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From U2 to Breaking Bad: How Event Albums Gave Way to Event Television

August 13, 2013

In Marc Spitz’s book “Poseur: A Memoir of Downtown New York City in the ’90s” (which I read and reviewed in April), he describes what he calls “event albums.” In the late 1980s he and his friends would wait in anticipation of an album release (he names two of my all-time favorites: the Pixies’ Doolittle and Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation) and then get together to listen to it when the album finally dropped. Being a little younger than Spitz – but not a full generation apart – I can relate to having lived through the era of event albums, though for me it was early ‘90s albums like U2’s Achtung Baby, Guns N’ Roses Use Your Illusion I and II, Nirvana’s In Utero, and Pearl Jam’s Vs. I vividly recall the hype around each of those albums (the Use Your Illusion hype is legendary to this day) and arguing with friends over whether the new albums met expectations or fell short (or, again in the case of Use Your Illusion, fell wildly short).

Nowadays there is no such thing as an event album. I’m not going to delve deeply into why that’s the case – that’s ground that’s been covered to death over the past decade. (By way of review: music digitization, file sharing, the iPod shuffle and playlist features, $0.99 digital singles, album leaks, a fragmented industry, the demise of many major record labels, the decline of rock music, streaming music services like Pandora and Spotify – all have contributed to the extinction of event albums.) The last true event album that I can remember was U2’s 2000 album All That You Can’t Leave Behind. File sharing of mp3s and CD burns were in vogue, but this was still pre-iTunes and pre-streaming, and it was still U2. After the relative flop of their prior two albums – 1993’s Zooropa and 1997’s Pop – U2 literally announced that with ATYCLB they were “reapplying for the job [of] the best band in the world.” The album featured a very conventional sound for the band (unlike Zooropa and Pop) and received massive critical acclaim, eventually selling over 12 million copies worldwide. The album and its massively successful singles won seven Grammy Awards; according to Wikipedia, it is the only album in history to have multiple tracks win Grammy Awards for Record of the Year: “Beautiful Day” in 2001 and “Walk On” in 2002. U2 rode the popularity of ATYCLB to play the 2002 Super Bowl halftime show, putting on a performance that was probably the most memorable halftime show ever that didn’t involve a wardrobe malfunction. U2 reapplied for the job of best (or at least biggest) band in the world and they got it.

And with that halftime show event albums were left behind for good. There have been some attempts since – Kanye West’s Yeezus being the most recent example. Even an album like Yeezus though, which received more press than any album in the past several years and was just about unanimously critically acclaimed, is not immune from the forces that contributed to the event album’s extinction. Despite debuting at #1 on the Billboard charts, Yeezus’ first week sales were the lowest for a Kanye album since his 2004 debut. And it only got worse from there. By the end of the first month, it still hadn’t sold 500,000 copies. That hardly seems like an event.

Occasionally, we get an album that seems like an event album but in reality is more like what I’d call a community or local event. One example is the Arcade Fire’s hotly anticipated fourth album, scheduled to be released on October 29. (You know it qualifies as an event when there are postings speculating about the album title.) The Strokes’ fourth album (Angles) – their first in five years – falls into this category as well, though their most recent effort (Comedown Machine) does not. I think of these as community or local events because the cultural impact of these records releases is nowhere near that of similar albums from the ‘80s or ‘90s (i.e. they don’t have the impact of a national event), but on a smaller scale they are just as important. For serious fans of a certain kind of music, the new Arcade Fire is more important than Use Your Illusion could ever have been, but for most people it will have no impact whatsoever. The new Arcade Fire record is a close mayoral election – critically important if you live in that city – while All That You Can’t Leave Behind was a presidential election – critically important to everyone, but maybe slightly less so than that mayoral vote for a few.

Meanwhile, there is something in popular culture that’s taken the place of the event album, having been passed the baton around the turn of the century. It is the event television show. I began thinking about this when I read Alan Sepinwall’s great book, “The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever ” (my review here). Sepinwall covers a dozen television dramas, all of which first aired in 1999 or later, and explains how these shows transformed the nature of television. With Spitz still on my mind, I began thinking about how certain shows had episodes which rose to the level of national events. We’d occasionally seen that before in television, but it was always either a series finale (the Cheers finale in 1993 and the Seinfeld finale in 1998 were events) or special events like the Super Bowl, a significant interview (often by Oprah), or something along those lines. For the first time in TV history season debuts of popular, critically acclaimed shows were being treated as events. The latest example: the final season debut of AMC’s hit drama “Breaking Bad” this past Sunday night.

This article published in Monday’s edition of the New York Times says it all. The title is “‘Breaking Bad’ Premiere Draws Biggest Audience in Its History”; in another era that news would have been surprising for a season debut. The article goes on to show what a huge event this episode was.  5.9 million people watched the show, more than double the previous season premiere’s 2.9 million total viewers. The lead-in to the story is this: “Surrounded by a whirlwind of media coverage and critical praise …”; the next paragraph begins: “The hugely discussed episode – it was the subject of more than 750,000 messages on Twitter on Sunday …” These two phrases are indicative of the fact that the airing of this episode wasn’t just another television show, it was an event television show.

I myself don’t watch Breaking Bad. I’m sure it’s excellent; I just never got on the bandwagon and now it feels a little too late. I couldn’t avoid the hype though. I wanted to be part of the conversation. I found myself listening to part of a podcast discussing the season premiere – again, this is for a show I don’t watch. On Bill Simmons’ Monday podcast with Grantland TV critic Andy Greenwald, Simmons used the word “event” less than two minutes into the podcast. Fortunately for AMC the reviews are in and the premiere apparently was as good as advertised. This event was much more All That You Can’t Leave Behind than Use Your Illusion.

A show that I do watch which has had several event episodes is AMC’s “Mad Men”. There was the much anticipated season five premiere in 2012, which aired after the show went on a 17 month hiatus due to stalled contract negotiations between AMC and show creator Matthew Weiner. An even bigger event was the season three premiere in 2009, when it seemed like just about everyone had Mad Men fever. Vanity Fair did a huge feature on the show, including classic photos by famed photographer Annie Leibovitz. The show was everywhere you looked – Banana Republic even launched a Mad Men themed clothing line. It was impossible for anyone even remotely plugged in to popular culture to avoid the monolithic event that was Mad Men.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when the first event television show aired (as I’m defining it here, excluding finales and specials), but my best guess is that it was the first four episodes of season four of Fox’s 24. The show had been gaining significant momentum over its first three years, due in part to its unusual gimmick whereby each episode covered one hour of real time and the full 24 episode season took place during one day. For season four, Fox was forced to make a bold decision driven in large part by scheduling conflicts arising from the airing of the baseball playoffs. It decided to delay the start of season four until January, and then to air the entire season in consecutive weeks without interruption by repeats. In part to promote this bold strategy, Fox used the first four episodes to create even more buzz around the show. On Sunday night, January 9, 2004, Fox kicked off the season by airing back to back episodes, billed as a two-hour 24 season premiere. On the very next night, Fox aired episodes 3 and 4, again back to back, launching viewers four full hours into the intense show a mere two days into the season. Fans of the show were exhilarated; new viewers (like me) were hooked. 24 was the television show that everyone was talking about.

Now, almost 10 years after that first event television show, it’s time to wonder whether Sunday night’s Breaking Bad was one of the last of them. There have been rumblings about this golden age of television perhaps coming to an end. If it is, something will inevitably take its place. There will always be something in popular culture that unites us as a nation, that gives us something to talk about at the water cooler. (Another way to look at it: There will always be something so ubiquitous that it feels like you’re missing out because you’re the only one not watching / listening to it.) We will always need something to talk about; the media will always need something to hype. For the time being, that something is as simple as a very well-crafted television drama.

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