Apple’s iconic “1984” commercial airs during Super Bowl XVIII

Year
1984
Month Day
January 22

During a break in the action of Super Bowl XVIII on January 22nd, 1984, audiences first see a commercial that is now widely agreed to be one of the most powerful and effective of all time. Apple’s “1984” spot, featuring a young woman throwing a sledgehammer through a screen on which a Big Brother-like figure preaches about “the unification of thought,” got people around the United States talking and heralded a new age for Apple, consumer technology and advertising.

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The ad was directed by Ridley Scott, who directed the genre-defining dystopian science fiction film Blade Runner in 1982. The spot was in a similar vein, depicting a bleak and monocrhome future where a crowd of bald extras—many of them actual skinheads from the streets of London—stood before an enormous screen broadcasting a message of conformity. A runner enters, pursued by police, and hurls the hammer at the screen, destroying it just as the Big Brother figure announces “We shall prevail!” The text in the last shot makes the references to George Orwell explicit: “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984.”

Apple co-founder Steve Jobs loved the ad, but Apple’s board did not. They asked the agency that produced it, Chiat/Day, to sell back the time they had purchased for the ad, and “1984” only aired because Chiat/Day resorted to subterfuge, intentionally failing to sell back the time. It was the right decision: the ad achieved every company’s dream of becoming news itself, receiving free replays on news broadcasts the next day. Super Bowl ads were already big business, but many in the advertising world point to “1984” as the moment when the big game became a venue for innovative, marquee ads, which soon became e a major part of the overall spectacle of the Super Bowl. The spot also cemented Apple’s reputation for being iconoclastic, disruptive and forward-thinking, an image that has been central to its brand ever since. By telling a somewhat high-minded story and barely mentioning the product it was selling—no computers appear in the ad—it also helped establish that bolder, less literal advertising could be just as effective, if not more so, than simpler commercials.

READ MORE: They Can’t All Be iPhones: The Story of Apple’s Forgotten Flop

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Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz divorce


Year
1960
Month Day
March 04

After 20 tumultuous years of marriage, actress Lucille Ball divorces her husband and collaborator, Desi Arnaz, on March 4, 1960. The breakup of the couple, stars of the hit sitcom I Love Lucy and owners of the innovative Desilu Studios, was one of the highest-profile divorces in American history at the time.

Ball met Arnaz, five years her junior, while she was acting and he was leading a band in the film Too Many Girls. They married six months later. Though the two were, by all accounts, deeply in love for most of their lives, the relationship was always tumultuous, due to both of them being in showbusiness and to Arnaz’s womanizing and problems with alcohol. Ball first sought a divorce four years into the marriage, but they reconciled and determined to strengthen their relationship by finding opportunities to work together. When CBS asked her to develop a sitcom, Ball insisted on having her real-life husband play her husband on the show. The network was hesitant to cast a Cuban-American as a co-lead, but the couple convinced them by putting on a live show and conducting a successful tour.

I Love Lucy ran from 1951 until 1957. It was popular for the entirety of its run, won five Emmys, and continues to be regarded as one of the most influential programs in American history. Once again challenging the powers that be, Ball and Arnaz wrote her pregnancy with their second child into the show, making it the first television program to depict a pregnancy. Desilu Studios, which they founded to produce the show, was for a time the largest independent production company in the country, and it produced a number of shows besides I Love Lucy, including Mission: Impossible and the original Star Trek. I Love Lucy and its successor, The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, lovingly poked fun at married life in modern America; however, the underlying problems of the real-life marriage it was based on never went away. Ball filed for divorce in 1960 and bought out Arnaz’s share in Desilu two years later, becoming the first woman to run a major television studio. Though the divorce was reportedly contentious, the two remained close for the rest of their lives, which they each spent in showbusiness.

READ MORE: How Lucille Ball Went From Comedic Actress to Television Pioneer

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“The Feminine Mystique” by Betty Friedan is published


Year
1963
Month Day
February 16

Though perhaps not the typical housewife—she had been involved in radical politics from a young age and had a degree in psychology from Smith College—Betty Friedan is often credited as the first to give voice to the suffering of millions of seemingly-content American women. Her book, The Feminine Mystique, published on February 19, 1963, shook the ground beneath an American society rooted in a myth of pleasant domesticity and supported by the physical and emotional labor of women.

The book examines the many ways in which women were still oppressed by American society. In addition to scholarly research, Friedan drew on first-hand accounts from housewives to explain how women were taught that homemaking and raising children was their sole purpose in life, how the education system and field of psychology made women who sought fulfillment elsewhere seem “neurotic” and the myriad ways that women’s magazines, advertisers and other elements of society reinforced women’s secondary status.

Even before it was published, The Feminine Mystique was called “overstated” and “too obvious and feminine” by people within the company that published it. After its release, much of the criticism essentially labeled Friedan a hysteric, while many women took offense at her suggestion that they were not fulfilled by their family and domestic duties. Other critics pointed out that Friedan focused almost exclusively on straight, married, white, middle-class women, or charged that she was complicit in the demonization of stay-at-home mothers.

Some of these criticisms have persisted, but only because The Feminine Mystique has remained relevant from the moment of its publication through the present. One the first signs of the emerging Second Wave Feminism, Friedan’s work was crucial in giving language to the frustrations women felt in the ’50s and ’60s. The book is credited with mobilizing a generation of feminists who would tackle a number of issues left unresolved by First Wave Feminism. Friedan influenced the push for the 1963 Equal Pay Act, the budding pro-choice movement, and other activists, both through her writing and through her co-founding of the National Organization for Women, whose charter she drafted in language similar to that of her book. On the 50th anniversary of its publication, The New York Times wrote that “it remains enduring shorthand for the suffocating vision of domestic goddess-hood Friedan is credited with helping demolish.”

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Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini calls on Muslims to kill Salman Rushdie, author of “The Satanic Verses”


Year
1989
Month Day
February 14

Salman Rushdie likely understood he would cause a controversy when he published a novel titled The Satanic Verses. The book mocked or at least contained mocking references to the Prophet Muhammad and other aspects of Islam, in addition to and a character clearly based on the Supreme Leader of Iran. On February 14, 1989, that Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued just about the strongest response possible, calling on “all brave Muslims” to kill Rushdie and his publishers.

Although many of the most controversial things said about Islam and Muhammad in the book come from the mouths of disreputable or comic characters, it was undeniably critical and insulting. The title refers to passages said to have been removed from the Qur’an in which the Prophet spoke the words of Satan instead of God, and many were particularly incensed by the depiction of a brothel where the prostitutes shared the names of Muhammad’s wives. Khomeini, who had suddenly deposed a U.S.-backed monarch a decade before, was the leader of a group of clerics who had turned Iran into a theocracy. As such, he was perhaps the most prominent Shi’a authority in the world. Muslims around the world had already condemned The Satanic Verses—it was publicly burnt in Bolton, UK, sparked a deadly riot in Pakistan and was banned entirely in multiple Muslim countries—but Khomeini’s fatwa brought the controversy to new heights.

Booksellers the world over, including many Barnes & Noble stores in the United States, refused to sell The Satanic Verses for fear of retribution. Many that did sell it were bombed. Free speech advocates and anti-religious figures vociferously defended Rushdie, but many Muslim leaders and even moderate Muslim cultural figures outright condemned him or at least stated he had gone too far. Rushdie apologized both to the Ayatollah and to Muslims around the world in 1989 and 1990, but protests and violence continued. The novel’s Japanese translator was stabbed to death in 1991, while its Italian translator was critically wounded by an assailant. Rushdie later said he regretted apologizing.

A fatwa is a judgement issued by a religious scholar and can only be repealed by that same scholar, meaning that the fatwa against Rushdie could never be taken back after the Ayatollah’s death in June of 1989. In 1998, the Iranian government declared it would neither “support nor hinder” Rushdie’s assassination, and private groups inside Iran and elsewhere continue to raise money to put towards the bounty on his head. Though Rushdie has had to hire security teams and has received countless threats since the book’s publication, no assassin has yet come close to killing him. The author, who was knighted in 2007, said that year that he saw the fatwa as “a piece of rhetoric rather than a real threat.” While Rushdie remains unharmed, the backlash to his novel is responsible for dozens of deaths and injuries around the world, one of the deadliest—and possibly the most widespread—instances of conflict between religious fundamentalists and free-speech activists of the 20th century.

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“Roots” premieres on television


Year
1977
Month Day
January 29

January 29, 1977 sees the premiere of Roots, a groundbreaking television program. The eight-episode miniseries, which was broadcast over eight consecutive nights, follows a family from its origins in West Africa through generations of slavery and the end of the Civil War. Roots one of the most-watched television events in American history and a major moment in mainstream American culture’s reckoning with the legacy of slavery.

The miniseries was based on Alex Haley’s novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family, which he claimed was based on research he had conducted into his own family history. Though these claims were later debunked, the story succeeded in dramatizing and personalizing the brutal, true story of the Atlantic slave trade and slavery in America. It begins with Kunta Kinte, a warrior belonging to the Mandinka ethnic group and living in what is now the Gambia. Kunta is captured and sold to slave traders, endures a harrowing journey aboard a slave ship, and is eventually sold to a plantation owner in Virginia. The story follows the remainder of his life, including a brutal scene in which he is tortured into acknowledging his slave name, Toby, and continues to follow his family for several generations. Kunta’s daughter, her son George, and his sons Tom and Lewis experience life on various plantations and are subjected to many historically-accurate brutalities, including the separation of slave families and harassment from whites after the abolition of slavery. The book and miniseries were recognized for balancing this sweeping narrative with intensely personal stories and brutally realistic depictions of the horrors of slavery.

Due to fears about the audience’s reaction to these depictions, ABC decided to air Roots on eight consecutive nights as a way of cutting its losses. Instead, Roots achieved unprecedented popularity. An estimated 140 million people, accounting for over half of the population of the United States, saw the series, and its finale remains the second-most-watched series finale in American television history. A cultural phenomenon, it was nominated for 37 Emmys and won nine, including Best Limited Series and Best Writing in a Drama Series. A sequel miniseries, Roots: The Next Generations, aired in 1979 to impressive ratings and several more award nominations.

Some found Roots to be divisive—future president Ronald Reagan opined that “the bias of all the good people being one color and all the bad people being another was rather destructive.” Other commentators noted that the series went out of its way to include “good” or morally conflicted white characters who did not exist in the book. Overall, however, critics praised Roots for “dealing with the institution of slavery and its effect on succeeding generations of one family in a dramatic form,” something uncommon in American culture and virtually unheard of on American television at the time. Roots continues to be remembered as both a moving work of fiction and a step forward in America’s difficult confrontation with its racial history

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Johnny Cash performs at Folsom Prison


Year
1968
Month Day
January 13

In the midst of depression and a steep decline in his musical career, legendary country singer Johnny Cash arrives to play for inmates at California’s Folsom Prison on January 13, 1968. The concert and the subsequent live album launched him back into the charts and re-defined his career.

Despite his outlaw image, Cash never went to prison, save for a few nights drying out in various jails. It was not his own experience but rather the crime film Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison that inspired him to pen “Folsom Prison Blues,” which was a modest hit for Cash in 1956. The song, characteristically mournful, is written from the point of view of an inmate “stuck in Folsom Prison” after shooting a man in Reno “just to watch him die” – Cash explained that he wanted to come up with the most senseless reason imaginable for the speaker to have committed murder. A decade later, Cash’s alcoholism and addiction to pills had taken a marked toll on his health. Cash was popular in prisons across America and was known to correspond with imprisoned fans, and first played at Folsom in 1966 on the suggestion of a local preacher. Two years later, needing something to jump-start his career, he convinced his record company to let him record a live album there.

Cash felt a personal responsibility to put on a good show at Folsom. He rehearsed feverishly in the days leading up to the concert and taught himself “Greystone Chapel,” a song written by Folsom inmate Glen Sherley. Despite the presence of armed guards on the walkways above them, and the warden’s prohibition against standing during the show, Cash’s audience was raucous, invigorating the performers and lending a unique verve to the live recording. Cash tailored the setlist to prisoners, including the namesake song and ending with “Greystone Chapel.” The album went to No. 1, as did a subsequent album recorded at San Quentin, and suddenly Cash was a household name again.

The iconic performance linked Cash permanently with prisoners in the American imagination. In his 1971 song “Man in Black,” Cash explains that he adopted his trademark dark clothing in solidarity with “the poor and the beaten down” as well as “the prisoner who has long paid for his crime.” Cash testified before Congress and met with President Richard Nixon to discuss prison reform in 1972, and continued to crusade on behalf of the imprisoned for the rest of his career. Live at Folsom Prison stands as a testament to the bond he felt with inmates as well as a major entry in the canon of 20th Century American music.

READ MORE: I Went With Johnny Cash to Folsom Prison

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“Wheel of Fortune” premieres


Publish date:
Year
1975
Month Day
January 06

Wheel of Fortune, the longest-running syndicated game show in American television, premieres on NBC on January 6, 1975. Created by television legend Merv Griffin and hosted since the early 1980s by Pat Sajak and Vanna White, Wheel is one of the most popular television shows in the world.

Griffin, who had already created another iconic game show, Jeopardy!, conceived of Wheel as a combination between Hangman and roulette. Contestants guess letters as they attempt to solve a Hangman-like puzzle, spinning the wheel to determine how much money they will earn for a correct guess, with the ultimate goal being to solve the puzzle and accumulate as much money as possible. Since the show’s inception, the price of a vowel has stood at $250 and has not been adjusted for inflation. The phrases “I’d like to buy a vowel” and “I’d like to solve the puzzle” have entered the American cultural lexicon. 

Sajak and White, who joined in 1981 and 82, respectively, have become some of the most famous hosts in game show history. White, who operates the board and reveals letters as they are guessed, often contributes her own puzzles to the show. In over 6,5000 episodes, she has never worn the same gown twice. The show’s producers claim that over 1 million people have auditioned to be contestants and the show has paid out a total of more than $200 million. Painfully awkward or incorrect guesses by contestants have also been comedic fodder for generations of Americans.

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Marian Anderson becomes first African American to perform at the Met Opera


Publish date:
Year
1955
Month Day
January 07

On the evening of January 7, 1955, the curtain at the Metropolitan Opera in New York rises to reveal Marian Anderson, the first African American to perform with the Met.

By then, Anderson was in the twilight of a career that was equal parts acclaimed and hamstrung by racism. First noticed by an aunt, who convinced her to join a church choir and helped her put on her first professional shows, Anderson spent her early career in the eastern United States. She was successful but consistently thwarted from mainstream stardom by racism and segregation, and she eventually decided to continue her career in Europe. She became a sensation there, particularly in Scandinavia, and major figures such as composer Jean Sibelius and conductor Arturo Toscanini praised her as a singular vocal talent.

Upon returning to the United States, Anderson performed regularly, but continued to be denied bookings, hotel rooms, and other basic opportunities that were afforded to whites. In 1939 the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let her perform at Constitution Hall on account of her race. A group of supporters that included President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor, who resigned from the DAR in protest, helped her instead put on a concert at the Lincoln Memorial. Attended by 75,000 people, including prominent members of Roosevelt’s cabinet, and broadcast across the nation, the concert not only bolstered her fame but also thrust Anderson into the nascent struggle for civil rights.

Rudolf Bing became director of the Met in 1950 and was intent on signing Anderson to perform there from the outset. Though she had been courted by companies foreign and domestic, Anderson had shied away from opera in the past, feeling her voice was not right for it and deterred by the lack of roles for black singers. When Bing finally convinced her to sign with him, he did not tell the board of the Met until after the fact. He cast Anderson as Ulrica in Verdi’s Un ballo en maschera. The role, a witch-like figure often portrayed by white women wearing dark makeup, was not the lead, and it was freighted with racial stereotypes connecting primitive and “backwards” traditions with people of color. Nonetheless, her debut at the Met was a major moment in the history of integration of the arts, and the New York Times reported that Anderson’s performance left many audience members in tears.

The Met made Anderson a permanent member, although Un ballo en maschera was her only appearance with the company. She would go on to perform at the inaugurations of Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. In 1965, she retired following a farewell tour that began at Constitution Hall, where she had once been barred from performing, and ended at Carnegie Hall. She died in 1993. 

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Groundbreaking novel “Don Quixote” is published

Year
1605
Month Day
January 16

On January 16, 1605, Miguel de CervantesEl ingenioso hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha, better known as Don Quixote, is published. The book is considered by many to be the first modern novel as well as one of the greatest novels of all time.

The protagonist is a minor noble, Alonso Quixano, whose obsessive reading of chivalric romances drives him mad. He adopts the name Don Quixote and, along with his squire Sancho Panza, roams around La Mancha, a central region of Spain, taking on a number of challenges which exist entirely in his mind. Quixote attacks a group of monks, a flock of sheep, and, most famously, some windmills which he believes to be giants. The episodic story is intentionally comedic, and its intentionally archaic language contributes to its satirization of older stories of knights and their deeds.

The novel was an immediate success, although Cervantes made only a modest profit off of its publication rights. It was re-published across Spain and Portugal within the year. Over the next decade, it was translated and re-published across Europe and widely read in Spain’s American colonies. Over the subsequent centuries, critics have continued to praise, analyze, and re-interpret Don Quixote. Many analyses focus on the theme of imagination and the more subversive elements of the text, which has been taken as a satire of orthodoxy, chivalry, patriotism and even the concept of objective reality. The novel gave rise to a number of now-common idioms in Spanish and other languages, including the English phrase “tilting at windmills” and the word “quixotic.” Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, another novel frequently called one of the greatest of all time, was heavily influenced by Don Quixote, as was Mark Twain’s enormously influential The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which explicitly references Cervantes’ work. Cerebral, comedic and groundbreaking, Don Quixote has endured in a way that only a select few novels could. 

READ MORE: After 400 Years, Investigators Find Remains of Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote’s Creator

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Marvin Gaye’s hit single “What’s Going On?” released


Year
1971
Month Day
January 20

January 20, 1971, sees the release of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” In addition to being a massive hit, the song marked a turning point in Gaye’s career and in the trajectory of Motown.

Gaye achieved popularity in the 1960s with songs like “How Sweet it Is (To Be Loved by You)” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” prime examples of the “Motown Sound” which blended soul, rock, and pop and is often credited with a leading role in the racial integration of popular music in America. Gaye’s record label, Tamla, was an imprint of Motown Records, and as such Gaye’s work was guided and supervised by legendary Motown founder Berry Gordy. Gaye’s early music, like that of many Motown artists, was innovative and increasingly sensual but hardly political.

“What’s Going On?” originated with Ronaldo “Obie” Benson, a member of the Motown group the Four Tops, who penned an early version after witnessing police violence against anti-Vietnam War protesters in Berkeley, California. Benson took the song to Gaye, whose brother had recently returned from the war and whose cousin had died in it, and Gaye made it his own. The song’s lyrics both implicitly references the violent rifts in American society (“Mother, mother/ there’s too many of you crying”) and explicitly questions the war (“We don’t need to escalate … war is not the answer/ for only love can conquer hate”). These lyrics made it ripe for controversy, enough that Gordy discouraged Gaye from recording the song, saying “Don’t be ridiculous. That’s taking things too far.”

Ultimately, Gaye went on a recording strike to force Gordy to release “What’s Going On?” Not many artists had the gumption or the clout to stand up to Gordy, and as such the single’s release foreshadowed his future disagreements with Gordy and eventual split with Motown. The single reached number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and would go on to be named the fourth-greatest song of all time by Rolling Stone. The album What’s Going On, released the following May, was a concept album that further explored Gaye’s opposition to the war as well as other sensitive topics like poverty and drug use. The song “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” is one of the earliest examples of environmentalist messaging in mainstream pop music. Critics continue to rate the album and its title track among the most influential recordings in modern musical history.

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