6 Televised Musical Performances That Caused a Stir
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."