Tuesday, March 20, 2012
Life as an Ed Sullivan Show
Heading to the bakery for a morning pastry the other day, I hit the radio button for BBC World Service. In between the half-hour newscasts, they were doing an interview with Otis Williams, the last original member of The Temptations.
They’re not a band I’m passionate about, but the interviewer (who never gave his name; they’re not much into celebrity at BBC) was clearly well informed and asked good questions about Berry Gordy and the early days at Motown Records; about the drug and alcohol use of group members; and about the experience of being an African-American performer at the height of the civil rights movement.
Williams, in turn, answered candidly and at length, conveying the definite impression of a man comfortable in his own skin. It was a great conversation, I learned a thing or two from it, and was definitely glad I caught it.
And, if I were someone who listened exclusively to his own playlist on an IPod, I never would have.
One of the pleasures of growing older (and, frankly, there aren’t that many) is enjoying the moment more and savoring the pleasures of the unexpected. I worry that technology is increasingly cutting back on the serendipitous occurrences in life. If you only listen to the songs you’ve already picked out, how are you going to find new ones? Your friends, maybe, but they’re a small circle and know only a little of what’s out there — certainly not as much as a competent DJ. And the song that goes viral on Facebook and Twitter because of its broad appeal may not be the one that touches your quirky heart.
Newspapers and magazines were and are a great medium for exposing you to new things. In the good ones, editors who know a thing or two pick out stories you may never have heard about or commission stories that shed a new light on things you thought you knew.
What’s more, a good writer can draw you into a story you didn’t think you cared about by the simple expedient of telling it well. There have been many articles in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and The Economist that I’ve kind of glanced at and started, then read to the end because they grabbed me and held my attention.
But just as people can put together their own playlist, they now have the ability to put together their own news list. If you are so inclined, you can program your electronic devices to provide you with anti-Obama stories on Fox News or anti-Republican stories from The Times. What you miss by not looking at the paper, in print or electronically, are a lot of the outlying stories, which could be the ones that tell you something you didn’t know.
There’s a degree of skill and experience needed to put together a wide range of material for a mass audience, whether it be a radio music show or a newspaper. Anyone doing that has to understand what’s out there and be willing to include some things that he or she wouldn’t personally be interested in. Ed Sullivan surely didn’t care for Elvis or The Beatles, but he realized they represented something new, something people were responding to. And so he put them on his show.
Variety shows no longer exist on TV; how could they, when it’s so easy to go to another channel if you don’t like this comedian, singer, or juggling act? Yet at some level I want to be exposed to an ongoing Ed Sullivan Show of life, where something new is always around the corner.