With 'Us,' Jordan Peele Has Killed the Earnest Charity Single

Claudette Barius/Universal Studios
Evan Alex, Lupita Nyong’o and Shahadi Wright Joseph in Us.

It’s time to reveal a major spoiler of Us: Writer/director Jordan Peele slaughters Hands Across America. As in, the benefit event for the homeless staged in May 1986, in which approximately 6.5 million people held hands in a human chain along a path across the contiguous United States.

Peele brilliantly sets up the kill in the opening moment of his social meditation/horror blockbuster, showing a retro commercial for the fundraiser on a boxy, old-school TV. The hand-holders are illustrated in red, like cut-out dolls. A female announcer giddily exclaims, “America will be tethered together!!!!” Peele might as well have flashed “harbinger of doom” in big block letters on the bottom of the screen.

No character mentions Hands Across America as the film’s narrative switches from 1986 to present day, but it serves as the thematic backdrop. Not in a, “Hey, isn’t it nifty that we can put aside our differences for 15 minutes and solve homelessness?!” kind of way. Peele sees it an elitist movement with sinister undertones. In the film, a society of people living underneath the ground emerge to wreak havoc on their doppelgangers. Dressed in red jumpsuits, they call their movement the untethering. But they’re not necessarily evil. The director recently explained to a South by Southwest audience that we’re in a time when we automatically fear the other. “We point the finger,” he said, “but the monster maybe has our face. The evil is us.” (Not like we’d expect anything less damning from the man who examined cultural appropriation -- how white Americans value black culture and black bodies but not necessarily black lives — in 2017’s Get Out.)

Peele's Hands Across America message is a cynical curveball. “Hands Across America was this idea of American optimism and hope, and Ronald Reagan-style-we-can-get-things-done-if-we-just-hold-hands,” he recently related to Vanity Fair. It’s a great gesture -- but you can’t actually cure hunger and all that.” Hands Across America also coincided with more scarring images from his childhood. “That was when I was afraid of horror movies,” he explained in the same interview. “That’s when the Challenger disaster happened. There are several ‘80s images that conjure up a feeling of both bliss and innocence, and the darkest of the dark.”

I suspect many Millennials saw Us and were in the dark themselves about the Hands Across America reference. A 10-year-old living in metro Detroit at the time, I have hazy memories of the actual event. Nobody I knew actually joined the chain, but I remember watching news footage of organizers tying ropes together to connect the more sparsely populated states in the mountain region. In fact, if not for one key supplemental promotion, I would have repressed the entire thing along with my rubber bracelet collection and Ricky Schroder crush.

And that, friends, is the accompanying gung-ho charity single. Billed to “Voices of America,” the single (also called “Hands Across America”) was sung by two relatively unknown studio singers, Joe Cerisano and Sandy Farina, who belted with such wave-the-flag earnestness that I wouldn’t be surprised if they also did the jingles for Hallmark cards and cotton. The big-hearted lyrics and ear-worm melody -- performed by the members of ‘80s rock radio regulars Toto -- fit right in on the charts next to Billy Ocean’s “There’ll Be Sad Songs (To Make You Cry)” and the Rocky IV soundtrack. (The song peaked at No. 65 on the Billboard Hot 100.) Give me a few beers, and I could karaoke “Hands Across America” for you on the spot. Here’s a taste! “Haaaaands across America…..! Haaaaands across this land I love….. ! Divided we fall, united we stand. Haaaaands across America!” I lapped up those words, dammit, never once sensing any dark undercurrents lurking below the surface. 

Once upon a time, charity singles were legitimate, celebrated force in pop music. You know what’s better than a celebrity championing a cause? A bevy of celebrities of all creeds championing a cause via a catchy tune with a sing-along chorus. Purchase the 45-inch record -- or the cassingle, or the iTunes download -- and you’re not just listening to your favorites trade solemn verses, you’re supporting a worthy endeavor. Homelessness. Hunger. Human rights. AIDS. The military. The charity single was something that made us feel good about ourselves, as if Bono himself was giving us permission to pat ourselves on the back.

The subgenre started in 1984, when Boomtown Rats frontman Bob Geldof gathered his best U.K. mates -- such as Sting, Phil Collins, George Michael, Boy George and Paul Young to participate on the bombastic one-off single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” The cause was famine relief in Africa, as the singers of Band Aid implored us a dozen times in a four-minute-span to feed the world. The song was an impassioned groundbreaker. And thanks to the grainy low-budget video, we could see who didn’t make the cut for a solo. (Namely, the stray Americans Jody Watley and Kool and the Gang.) The spectacular, similarly star-studded Live Aid concerts in London and Philadelphia followed the next summer.

Not to be outdone across the pond, Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson, along with producer Quincy Jones, corralled the likes of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Paul Simon to an L.A. studio in January 1985 to record the all-time superteaming “We Are the World.” It went all the way to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. We all debated which artist has a more memorable one-line cameo, Steve Perry or Cyndi Lauper. One morning, every radio station in America agreed to play the song simultaneously. Owning a white “USA for Africa” sweatshirt, as seen on Kenny Rogers in the clip, was considered awesome. The fact that I can still spit out these details 34 years later without even looking at Wikipedia for guidance illustrates its impact.  

After we all agreed to make a make a brighter day, just you and me, the charity single phenomenon exploded. Team Canada, dubbed Northern Lights, assembled to do their own famine relief song, "Tears Are Not Enough." Then came “That’s What Friends Are For” with Dionne Warwick, Elton John, Stevie Wonder and Gladys Knight assembling to benefit AIDS research, and “Hands Across America,” and I’m sure I’m forgetting 25 others. In the ‘90s, super-producer David Foster gathered his friends to belt out “Voices that Care” to support the troops fighting in the Gulf War. At this point, the cachet was slowly fading: We’d gone from Ray Charles, Tina Turner, Billy Joel and Diana Ross in “We Are the World” to Kenny G, Jani Lane, Bobby Brown and Nelson on “Voices.”

The emergence of grunge and irony slowed the charity single, but didn’t kill it. In 2001, a who’s who of Total Request Live-era staples -- including, again, Bono -- contributed to a remake of Marvin Gaye’s classic “What’s Going On?” By then, we were less concerned with the cause and just excited at The Gathering. Justin Timberlake and Nick Carter; Britney and Christina; Diddy and J.Lo. Then came a troubling sign that the movement had sputtered: the anniversary remakes. Updated versions of “Do They Know They Know it’s Christmas” surfaced in 2004 and 2014. The “We Are the World” 2.0 in 2010 (for Haiti earthquake relief) will go down as the only known musical union of Barbra Streisand and Justin Bieber. Well-intentioned as they were, the new versions came off as desperate attempts to recapture the glory days of the format.

Even before Peele took his scissors to it, the big, bold charity single had failed to age well viewed through a 2019 lens. Nobody will ever admit it jamming to Nelly’s rap on “What’s Going On.” Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock have parodied it, among many others. With YouTube, it’s just impossible to watch these pop superteamings with a straight face. (The eternally nostalgic original cut of “Do They Know It’s Christmas” is the lone, holiday-appropriate exception.) I recently came to the “Hands Across America” video for a post-Us curiosity cleanse. I stayed for the wince factor. Whoopi Goldberg needs to explain how she ended up holding hands with Mickey Mouse on a Disney lot. Or why we all thought Philip Michael Thomas and Don Johnson — giving each other the ultimate bro high-five in their pastel Miami Vice suits — were considered arbitrators of cool in 1986.

Now, the “Hands Across America”-style charity single is buried. And If stars are going to rally around a cause, they’re not going to stand in front of a microphone and wail a reductive pop mega-ballad one line at a time. Consider the reggaeton-flavored, Lin-Manuel Miranda-conceived effort "Almost Like Praying" — featuring Jennifer Lopez, Rita Moreno, Luis Fonsi, among many other Latin stars — in the wake of the Puerto Rico devastation in 2017. Broadway stars also banded together to record a remake of “What the World Needs Now” to benefit victims and survivors of the tragic shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in 2016. But generally, people are quicker to support a cause via a march or social media in 2019 than a gaudy charity single anyway.

But I’ll miss it. There’s still something intriguing, dare I say awe-inspiring, about a wide span of musicians joining forces and harmonizing about helping people and loving each other. We may not be physically tethered together, but nowadays it’s rare for so many people to unite in any way for one common greater good -- and, no, supporting Us at the box office doesn’t count. Maybe someday Beyonce, Lady Gaga and Questlove can figure out how to properly revive the trend. Can they get a hand?