JEFF HAYNES/AFP/Getty Images
JEFF HAYNES/AFP/Getty Images

20 Years Ago, Garth Brooks Refused to Accept He Was America's Favorite Artist

JEFF HAYNES/AFP/Getty Images
JEFF HAYNES/AFP/Getty Images

When you think about celebrities not accepting an award, Marlon Brando declining his Best Actor Oscar for his work in The Godfather (1972), and sending Sacheen Littlefeather to the stage to protest Hollywood’s treatment of Native Americans instead, is probably what comes to mind. Music awards shows have had similarly strange controversies, like when Kanye West interrupted Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech on behalf of Beyoncé at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. Twenty years ago, Garth Brooks had his own brush with awards show infamy at the 1996 American Music Awards.

Inaugurated in 1973, Dick Clark created the American Music Awards for ABC after the network lost the rights to broadcast the Grammys. For many years, including in 1996, AMA nominees were determined by record sales and radio play. The Los Angeles Times wrote that the winners were selected “by the vote of a ‘scientifically’ selected cross-section of 20,000 music fans.” And those fans determined that Brooks was their Favorite Country Male Artist (for the fifth year in a row), and that his greatest hits compilation, The Hits, was their Favorite Country Album. Brooks happily accepted the accolades. But when he was announced as Favorite Artist of the Year—beating out Boyz II Men, Green Day, Hootie & The Blowfish, and TLC for the night's biggest award—Brooks wouldn’t allow it.

Backstage, Brooks explained the reasoning behind his refusal: "It wasn't fair for me to walk away with that award," he said. "Maybe a year or two ago when we had a really good year. But I've been around [the country] talking to retailers ... and every one of them credits Hootie [& the Blowfish] for keeping them alive in 1995 and I couldn't agree more. So I thought that's who should've won." CNN filled in the ellipses, quoting Brooks as saying he couldn’t accept the award, “just out of the love of the fellow musicians. I think we're all one.”

Boyz II Men’s manager claimed the group was “blown away” by what Brooks had done, calling it “courageous.” Meanwhile, Dick Clark was not only not offended, he deemed it “a stroke of genius” and sent Brooks a note telling him they'd put his statue in the archive.

When Billboard interviewed Hootie & the Blowfish frontman Darius Rucker in 2014 on the 20th anniversary of the album Cracked Rear View, Rucker said Brooks’ speech on January 29, 1996 still gave him chills. He also intimated that choosing to not play at the ceremony may have had something to do with his group not getting the award.

“It had been an amazing two years at that time, and we told the American Music Awards that we had played so many award shows that we weren’t going to play that show. We didn’t know if it was political, but Garth said it best. The retailers told him that we had helped keep the doors open. We were selling records, and bringing people in to buy other records ... That was an amazing moment for us that someone that big and legendary would see what we were doing as that cool and wouldn’t accept that award because he thought we deserved it. That was one of the biggest moments in our career.”

While Brooks did perform at the ceremony with a (literally) tear-jerking performance of “The Change” in remembrance of the Oklahoma City bombing, it should be noted that the Eagles—who, like Brooks, also won three AMAs that night—did not perform at the Shrine Auditorium either. Eagles bass player Timothy B. Schmit was the only member of the band in attendance; his bandmates were "out of town."

The American Music Awards now do their voting less “scientifically.” For the most recent awards ceremony last November, anyone with a Facebook account was allowed to vote on the AMA's official website, or via Facebook. Fans could also tweet in votes during a one-month window that closed nine days before the ceremony.

More than 15 years after that memorable night at the AMAs, Brooks was still fighting the good fight on behalf of his fellow musicians. In 2012, he yet again attempted to reject a major achievement when he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame; believing that Keith Whitley, Ricky Skaggs, and Randy Travis all deserved induction before he did, Brooks politely tried to decline the honor. Brooks was told by the committee it was not possible for him to pass up the opportunity.

“I know this is going to sound bad, but you asked, okay? So my first thing was is I called the guys up and I say, ‘Look, I don’t think I deserve this at this time, you know. Is it possible to turn this thing down and wait?’ And they said, ‘No, it’s not possible to turn it down.’ I said, ‘Well I tried, okay, we’re in!’ I’m trying to enjoy the day. And at the same time, all you can think about are the people that need to be in here that aren’t in here yet. So now it’s every Hall of Fame member’s job to make sure that we push and push to make sure all those people get in here, and eventually they will. And they should have been here before Garth Brooks.”

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Karl Walter, Getty Images
When the FBI Investigated the 'Murder' of Nine Inch Nails's Trent Reznor
Karl Walter, Getty Images
Karl Walter, Getty Images

The two people standing over the body, Michigan State Police detective Paul Wood told the Hard Copy cameras, “had a distinctive-type uniform on. As I recall: black pants, some type of leather jacket with a design on it, and one was wearing combat boots. The other was wearing what looked like patent leather shoes. So if it was a homicide, I was thinking it was possibly a gang-type homicide.”

Wood was describing a puzzling case local police, state police, and eventually the FBI had worked hard to solve for over a year. The mystery began in 1989, when farmer Robert Reed spotted a circular group of objects floating over his farm just outside of rural Burr Oak, Michigan; it turned out to be a cluster of weather balloons attached to a Super 8 camera.

When the camera landed on his property, the surprised farmer didn't develop the footage—he turned it over to the police. Some local farmers had recently gotten into trouble for letting wild marijuana grow on the edges of their properties, and Reed thought the balloons and camera were a possible surveillance technique. But no state or local jurisdictions used such rudimentary methods, so the state police in East Lansing decided to develop the film. What they saw shocked them.

A city street at night; a lifeless male body with a mysterious substance strewn across his face; two black-clad men standing over the body as the camera swirled away up into the sky, with a third individual seen at the edge of the frame running away, seemingly as fast as possible. Michigan police immediately began analyzing the footage for clues, and noticed the lights of Chicago’s elevated train system, which was over 100 miles away.

It was the first clue in what would become a year-long investigation into what they believed was either a cult killing or gang murder. When they solved the “crime” of what they believed was a real-life snuff film, they were more shocked than when the investigation began: The footage was from the music video for “Down In It,” the debut single from industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, and the supposed dead body was the group's very-much-alive lead singer, Trent Reznor.

 
 

In 1989, Nine Inch Nails was about to release their debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, which would go on to be certified triple platinum in the United States. The record would define the emerging industrial rock sound that Reznor and his rotating cast of bandmates would experiment with throughout the 1990s and even today on albums like The Downward Spiral and The Slip.

The band chose the song “Down In It”—a track with piercing vocals, pulsing electronic drums, sampled sound effects, and twisted nursery rhyme-inspired lyrics—as Pretty Hate Machine's first single. They began working with H-Gun, a Chicago-based multimedia team led by filmmakers Eric Zimmerman and Benjamin Stokes (who had created videos for such bands as Ministry and Revolting Cocks), and sketched out a rough idea for the music video.

Filmed on location among warehouses and parking garages in Chicago, the video was supposed to culminate in a shot with a leather-jacketed Reznor running to the top of a building, while two then-members of the band followed him wearing studded jumpsuits; the video would fade out with an epic floating zoom shot to imply that Reznor's cornstarch-for-blood-covered character had fallen off the building and died in the street. Because the cash-strapped upstarts didn’t have enough money for a fancy crane to achieve the shot for their video, they opted to tie weather balloons to the camera and let it float up from Reznor, who was lying in the street surrounded by his bandmates. They eventually hoped to play the footage backward to get the shot in the final video.

Instead, the Windy City lived up to its name and quickly whisked the balloons and camera away. With Reznor playing dead and his bandmates looking down at him, only one of the filmmakers noticed. He tried to chase down the runaway camera—which captured his pursuit—but it was lost, forcing them to finish shooting the rest of the video and release it without the planned shot from the missing footage in September of 1989.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the band, a drama involving their lost camera was unfolding in southwest Michigan. Police there eventually involved the Chicago police, whose detectives determined that the footage had been filmed in an alley in the city's Fulton River District. After Chicago authorities found no homicide reports matching the footage for the neighborhood and that particular time frame, they handed the video over to the FBI, whose pathologists reportedly said that, based on the substance on the individual, the body in the video was rotting.

 
 

The "substance" in question was actually the result of the low-quality film and the color of the cornstarch on the singer’s face, which had also been incorporated into the press photos for Pretty Hate Machine. It was a nod to the band's early live shows, in which Reznor would spew cornstarch and chocolate syrup on his band members and the audience. “It looks really great under the lights, grungey, a sort of anti-Bon Jovi and the whole glamour thing,” Reznor said in a 1991 interview.

With no other easy options, and in order to generate any leads that might help them identify the victim seen in the video, the authorities distributed flyers to Chicago schools asking if anyone knew any details behind the strange “killing.”

The tactic worked. A local art student was watching MTV in 1991 and saw the distinctive video for “Down In It,” which reminded him of one of the flyers he had seen at school. He contacted the Chicago police to tip them off to who their supposed "murder victim" really was. Nine Inch Nails’s manager was notified, and he told Reznor and the filmmakers what had really happened to their lost footage.

“It’s interesting that our top federal agency, the Federal Bureau of [Investigation], couldn’t crack the Super 8 code,” co-director Zimmerman said in an interview. As for Wood and any embarrassment law enforcement had after the investigation: “I thought it was our duty, one way or the other, to determine what was on that film,” he said.

“My initial reaction was that it was really funny that something could be that blown out of proportion with this many people worked up about it,” Reznor said, and later told an interviewer, “There was talk that I would have to appear and talk to prove that I was alive.” Even though—in the eyes of state, local, and federal authorities—he was reportedly dead for over a year, Reznor didn’t seem to be bothered by it: “Somebody at the FBI had been watching too much Hitchcock or David Lynch or something,” he reasoned.

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ZUMA Press, Inc., Alamy
5 Fascinating Facts About Koko the Gorilla
ZUMA Press, Inc., Alamy
ZUMA Press, Inc., Alamy

After 46 years of learning, making new friends, and challenging ideas about language, Koko the gorilla died in her sleep at her home at the Gorilla Foundation in Woodside, California on June 21, 2018. Koko first gained recognition in the late 1970s for her ability to use sign language, but it was her friendly personality that made her a beloved icon. Here are five facts you should know about the history-making ape.

1. SHE KNEW OVER 1000 SIGNS.

Francine "Penny" Patterson, then a graduate student at Stanford University, was looking for an animal subject for her inter-species animal communication experiment in the early 1970s when she found a baby gorilla at the San Francisco Zoo. Originally named Hanabiko (Japanese for "fireworks child," a reference to her Fourth of July birthdate), Koko took to signing quickly. Some of the first words Koko learned in "Gorilla Sign Language," Patterson's modified version of American Sign Language, were "food," "drink," and "more." She followed a similar trajectory as a human toddler, learning the bulk of her words between ages 2.5 and 4.5. Eventually Koko would come to know over 1000 signs and understand about 2000 words spoken to her in English. Though she never got a grasp on grammar or syntax, she was able to express complex ideas, like sadness when watching a sad movie and her desire to have a baby.

2. SHE CHANGED WHAT WE KNEW ABOUT LANGUAGE.

Not only did Koko use language to communicate—she also used it in a way that was once only thought possible in humans. Her caretakers have reported her signing about objects that weren't in the room, recalling memories, and even commenting on language itself. Her vocabulary was on par with that of a 3-year-old child.

3. SHE WASN'T THE ONLY APE WHO SIGNED.

Koko was the most famous great ape who knew sign language, but she wasn't alone. Michael, a male gorilla who lived with Koko at the Gorilla Foundation from 1976 until his death in 2000, learned over 500 signs with help from Koko and Patterson. He was even able to express the memory of his mother being killed by poachers when he was a baby. Other non-human primates have also shown they're capable of learning sign language, like Washoe the chimpanzee and Chantek the orangutan.

4. SHE HAD FAMOUS FRIENDS.

Koko received many visitors during her lifetime, including some celebrities. When Robin Williams came to her home in Woodside, California in 2001, the two bonded right away, with Williams tickling the gorilla and Koko trying on his glasses. But perhaps her most famous celebrity encounter came when Mr. Rogers paid her a visit in 1999. She immediately recognized him as the star of one of her favorite shows, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, and greeted him by helping him take off his shoes like he did at the start of every episode.

5. SHE WAS A LOVING CAT MOM.

Koko was never able to have offspring of her own, but she did adopt several cats. After asking for a kitten, she was allowed to pick one from a litter for her birthday in 1985. She named the gray-and-white cat "All Ball" and handled it gently as if it were her real baby, even trying to nurse it. She had recently received two new kittens for her 44th birthday named Ms. Gray and Ms. Black.

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