s “Only Wanna Be With You,” Voices That Care roped in representatives from nearly every major sport you can name aside from golf and pro wrestling. That includes all-time hockey great Wayne Gretzky, shutout-spinning Dodgers pitcher Orel Hershiser, Raiders rushing record-setter Marcus Allen, notorious Seahawks linebacker Brian “The Boz” Bosworth, multiple-time Formula 1/Indy 500 winner Emerson Fittipaldi, a post-Buster Douglas/pre-prison Mike Tyson, and NBA superstars Magic Johnson, David Robinson, Clyde Drexler, Dominique Wilkins, and Michael goddamned Jordan. Can these NBA stars appear in the choir for the video? No! But we’ll splice in some courtside footage to make up for it! Can they sing? Can you give a fuck if they can’t? They’re famous! And the troops will appreciate the gesture!
Oh, right: the troops. It’s about them, and how they should be supported and so on. So once the single was cut, a special half-hour documentary and lead-in to the world premiere of the super-ultra-star-studded video was shot, to be aired on the Fox network. The airdate: February 28, 1991. Just the first few minutes of this special will give you a clear idea of some of the more potentially contentious Nam-syndrome sentiments simmering underneath the surface of the Gulf War discourse: Kenny Rogers and Nell Carter, albeit in terms that leave who’s to blame deliberately vague, both invoke how the Vietnam generation of soldiers wasn’t given their due respect when they returned. And later in the show, Paul Williams suggests that his appearance on “Voices That Care” is a make-good for being “one of those dummies who wasn’t there in the late ’60s/early ’70s.” Celebrities: They won’t spit on you at the airport when you get back! The special itself, incidentally, is introduced by none other than James Woods, who [OPINION REDACTED IN EFFORT TO AVOID LAWSUIT] in an early sign that his political opinions would eventually [I’M SERIOUS, I DON’T WANT TO BE TAKEN TO COURT, I STILL WANT TO ENJOY VIDEODROME].
David Foster reveals the spark of inspiration that led him and Linda Thompson to write “Voices That Care”: “this great ad” for military-embedded aerospace corporation Boeing and their own Thank You, Troops message. Synergy! At least Wiebe gets his own little segment, where he looks like the most down-to-earth dude in the world compared to the “ha ha no really I’m not any good at singing” movie-star peers. And you can tell that not enough people actually watched this special, because Will Smith provides the kind of irreverence that could’ve otherwise spurred a massive outraged letter-writing campaign: “Can I have a towel? I wouldn’t wanna be sweaty for the troops,” he jokes post-pickup game, shortly before revealing that he’d originally planned a verse that bordered on Gil Scott-Heron agitation (“‘To hell with a fighter jet, feed the hungry’ — but you can’t play that for the troops, ’cause then they’d be like, ‘Damn, we already here, man! You shoulda told us that [shit] at home!”). You can tell that there’s a sort of detente between good old Liberal Hollywood and its more right-leaning members: The important thing is that the war ends with as many of our soldiers safe and sound when all’s said and done. It’s the most nonpartisan way of saying Support Our Troops: Send Them Home you can get.
And guess what? The airdate for the Voices That Care special is also the exact date that the Gulf War officially ended. A celebration for the troops to come home safe coincidentally aired the same day the remaining troops were marked to come home safe, with only 148 confirmed American battle-related casualties — 148 too many, but a miniscule fraction of a sub-1% number compared to the 58,000-plus killed in Vietnam or the nearly 5,000 coalition forces lost in Iraq. And maybe that’s what really made Voices That Care such a non-entity in American culture: despite its peak at #11 on the Billboard pop charts — on May 4, more than two months after Operation Desert Storm came to a close — it faded from memory just as quickly as any questions about whether the Middle East had been destabilized and what this whole “Highway Of Death” thing was about. It was so lost to history that when The Simpsons parodied it with their own take on non-singing-celebrity-addled charity singles, most people assumed it was spoofing “We Are The World” instead. After the parade of celebrity charity singles in the ’80s — Band Aid, Hear ‘n Aid, Ferry Aid, Band Aid II, et al — it would be almost seven years before a motley crew of musicians would offer something of that scale again.
I wish the rest of the postscript was as funny. I mean, it kind of is in that the guy who directed the music video, Jim Yukich, found himself responsible for toilet-tier video game adaptation movie Double Dragon three years later. And maybe his semi-participation in Voices That Care was the one missing piece that finally catalyzed Michael Jordan into becoming one of the best postseason athletes of all time. But Warren Wiebe, the only person to come out of this whole project more famous than he was when he went in, would take his own life in 1998 after battling depression. I wonder what voices cared for him.