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Much Ado About Nothing

By Russ Smith | Posted 2/11/2004

It was inevitable that the headline on the current cover of Rolling Stone (dated Feb. 19), underneath a picture of the 1964 Beatles, would read, "It was 40 Years Ago Today: How the Beatles Changed America Overnight." Ask why I still subscribe to the anachronistic biweekly, which for a period of maybe seven years, 1969-'76, was the most vital forum for vigorous, lengthy, and experimental journalism, and you'll be met with a blank stare. I really have no idea, except that the subscription price is negligible and it's mildly interesting to see what liberal cause multimillionaire proprietor Jann Wenner is espousing in any given issue.

My 11-year-old son, who favors Blender and even the post-Bob Guccione Jr. Spin, just shakes his head as if he's amassed more evidence that dear old dad is a cranky dinosaur.

And of course there's an element of nostalgia in receiving RS, the memory of discovering the magazine as a 13-year-old and driving my mother batty by picking up the then-35-cents tabloid at a Greenwich Village newsstand. I'd pore over the contents on the train ride home to Huntington, Long Island, furtively looking at the column Dope Notes, the goofy poems of Richard Brautigan, and obviously the stories about Bob Dylan, the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Van Morrison, and the Yoko-infiltrated Beatles.

Last Friday I skimmed the various thumbsuckers in the dailies about the 40th anniversary of the Beatles' Feb. 9, 1964, appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, and cringed when a writer, such as the Washington Post's David Segal, wrote that the instant cultural explosion "changed the world." (No slight to the Beatles, but I'd say the proliferation of air conditioning, the computer, and television had more profound effects on the world.)

Equally silly was a New York Times nod to the absurd theory that America embraced the Beatles in large measure to help heal the wounds of JFK's assassination just a few months earlier. Never mind that the group was a sensation in Europe for all of '63; forget that the initial fans of the Fab Four were adolescents who weren't scarred by that day's events in Dallas, or that pop music was evolving from Ricky Nelson to Bob Dylan (and his imitators) and Motown while the Kennedy administration was in office.

The initial Sullivan shows have been played so often, whether on previous anniversaries of the British Invasion or in Beatles' documentaries, that the current hubbub is fairly meaningless. Of course I remember watching the "lads," as music critics still annoyingly refer to the quartet to this day, on the CBS variety hour, along with my four brothers. And yes, to my parents' consternation, we bought the first two albums the very next day. Who didn't? I never went so far as buying a Beatles wig to put atop my crew cut at the time, but did purchase several packs of trading cards featuring the new kids in town (a nickel apiece, along with a stick of bubble gum).

Which brings me to the brouhaha over Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake taking advantage of the huge Super Bowl audience on Feb. 1 with their halftime stunt. Isn't it a bit late, in 2004, for moral scolds to profess outrage over Jackson's breast being exposed during what FCC chairman Michael Powell ludicrously called "a sacred period of time"? Syndicated columnist Cal Thomas (who appears in The Sun as the paper's token conservative) was typical in his Feb. 4 blast at CBS, saying the "halftime show . . . could have served as a backdrop for one of Caligula's orgies."

I believe in a free market, and if citizens don't care for what they see on television, they ought to boycott the offending station and the advertisers who sponsor the shows. Besides, the brief glimpse of Jackson's breast was tame compared to the truly obscene programming that the networks and cable organizations have shown for years. I'm thinking of the endless coverage of the Columbine shootings; O.J. Simpson's car chase and trial; repeated footage of the World Trade Center crumbling on Sept. 11; hundreds of hours devoted to the abductions and murders of children; and the spate of "reality" programs.

Popular culture and politics evolves, for better or for worse. When parents were outraged over the very existence of the Beatles 40 years ago, could anyone imagine the following "joke" at the Feb. 4 Washington Press Club Foundation Dinner? As reported by the Washington Post's Libby Copeland the next day, Sen. Jon Corzine said: "Sharing a media market with [New York Sen.] Chuck Schumer is like sharing a banana with a monkey. Take one bite of it and he'll throw his own feces at you."

Finally, there was equal dismay over the erectile dysfunction drugs advertised during the Super Bowl, in particular one called Cialis. I tune this stuff out, but pundits ought to realize that the same commercial was shown during Tim Russert's Meet the Press interview with President Bush last Sunday.

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