This week in rock history, Buddy Holly’s plane crashed, Karen Carpenter passed away, Paul Simon’s infamous musical opened on Broadway, Janet Jackson had one hell of a “wardrobe malfunction” and R. Kelly pleaded not guilty to child pornography.
February 3, 1959: Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper are killed in a plane crash
Three of the most talented voices in rock & roll were snuffed at once on “the day the music died,” as Don McLean’s “American Pie” later mourned it.
Up-and-coming musical talents Holly, Valens and the Bopper (born J.P. Richardson) were performing on the Winter Dance Party joint tour through the Midwest when they accepted a last-minute gig at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. After the gig, Holly was dismayed that he had no time to do his laundry, so he suggested chartering a plane to their next stop of Moorhead, Minnesota. He made flight arrangements with his bandmates, Tommy Allsup and Waylon Jennings, but neither of the backing musicians made the flight. The Big Bopper had come down with the flu and asked to take Jennings’ seat on the aircraft, and Ritchie Valens flipped a coin with Allsup for the last spot and won it.
The small Cessna aircraft crashed near rural Clear Lake, Iowa not long after takeoff, due to poor weather and pilot Roger Peterson’s spatial disorientation. The tragedy was an enormous blow to rock & roll, then still in its infancy. Yet although all three musicians only knew mainstream success for a short time (Holly for less than two years), their influence lingered. Holly’s rockabilly beats and guitar handiwork, in particular, would soon greatly influence the Beatles, Cream, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan.
February 4, 1983: Karen Carpenter dies from anorexia
Beautiful, troubled Karen Carpenter was a true pop romantic. As one-half of the Seventies group the Carpenters (with her brother Richard), she anchored the band’s greatest love ballads as a lithe lead singer (“We’ve Only Just Begun,” “(They Long to Be) Close to You”) and as an impressive drummer.
Although she was widely beloved for her glamorous exterior (not to mention high-profile romances with Steve Martin and Tony Danza), Carpenter privately suffered from anorexia. She battled it for years before dying at age 32 from cardiac irregularities associated with the disease. Her death shocked the public and moved several public figures to come forward to discuss their own eating disorders. Carpenter’s family created a charity, the Carpenter Family Foundation, to research anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders. Her musical legacy endures as well: in 2008, Rolling Stone readers voted her one of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time.
January 29, 1998: Paul Simon’s musical The Capeman opens on Broadway
Paul Simon’s stab at Broadway was an ambitious endeavor: an examination of the life of the Puerto Rican gang leader Salvador Agron, scored with a combination of Latin, soul and gospel music. It cost over $10 million to produce (an anomaly in Broadway culture at the time) and earned some negative press right off the bat when Simon gave interviews in which he criticized theater music as stagnant. He claimed he would reinvent the genre with his co-writer, the celebrated poet Derek Walcott.
Unfortunately, The Capeman closed after a dismal run of just 68 performances. The production received Tony Award nominations on the musical front – Best Original Score and Best Orchestrations, in particular – but it was detested by theater critics. The New York Times lamented that it was “unparalleled in its wholesale squandering of illustrious talents.” Simon’s accompanying studio album, Songs from the Capeman, fared better with the public. In 2010, The Capeman was restaged by the Brooklyn Academy of Music with the musical components intact, yet almost none of the original staging.
February 1, 2004: Janet Jackson has a “wardrobe malfunction“ at Super Bowl XXXVIII
Even for Patriots fans, the most exciting moment of Super Bowl XXXVIII occurred during the halftime show, when Justin Timberlake famously exposed Janet Jackson’s right breast at the end of their performance. During their joint medley – which included Jackson classics “Rhythm Nation” and “All For You” and Timberlake’s newer hit “Rock Your Body” – the ex-‘N Sync pin-up ripped off part of Jackson’s costume, and the image was beamed to millions of televisions across America before CBS cameras cut away, a second too late, to an aerial shot of the stadium. (Court documents would later note that Jackson’s breast was exposed for nine-sixteenths of a second.)
The public backlash was swift and relentless: the FCC received over half a million complaints and launched an investigation, the Parents Television Council released a damning public statement, private citizens launched class action suits, sponsors demanded refunds, and even a senator, Zell Miller (D) of Georgia, railed against the incident in Washington and in print. Comedians took potshots for weeks, from South Park to David Letterman (the latter quipping that he wasn’t “the biggest boob” on the channel anymore). There was much debate as to whether the singers had planned the moment in advance, which was never established. Viacom ultimately shelled out millions to settle the indecency complaints launched against their performers, and the FCC’s enormous fine was contested in court, in a seemingly unending cycle of overturns and appeals, until as recently as November 2011.
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The controversy placed a much stronger emphasis on cultural incidents of so-called indecency. Virtually all television networks subsequently played it safe with their content, at the risk of invoking similar wrath. Timberlake distanced himself from the controversy and Jackson took the majority of the scorn, which angered many media and racial/gender studies critics (Timberlake later told MTV that felt “America is harder on women”). For her part, Jackson receded from public attention before giving an interview to Oprah Winfrey calling the exposure accidental and the reaction “absurd.” She parodied the incident on Saturday Night Live in April 2004 as a breast-baring Condoleezza Rice.
February 3, 2004: R. Kelly pleads not guilty to child pornography
Two days after Jackson’s “Nipplegate,” another R&B superstar hit a major low: R. Kelly appeared in court to enter a plea of not guilty to 21 charges of child pornography.
The 35-year-old Kelly was arrested in Florida earlier in the month after he was indicted by a grand jury in Chicago. The charges resulted from a videotape that was sent anonymously to the Chicago Sun-Times, allegedly showing Kelly engaging in sexual acts with a 14-year-old girl. Further adding to the negative evidence: Kelly had been married to R&B singer Aaliyah while she was underage.
Kelly faced up to 15 years in prison for the allegations. After more than six years, the case went to trial. After less than a day of deliberations, during which Kelly did not testify, a jury found the “I Believe I Can Fly” singer not guilty on all counts.
Last week: Superstars Record ‘We Are the World’