The Art of Listening: Simon says relax

On Helping Haiti's "Everybody Hurts".

Charity, as Withnail might have remarked, is free to those who can afford it. So it's no surprise, in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, to see the aristocrats of the 21st century making a beeline for the nearest recording booth. U2 and Jay-Z have written a song together; Lionel Richie is overseeing a rerecording of USA for Africa's "We Are the World"; and the X Factor supremo Simon Cowell has organised a cover of REM's gentle lullaby "Everybody Hurts".

It is the last of these that concerns us today. What follows is not intended to trivialise the very real emergency in Haiti. Rather, because it is an emergency, this is precisely the wrong moment to suspend our critical judgement. Money may flow in to charity coffers as a by-product (which is great, when it goes to the right places), but a pop song is primarily a sensual experience, often a finely crafted machine for encouraging you to behave like a consumer. Not only is "Everybody Hurts" a flexing of the music industry's muscles (Mariah Carey, Rod Stewart and various X Factor winners are among the 21 vocalists taking part), but Gordon Brown has waived VAT on the single. If anyone has an interest in preserving the public's enthusiasm for shopping, Brown does. It's all he's got.

“Everybody Hurts" fits neatly into the tradition of charity singles established by Band Aid's response to the Ethiopian famine in 1984, "Do They Know It's Christmas?". The formula is simple - a catchy hook plus an array of celeb vocalists, each of whom gets to sing a line of the song. Where once this might have involved assembling the singers in a room, current technology makes it possible for the vocal parts to be recorded in different places and stitched together digitally, as they were on the Children in Need cover of "Perfect Day" in 1997.

While a train of celebrities, like so many goods on a supermarket conveyor belt, makes for an impressive spectacle, it creates problems for the song itself. As with the antecedents of "Everybody Hurts", hearing these voices drift by in succession on the song quickly becomes monotonous. It falls to the backing track to compensate, yet matters are complicated by the need for a melodic structure simple enough to allow the many singers to lay down their lines accurately.

The REM track is a canny choice in this respect, as it is structured around a sparse chord progression, picked out in slow guitar arpeggios. The original relied on a tension between this understatement and the voice of Michael Stipe, restrained yet always on the verge of breaking. By contrast, the singers here are firmly of the X Factor school of heavily ornamented vocals - to which the desired response is generally, "Cor, look at the adenoids on that." Without the tension, when the arrangement swells at the end, it denotes merely a rise in volume, rather than emotional lift-off.

It is a strange phenomenon, the soaring ballad that does not really soar at all - one that Cowell has pioneered on his talent shows. "The Climb" by the most recent X Factor winner, Joe McElderry, had a similar quality, as did the debut singles of earlier winners such as Leona Lewis and Alexandra Burke. Performed at the series finale, they have a flattening effect, smoothing over the conflicts that rage between musicians and judges in the race to win. When applied to a real-life situation such as Haiti, however, it is a smoothing over of - what exactly? Politics? History itself? The message in the lyrics ("Hold on . . . Take comfort in your friends . . .") is easy to grasp, but does it express solidarity with others? Or is it meant to calm the listener's individual conscience? Everybody hurts. So just pay your money and feel better.

At this moment of rupture, when the genuinely shocking news footage may provoke questions such as "Why did so many die when similar earthquakes are far less harmful elsewhere?" and "Why were two million Haitians lacking a guaranteed food supply before the earthquake?" this is the music industry saying: "Don't you forget about me." And the best way the industry knows how to hold your attention is by offering a little tickle of pleasure; preferably nothing that awakens an unpredictable (and therefore dangerous) yearning, but a dose of soma just large enough to keep you sweet.

The Art of Listening column runs fortnightly