The other evening I was listening to KZSC, college radio for UC Santa Cruz. The deejays were pondering Michelle Shocked’s bizarre homophobic outburst at Yoshis in San Francisco (and for which she has apologized). As if to cleanse their palettes of this incident, they played a relatively early Janis Ian tune: “At Seventeen.” Suddenly I remembered (I’m 58) that there were these moments in the 1960s when television rescued bands and songs that just couldn’t get the initial radio air play that they deserved.
Ian’s first hit, “Society’s Child” remains a classic example of this—a tune about the hazards of interracial dating:
Come to my door, baby,
Face is clean and shining black as night.
My mother went to answer you know
That you looked so fine.
Now I could understand your tears and your shame,
She called you “boy” instead of your name.
When she wouldn’t let you inside,
When she turned and said
“But honey, he’s not our kind.”
I can’t see you any more, baby,
Can’t see you anymore.
First released in 1965, the song went repeatedly stillborn. “We cut it for Atlantic, they passed, gave it back to us,” Ian later recalled. Her producer George “Shadow” Morton took it to 22 record companies. “And finally MGM formed a new company called Verve Forecast, and they took it as a tax loss. They signed everybody, me, Richie Havens, Laura Nyro, they figured we’d all lose the money.”And initially they did. Radio stations studiously avoided broadcasting the song, or fired deejays who played it. Then came Ian’s unlikely knight in shining armor: the star conductor of the New York Philharmonic: Leonard Bernstein, anxious to boost his youth culture creds. In 1967 Bernstein released a television special for CBS titled “Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution.” Around 17 minutes into the feature, Ian performed the piece. Bernstein followed up with an awkward attempt to sing a few lines himself, then offered unabashed praise. “Oh Janis, how did you ever write such a thing at the age of 15?” he exclaimed. “You’re a great creature.”
Actually, Ian wrote it at the age of 13, but the good deed was done. Viewed by millions on TV, “Society’s Child” became an overnight hit. By 1967, the year that the Supreme Court declared laws against interracial marriage unconstitutional, it had sold 600,000 copies.
Four years earlier, The Beatles faced the same problem when trying to break into the United States radio market. Marc Fisher recounts the challenge in his wonderful book Something in the Air: Radio, Rock, and the Revolution that Shaped a Generation. At WABC in New York City, Bruce “Cousin Brucie” Morrow and five other “All American” deejays sat down and listened to a cut of “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”
“Thumbs down,” they declared. “No way,” adding that it was a “stupid name for a rock group.” WMCA tested the tune with an audience. “It got no reaction,” the station program director recalled. “We thought we could break the Beatles before they came to town, but people weren’t interested.”
It wasn’t until February 9, 1964, when the Fab Four appeared on the Ed Sullivan television variety show, that Beatlemania arrived. Within seven days, the Billboard Top 100 included four of their tracks.
Why did television rescue Janis Ian and The Beatles from radio’s timidity in these instances? I think in part because television is program oriented, while by the 1960s much of commercial radio had become format oriented. Overarching formats have their appeal, but they tend to train their adherents not to take chances. So in both of these cases, TV took the risks, and radio followed up. There’s an argument for media diversity somewhere here, but I don’t feel like ending this essay with a sermon.
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