The U.K. record for best first-day sales for a single this decade doesn’t belong to a pop superstar like Beyoncé or Taylor Swift or Adele. It belongs to Simon Cowell and the 50 performers and groups who contributed vocals to “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” a charity single to benefit victims of the Grenfell Tower fire that reached No. 1 on the charts and sold 120,000 copies in one day when it was released on June 21. The song is Cowell’s second charity single — he produced one in 2010 to benefit victims of the earthquake in Haiti — and it follows a seemingly very British tradition of responding to tragedy with a star-driven, music-focused, philanthropic effort.
Sure, other countries host star-studded benefit concerts and release charity records, too. But nowhere do these sorts of efforts — highly publicized, celebrity-packed, widely broadcast — seem to have the level of visibility and success that they do in the U.K., where they were born. George Harrison is credited with producing the first modern charity record and benefit concert with his song “Bangla Desh” and the Concert for Bangladesh, both in 1971, intended to raise awareness of Bangladeshi refugees displaced by war and tropical cyclone.
But Irish musician, activist, and actor Bob Geldof took charity records to new heights of popularity with his co-writing and recording of the 1984 song “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” a patronizing, ethnocentric ballad about a destitute and joyless Africa. (Sample lyric: “The greatest gift they'll get this year is life/Where nothing ever grows/No rain or rivers flow/Do they know it's Christmas time at all?”) It was followed less than a year later by Live Aid, a huge benefit concert organized by Geldof that took place in London and Philadelphia simultaneously and featured performances by Sting, Queen, and David Bowie. Americans Willie Nelson, Neil Young, and John Mellencamp were inspired by Geldof to host Farm Aid in 1985, a star-studded concert to benefit farmers that now occurs annually in different cities across the U.S.
The ’80s were undoubtedly the golden era for charity singles. “We Are the World” — another song to benefit famine relief in Africa, performed by 37 of the year’s biggest stars including Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, and Cyndi Lauper — topped the U.S. and U.K. charts. “That’s What Friends Are For,” recorded by Elton John, Gladys Knight, Dionne Warwick, and Stevie Wonder to benefit AIDS research and prevention, also found success in both countries. There have been way more: 1991’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” by George Michael and Elton John to benefit AIDS, children’s, and education charities; 1997’s “Candle in the Wind” by John to benefit the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund; 2001’s “What’s Going On?” a Marvin Gaye cover by the Artists Against Aids Worldwide (a supergroup that included the likes of Nas, Fred Durst, and Destiny’s Child) to benefit AIDS advocacy programs; and 2010’s “Waving Flag”, a K’naan cover performed by Young Artists for Haiti (another supergroup that included K’naan, Nelly Furtado, and Justin Bieber) to benefit victims of the earthquake in Haiti.
But outside of the U.K., few have been able to recreate the successes of their ’80s predecessors. There, at least 25 charity singles, including “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, have reached the No. 1 spot on the singles charts since 2000. For comparison, only one, "Wavin' Flag", has done so in Canada. None have reached the top in the U.S. The U.K. has also been home to a similar trend when it comes to star-studded charity concerts: among many others, Live 8 in 2005; the Concert for Diana and the Ahmet Ertegun Tribute Concert in 2007; and, this year, One Love Manchester, organized by Ariana Grande in response to the May bombing of her concert in Manchester.
Other than their distinctly British origins, charity singles and concerts may be rooted in wider English philanthropic culture. The U.K. regularly ranks high on the Charities Aid Foundation’s World Giving Index, having reached the top spot in 2013. But the impetus behind that tradition of charity is sometimes attributed by journalists and scholars to lingering guilt from the nation’s brutal colonialist past, a guilt that in 2012 ex-Tory leader William Hague said that the British “have to get out of.” In a 2001 article about “agit-pop,” historian T.V. Reed wrote that “Do They Know It’s Christmas” and Live Aid “can be read as putting into place some of the most problematic liberal humanist discourses, from patronizing, patriarchal charity and philanthropy to deeply racist, imperialist echoes of the white man’s burden.”
Still, post-colonial guilt alone cannot explain the U.K.’s penchant for charity singles. Updated, re-recorded versions of “Do They Know It’s Christmas” did manage to reach the top of the U.K. charts in 1989, 2004, and 2014. Some recent charity singles have shifted away from global crises and focused instead on benefitting domestic charities addressing issues like national public health, the Hillsborough Justice Campaign, and injured British military veterans.
Their continued success in the U.K. can in part be attributed to there being more efforts to fold popular music into charitable causes that have partnerships with major broadcasters. Every year, major British telethons put on by the BBC raise funds for the charities Comic Relief and Children in Need by commissioning records from popular artists. That corporate sponsorship often helps these singles get to the top, John Street, Professor of Political Science at the University of East Anglia, told The Outline. “You can have the best cause in the world and the best single in the world,” said Street. “But unless you get the support of television networks you are unlikely to be able to have much of an impact.”
Contentious class divisions are what charity singles in the U.K. often gloss over, in the name of uniting all classes for a good cause.
The involvement of the BBC also ensures that each charitable cause and associated single has the broadest appeal possible, sometimes at the expense of nuanced public conversation. In some cases, issues like hunger and access to healthcare are presented as being apolitical misfortunes. Street cited Live 8, the 2005 concert, as an example. Performances from the event, meant to encourage world powers to forgive the debts they hold over developing countries, were broadcast on the BBC, but the segments in between that addressed the politics of the cause were not. This type of political erasure also occurred with 1984’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas” and 1985’s Live Aid, which focused more on supporting famine relief in Ethiopia rather than exploring the root causes of the famine.
Indeed, whenever a tragedy occurs or an injustice is revealed, there are always calls to keep reparative efforts apolitical in order to focus on helping the victims in question. When it comes to fundraising for Grenfell Tower residents, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” included a neutral verse by grime artist Stormzy, who otherwise has been vocal about holding the government accountable for the fire. His mainstream success allowed him a platform denied to the bashment and hip-hop artists who attempted to organize a charity concert for Grenfell victims, but had their event postponed after their venue’s management claimed their music would “attract poor quality demographic and result in problems.” The bar owners later apologized, but such contentious class divisions are what charity singles in the U.K. often gloss over, in the name of uniting all classes for a good cause — even when those philanthropic efforts have an unsavory, paternalistic tinge. Platitudes often prove to be more marketable than politics. So while most charity singles are not necessarily educational or thought provoking calls to consisted action, the fact that they are easy to stomach makes them attractive to donors.
The politics and intentions behind popular charity singles and concerts will always be up for debate, but that they are effective at raising money is undeniable. “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is continuing to rack up funds for Grenfell Tower victims and the initial $80 million raised during Live Aid was still being distributed in Africa years later. (How the money is used, however, is a whole other story.)
There is no simple answer as to why charity singles and concerts are so popular in the U.K., but the country’s history of colonialism, centralized national broadcasting, and class divisions have combined to create a popular musical charity culture that isn’t so easily found in other places. As time goes on, tragedies will continue to happen, injustices will continue to be uncovered, and the British will continue to use star power and song to appeal to the public for help.