Why Everybody Hurts Is The Last Thing Haiti Needs

Jude Rogers takes issue with the mauling of 'Everybody Hurts' by Simon Cowell and co

Once upon a time, there was a slip of a song, a soft statement of directness, tucked into the first side of a strange, swampy album. Sitting between a single about snakes and a mournful instrumental, it was written for misty-eyed, miserable teenagers, teaching them a few lessons about the way the world was. It said this: listen, kids. Everybody hurts. Everybody cries. The sentiments were unusually saccharine for REM back then, but Michael Stipe’s reedy voice gave them a peculiar, quiet power. You may feel like a weirdo, he seemed to be saying, but don’t worry about it, brother. I’m a weirdo too.

Now jump forward seventeen years. How did we get from there to here?

The world has whined on, and ‘Everybody Hurts’ has become a very different creature. Post- Diana boo-hooey, in a world in which pop songs are wrung dry on TV to suggest emotional Everests and oceanic depths of despair, it has become musical shorthand for stadium-sized sorrow – a far cry from the slight, awkward ballad that soothed off-kilter kids, like the 15-year-old me.

And now it is the song for Haiti. This is not a spur-of-the-moment choice by Simon Cowell, plucked from the air in a spirit of altruism and tenderness. He has been mastering the makeover of this song for years, slathering over its subtlety with key changes, powder and paint. X Factor opera death-squad G4 did it first, giving it the constipated walrus treatment in 2004. Britain’s Got Talent winner Paul Potts came next, singing it on his album in ponderous Italian, presumably to give him the tang of an Aldi Pavarotti. Latterly, Diana Vickers, now being repackaged very nicely as a bubblegum pop star, honked it into a vegetative state in 2008.

But this time, the odds are different. A humanitarian disaster of unimaginable proportions has hit a country long buckling from centuries of corruption and poverty. And what is pop’s response? Everybody hurts. It’s not just you, poor, things. We poor creatures hurt too. “When the day is long” – hey, we sympathise, those aftershocks must be a right bitch, especially when you don’t know when they’re going to bury your family home deeper in debris – and “the night is yours alone” – especially when your wife and children are dead, and you haven’t got any food or water, that must be a right bummer – well, “hang on”. That’s what pop says: “hang on”. The temerity of that lyrical twist, its jaw-dropping tastelessness, telling people that have had to hang on already, forever, to just bolster their spirits in the face of devastation – a state unknown to pop stars who wouldn’t piss in a bottle for less than ten grand – makes it pop’s grimmest moment of all time. Not only does it rip the soul out of a song that had something to say, but in the warbly throats of Cowell’s Cabal, it turns ‘Everybody Hurts’ into a surreal, empty ode to positive thinking, performed by people who’d have a tantrum if their tea wasn’t served in bone china.

It gets worse. The message of ‘Everybody Hurts’ is now being placed on the same plain as the lyrics to ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’, effectively demoting Bill Berry and Michael Stipe’s subtle skills to the school of Midge Ure – a man who didn’t notice the “clanging chimes of doom” in Bono’s sickening line, “Tonight, thank God it’s them instead of you” . The media have also been happy to comply in this process, asking Rod Stewart and James Morrison if “Simon” had asked them do this personally, as if Cowell was God, deigning to descend from his heavenly Mr Topper’s barber chair. At least Band Aid had Geldof banging the table like a deranged beggar, trying to get across the gravitas of what he was trying to do, and reporters willing to question pop stars about their real motives (with only a few people, like Bowie, addressing the real issues). Now, all that is left is a reporter basking in the light of these stars, telling us to listen to their vocals, and “take comfort in your friends”.

There are many other grim things about Everybody Hurts being the song for Haiti, There’s the idea that it doesn’t matter what the song is, that people should just shut up and buy it, as if that’s the only way we can help. Why not just donate here as many people like I have? Then comes the relentless parade of melismatic vocals, bereft of humility or subtlety or any true soul, that show how the sport of singing has nothing to do with its art. But the worst thing is this: ‘Everybody Hurts’ is a song that doesn’t offer any answers. It offers sympathy and empathy in the tiniest doses, delivered in this case by musicians that will retire to their manors, and carry on, without blinking, with their extravagant lives. It is a song that used to say, this is the way the world is, deal with it, move on, and it worked because it understood both its audience and its oddness. It stills says this, but now it understands nothing. Now all it says to the people of Haiti, to whom everything is wrong, is that “it’s time to sing along”.

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