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6 Televised Musical Performances That Caused a Stir

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The free-spirited world of music is sometimes an odd fit for the controlled, advertiser-indebted medium of television, even though the two have been deeply entwined for decades. Here are six performances where rock or pop stars caused a stir with TV viewers, hosts, executives, or sponsors.

1. ELVIS PRESLEY ON THE MILTON BERLE SHOW // JUNE 5, 1956

When Elvis appeared on The Milton Berle Show for a second time in 1956, Mr. Television gave the young singer some advice: “Let ’em see you, son.” At Berle’s suggestion, Elvis ditched his guitar and performed “Hound Dog” for an at-home audience of around 40 million people. Unencumbered by his six-string, Elvis waved his arms and gyrated his hips, occasionally poking his pelvis into his microphone stand.

Ben Gross of the New York Daily News called it “an exhibition that was suggestive and vulgar, tinged with the kind of animalism that should be confined to dives and bordellos.” Other reactions, collected by Gilbert B. Rodman for his book Elvis After Elvis: The Posthumous Career of a Living Legend, were beyond reproachful. “He can’t sing a lick, makes up for his vocal shortcomings with the weirdest and plainly suggestive animation of an aborigine’s mating dance,” wrote Jack O’Brien of The New York Journal-American. The Catholic Church-published magazine America was also unkind: “If the agencies (TV and other) would stop handling such nauseating stuff, all the Presleys of our land would soon be swallowed up in the oblivion they deserve.”

Social conservatives were already wary of Elvis, but the “Hound Dog” performance turned him into a full-on moral threat. Soon after, a Florida judge threatened to jail him if he did those hip gyrations at a Jacksonville gig.

2. THE DOORS ON THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW // SEPTEMBER 17, 1967

After it introduced The Beatles to America, playing The Ed Sullivan Show became a must for upcoming bands, even as the program struggled to come to terms with the increasingly edgy content of rock songs. The show's producers cajoled the Rolling Stones into changing the lyrics of “Let’s Spend the Night Together” to “Let’s Spend Some Time Together,” though Mick Jagger gave the audience a knowing eye-roll.

The producers couldn't tame The Doors, however, who got a slot on Sullivan’s show nine months after the release of their debut album. Hours before they were set to go on, a producer stopped by their dressing room and instructed them to omit the word “higher” from “Light My Fire,” because of its association with drug use. The group agreed, but as soon as the producer left the room, Jim Morrison made it clear to his bandmates that they weren't going to change a word.

Sullivan and his producers were furious when they heard the offending “higher” during the performance, and the host declined to do the usual handshake with the band after their set. Backstage, a producer told The Doors, “Mr. Sullivan wanted you for six more shows, but you’ll never work The Ed Sullivan Show again,” to which Morrison reportedly shot back, “Hey, man, we just did the Sullivan show.”

3. THE WHO ON THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR // SEPTEMBER 17, 1967

Just one hour after The Doors’ Sullivan performance, CBS aired yet another infamous display by a young rock band. The Who’s appearance on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was their first performance on American TV. Hosts Dick and Tommy Smothers knew the band would end their set by smashing their instruments. According to Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of 'The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour' by David Bianculli, they’d seen the band do it at the Monterey Pop Festival, but The Who wanted something even louder and more destructive for their introduction to U.S. viewers.

The band planned a blast of smoke and noise to coincide with the finale of “My Generation,” and they convinced a stagehand to build a small cannon in Keith Moon’s drum set. “[I]n the rehearsal it went bang,” recalls guitarist Pete Townsend, “but it kind of made a lot of smoke and a bit of a dull thud. And Keith said, ‘Listen, you must increase the charge.’” Even after the stagehand complied, Moon packed it with even more explosives.

As they finished their performance, Townsend began smashing his guitar, and an explosion ripped through Moon's drum set, nearly knocking Townsend over. (Townsend later claimed the blast gave him hearing loss.) Dazed, Townsend managed to grab an acoustic guitar from a stunned Tommy Smothers as part of a pre-planned bit and smash it.

According to Dangerously Funny, the brothers thought the episode was so good they rushed it on the air two days later, bumping a previously taped one featuring Herman’s Hermits. The display of bedlam became another point of contention, and from that point forward CBS executives began demanding the brothers submit show footage days in advance for them to prescreen.

4. HARRY BELAFONTE AND PETULA CLARK ON PETULA // APRIL 8, 1968

In 1968, a Chrysler executive was aghast when he previewed footage of Petula Clark's NBC special Petula, which the auto company had sponsored.

Clark ended the show with a duet with Harry Belafonte, singing the antiwar song “On the Path of Glory,” but it wasn’t the protest component that troubled Doyle Lott, Chrysler's advertising manager for the Plymouth division; it was that Clark, a British-born white woman, held the arm of Belafonte, an American black man of Jamaican ancestry. Lott was concerned with backlash from Southern stations and asked for the segment to be re-taped. The performers refused, and they insisted the song be aired as-is.

Belafonte took the issue to the press, saying that "it is essential for television and industries to know that people like Doyle exist." Lott apologized, claiming he “overreacted to the staging, not to any feelings of discrimination," and Chrysler distanced itself from Lott, insisting the objections were his and not the company’s. The performance was left in, and the program aired as Clark and Belafonte intended.

5. SINEAD O’CONNOR ON SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE // OCTOBER 3, 1992

Promoting a new album in 1992, Irish singer-songwriter Sinead O'Connor appeared on Saturday Night Live to perform two songs. The second was an acapella cover of Bob Marley's “War,” to which she added lyrics about child abuse. During the live performance, she took out a photo of Pope John Paul II and ripped it to shreds, declaring, “Fight the real enemy.” The audience was stunned silent, and so were SNL's cast and crew—producers later said she had held up a picture of a child in rehearsals.

After the live performance, NBC received more than 4000 complaints. A spokesperson for the New York Archdiocese called it “an act of hatred and intolerance.” John Joseph O'Connor, archbishop of New York, accused O’Connor of trying to harm the Pope via “voodoo” or “sympathetic magic.” The National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations offered to make a $10 donation to charity for anyone who forfeited to them a copy of an O’Connor album.

O’Connor explained the move to TIME, describing the performance as a protest against abuse in the Catholic Church. "In Ireland," she said, "we see our people are manifesting the highest incidence in Europe of child abuse. This is a direct result of the fact that they're not in contact with their history as Irish people and the fact that in the schools, the priests have been beating ... the children for years and sexually abusing them."

In 2010, O'Connor told Irish magazine Hot Press that the photo was not just a random image of the Pope—it was a photo that had been hanging on her mother's wall since 1978.

6. JANET JACKSON AND JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE'S SUPER BOWL HALFTIME SHOW // FEBRUARY 1, 2004

It was the event that added the term “wardrobe malfunction” to dictionaries. The MTV-produced halftime show for Super Bowl XXXVIII included Kid Rock, P. Diddy, and Nelly, and it ended with a set by Janet Jackson. As a finale, the veteran pop star bought out Justin Timberlake for a duet of his hit “Rock Your Body.” As Timberlake sang the line, “I’m gonna have you naked by the end of this song,” he pulled off a piece of Jackson’s costume, revealing—for less than a second before CBS cut away—her breast, adorned only by sun-patterned nipple jewelry.

The Federal Communications Commission received upwards of 200,000 complaints. AOL asked the NFL to pay back $7.5 million in sponsorship money, and the company refused to rebroadcast the event online (as they had originally agreed). Radio conglomerate Clear Channel Communications blacklisted Jackson’s songs and the Grammys disinvited her (but not Timberlake). The FCC cracked down on “indecency” across the board, levying $7.9 million in fines in 2004 (compared to $440,000 in 2003) [PDF]. The public, however, apparently wanted to see the offending footage; in 2006, the Guinness Book of World Records dubbed the incident “the most searched item in internet history.”

In November 2004, Viacom paid the FCC $3.5 million to settle a range of ongoing cases, but Super Bowl broadcaster CBS never paid its $550,000 fine. A court nullified it in 2008, ruling that a broadcaster shouldn’t be on the hook for unplanned “indecency” in a case like a "wardrobe malfunction."

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Zach Hyman, HBO
10 Bizarre Sesame Street Fan Theories
Zach Hyman, HBO
Zach Hyman, HBO

Sesame Street has been on the air for almost 50 years, but there’s still so much we don’t know about this beloved children’s show. What kind of bird is Big Bird? What’s the deal with Mr. Noodle? And how do you actually get to Sesame Street? Fans have filled in these gaps with frequently amusing—and sometimes bizarre—theories about how the cheerful neighborhood ticks. Read them at your own risk, because they’ll probably ruin the Count for you.

1. THE THEME SONG CONTAINS SECRET INSTRUCTIONS.

According to a Reddit theory, the Sesame Street theme song isn’t just catchy—it’s code. The lyrics spell out how to get to Sesame Street quite literally, giving listeners clues on how to access this fantasy land. It must be a sunny day (as the repeated line goes), you must bring a broom (“sweeping the clouds away”), and you have to give Oscar the Grouch the password (“everything’s a-ok”) to gain entrance. Make sure to memorize all the steps before you attempt.

2. SESAME STREET IS A REHAB CENTER FOR MONSTERS.

Sesame Street is populated with the stuff of nightmares. There’s a gigantic bird, a mean green guy who hides in the trash, and an actual vampire. These things should be scary, and some fans contend that they used to be. But then the creatures moved to Sesame Street, a rehabilitation area for formerly frightening monsters. In this community, monsters can’t roam outside the perimeters (“neighborhood”) as they recover. They must learn to educate children instead of eating them—and find a more harmless snack to fuel their hunger. Hence Cookie Monster’s fixation with baked goods.

3. BIG BIRD IS AN EXTINCT MOA.

Big Bird is a rare breed. He’s eight feet tall and while he can’t really fly, he can rollerskate. So what kind of bird is he? Big Bird’s species has been a matter of contention since Sesame Street began: Big Bird insists he’s a lark, while Oscar thinks he’s more of a homing pigeon. But there’s convincing evidence that Big Bird is an extinct moa. The moa were 10 species of flightless birds who lived in New Zealand. They had long necks and stout torsos, and reached up to 12 feet in height. Scientists claim they died off hundreds of years ago, but could one be living on Sesame Street? It makes sense, especially considering his best friend looks a lot like a woolly mammoth.

4. OSCAR’S TRASH CAN IS A TARDIS.

Oscar’s home doesn’t seem very big. But as The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland revealed, his trash can holds much more than moldy banana peels. The Grouch has chandeliers and even an interdimensional portal down there! There’s only one logical explanation for this outrageously spacious trash can: It’s a Doctor Who-style TARDIS.

5. IT’S ALL A RIFF ON PLATO.

Dust off your copy of The Republic, because this is about to get philosophical. Plato has a famous allegory about a cave, one that explains enlightenment through actual sunlight. He describes a prisoner who steps out of the cave and into the sun, realizing his entire understanding of the world is wrong. When he returns to the cave to educate his fellow prisoners, they don’t believe him, because the information is too overwhelming and contradictory to what they know. The lesson is that education is a gradual learning process, one where pupils must move through the cave themselves, putting pieces together along the way. And what better guide is there than a merry kids’ show?

According to one Reddit theory, Sesame Street builds on Plato’s teachings by presenting a utopia where all kinds of creatures live together in harmony. There’s no racism or suffocating gender roles, just another sunny (see what they did there?) day in the neighborhood. Sesame Street shows the audience what an enlightened society looks like through simple songs and silly jokes, spoon-feeding Plato’s “cave dwellers” knowledge at an early age.

6. MR. NOODLE IS IN HELL.

Can a grown man really enjoy taking orders from a squeaky red puppet? And why does Mr. Noodle live outside a window in Elmo’s house anyway? According to this hilariously bleak theory, no, Mr. Noodle does not like dancing for Elmo, but he has to, because he’s in hell. Think about it: He’s seemingly trapped in a surreal place where he can’t talk, but he has to do whatever a fuzzy monster named Elmo says. Definitely sounds like hell.

7. ELMO IS ANIMAL’S SON.

Okay, so remember when Animal chases a shrieking woman out of the college auditorium in The Muppets Take Manhattan? (If you don't, see above.) One fan thinks Animal had a fling with this lady, which produced Elmo. While the two might have similar coloring, this theory completely ignores Elmo’s dad Louie, who appears in many Sesame Street episodes. But maybe Animal is a distant cousin.

8. COOKIE MONSTER HAS AN EATING DISORDER.

Cookie Monster loves to cram chocolate chip treats into his mouth. But as eagle-eyed viewers have observed, he doesn’t really eat the cookies so much as chew them into messy crumbs that fly in every direction. This could indicate Cookie Monster has a chewing and spitting eating disorder, meaning he doesn’t actually consume food—he just chews and spits it out. There’s a more detailed (and dark) diagnosis of Cookie Monster’s symptoms here.

9. THE COUNT EATS CHILDREN.

Can a vampire really get his kicks from counting to five? One of the craziest Sesame Street fan theories posits that the Count lures kids to their death with his number games. That’s why the cast of children on Sesame Street changes so frequently—the Count eats them all after teaching them to add. The adult cast, meanwhile, stays pretty much the same, implying the grown-ups are either under a vampiric spell or looking the other way as the Count does his thing.

10. THE COUNT IS ALSO A PIMP.

Alright, this is just a Dave Chappelle joke. But the Count does have a cape.

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17 Things to Know About René Descartes
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iStock

The French polymath René Descartes (1596-1650) lived after the Renaissance, but he personified that age's interest in mathematics, philosophy, art, and the nature of humanity. He made numerous discoveries and argued for ideas that people continue to grapple with. (His dualist distinction between mind and the brain, for example, continues to be debated by psychologists.) Get to know him better!

1. NOBODY CALLED HIM RENÉ.

Descartes went by a nickname and often introduced himself as “Poitevin” and signed letters as “du Perron.” Sometimes, he went so far to call himself the “Lord of Perron.” That’s because he had inherited a farm from his mother’s family in Poitou, in western France.

2. SCHOOL MADE HIM FEEL DUMBER.

From the age of 11 to 18, Descartes attended one of the best schools in Europe, the Jesuit College of Henry IV in La Flèche, France. In his later work Discourse on the Method, Descartes wrote that, upon leaving school, “I found myself involved in so many doubts and errors, that I was convinced I had advanced no farther in all my attempts at learning, than the discovery at every turn of my own ignorance."

3. HIS DAD WANTED HIM TO BE A LAWYER.

Descartes’s family was chock-full of lawyers, and the budding intellectual was expected to join them. He studied law at the University of Poitiers and even came home with a law degree in 1616. But he never entered the practice. In 1618, a 22-year-old Descartes enlisted as a mercenary in the Dutch States Army instead. There, he would study military engineering and become fascinated with math and physics.

4. HE CHANGED CAREER PATHS THANKS TO A SERIES OF DREAMS.

In 1618, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Ferdinand II, attempted to impose Catholicism on anybody living within his domain. The result of this policy would be the Thirty Years' War. It would also prompt Descartes, a Catholic, to switch allegiances to a Bavarian army fighting for the Catholic side. But on his travels, he stopped in the town of Ulm. There, on the night of November 10, he had three dreams that convinced him to change his life’s path. “Descartes took from them the message that he should set out to reform all knowledge,” philosopher Gary Hatfield writes in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

5. HE COULD BE EASILY DISTRACTED BY BRIGHT AND SHINY OBJECTS.

In 1628, Descartes moved to the Netherlands and spent nine months doggedly working on a theory of metaphysics. Then he got distracted. In 1629, a number of false suns—called parhelia, or “sun dogs”—were seen near Rome. Descartes put his beloved metaphysics treatise on the back burner and devoted his time to explaining the phenomenon. It was a lucky distraction: It led to his work The World, or Treatise on Light.

6. HE LAID THE GROUNDWORK FOR ANALYTIC GEOMETRY ...

In 1637, Descartes published his groundbreaking Discourse on the Method, where he took the revolutionary step of describing lines through mathematical equations. According to Hatfield, “[Descartes] considered his algebraic techniques to provide a powerful alternative to actual compass-and-ruler constructions when the latter became too intricate.” You might have encountered his system in high school algebra: They’re called Cartesian coordinates.

7. ... AND THE REST OF WESTERN PHILOSOPHY.

Everybody knows Descartes for his phrase Cogito, ergo sum (which originally appeared in French as "Je pense, donc je suis"), or "I think, therefore I am." The concept appeared in many of his texts. To understand what it means, some context is helpful: At the time, many philosophers claimed that truth was acquired through sense impressions. Descartes disagreed. He argued that our senses are unreliable. An ill person can hallucinate. An amputee can feel phantom limb pain. People are regularly deceived by their own eyes, dreams, and imaginations. Descartes, however, realized that his argument opened a door for "radical doubt": That is, what was stopping people from doubting the existence of, well, everything? The cogito argument is his remedy: Even if you doubt the existence of everything, you cannot doubt the existence of your own mind—because doubting indicates thinking, and thinking indicates existing. Descartes argued that self-evident truths like this—and not the senses—must be the foundation of philosophical investigations.

8. HE'S THE REASON YOUR MATH TEACHER MAKES YOU CHECK YOUR WORK.

Descartes was obsessed with certainty. In his book Rules for the Direction of the Mind, “he sought to generalize the methods of mathematics so as to provide a route to clear knowledge of everything that human beings can know,” Hatfield writes. His advice included this classic chestnut: To solve a big problem, break it up into small, easy-to-understand parts—and check each step often.

9. HE LIKED TO HIDE.

Descartes had a motto, which he took from Ovid: “Who lives well hidden, lives well.” When he moved to the Netherlands, he regularly changed apartments and deliberately kept his address a secret. Some say it's because he simply desired privacy for his philosophical work, or that he was avoiding his disapproving family. In his book titled Descartes, philosopher A. C. Grayling makes another suggestion: "Descartes was a spy."

10. HE WASN'T AFRAID OF CRITICS. IN FACT, HE RE-PUBLISHED THEM.

When Descartes was revising his Meditations on First Philosophy [PDF], he planned to send the manuscript to “the 20 or 30 most learned theologians” for criticism—a sort of proto-peer review. He collected seven objections and published them in the work. (Descartes, of course, had the last word: He responded to each criticism.)

11. HE COULD THROW SHADE WITH THE BEST OF THEM.

In the 1640s, Descartes’s pupil and friend Henricus Regius published a broadsheet that distorted Descartes’s theory of the mind. (Which, put briefly, posits that the material body and immaterial mind are separate and distinct.) The two men had a falling out, and Descartes wrote a rebuttal with a barbed title that refused to even acknowledge Regius’s manifesto by name: It was simply called “Comments on a Certain Broadsheet.”

12. HE NEVER BELIEVED MONKEYS COULD TALK.

There’s a “fun fact” parading around that suggests Descartes believed monkeys and apes could talk. He believed no such thing. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Descartes denied that animals were even conscious, let alone capable of speech. The factoid comes from a misreading of a letter Descartes had written in 1646, in which he attributed the belief to “savages.”

13. HE TOTALLY HAD THE HOTS FOR CROSS-EYED WOMEN.

In a letter to Queen Christina of Sweden, Descartes explained that he had a cross-eyed playmate as a child. “I loved a girl of my own age ... who was slightly cross-eyed; by which means, the impression made in my brain when I looked at her wandering eyes was joined so much to that which also occurred when the passion of love moved me, that for a long time afterward, in seeing cross-eyed women, I felt more inclined to love them than others.”

14. WHEN HE MET BLAISE PASCAL, THEY GOT INTO AN ARGUMENT ... ABOUT VACUUMS.

In 1647, a 51-year-old Descartes visited the 24-year-old prodigy and physicist Blaise Pascal. Their meeting quickly devolved into a heated argument over the concept of a vacuum—that is, the idea that air pressure could ever be reduced to zero. (Descartes said it was impossible; Pascal disagreed.) Later, Descartes wrote a letter that, depending on your translation, said that Pascal had “too much vacuum in his head.”

15. HIS WORK WAS BANNED BY THE CATHOLIC CHURCH.

Back in the late 1630s, the theologian Gisbert Voetius had convinced the academic senate of the University of Utrecht to condemn the philosopher’s work. (Descartes was Catholic, but his suggestion that the universe began as a “chaotic soup of particles in motion,” in Hatfield's words, was contrary to orthodox theology.) In the 1660s, his works were placed on the church’s Index of Prohibited Books.

16. HE REGULARLY SLEPT UNTIL NOON (AND TRYING TO BREAK THE HABIT MIGHT HAVE KILLED HIM).

Descartes was not a morning person. He often snoozed 12 hours a night, from midnight until lunchtime. In fact, he worked in bed. (Sleep, he wisely wrote, was a time of “nourishment for the brain.”) But according to the Journal of Historical Neuroscience, he may have had a sleep disorder that helped end his life. A year before his death, Descartes had moved to Stockholm to take a job tutoring Queen Christina, a devoted early-riser who forced Descartes to change his sleep schedule. Some believe the resulting sleep deprivation weakened his immune system and eventually killed him.

17. HIS SKELETON HAS TRAVELED FAR AND WIDE.

Descartes died in Stockholm in 1650 and was buried outside the city. Sixteen years later, his corpse was exhumed and taken to Paris. During the French Revolution, his bones were moved to an Egyptian sarcophagus at the Museum of French Monuments. Decades later, when plans were made to rebury Descartes in an abbey, officials discovered that most of his bones—including his skull—were missing. Shortly after, a Swedish scientist discovered a newspaper advertisement attempting to sell the polymath’s noggin [PDF]. Today, his head is in a collection at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris.

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