Album of the Year

The first of 1997’s striking images was odd and macabre: all those unworn Nikes peeking out from under shiny purple blankets. Rancho Santa Fe’s benign cultists’ stab at brand loyalty into the next millennium was but one of the year’s major news events that could never be described as undocumented or underanalyzed. At the risk of piling on – but with the promise of a fresh view – here are a few others:

Ellen came out, and no known disasters resulted (the Baptist boycott of Disney notwithstanding): The stock market is up, and El Niño is behaving himself. And it was a far, far more important moment for the community than, say, Gay Day at Disney World. Plus, she had to do it for the sake of the scripts: Those dating scenarios with single menfolk Ellen hoped to impress had achieved awkwardness maximus.

As with any major life development, first you cry – in Ellen’s case, in an interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer. Then you start making public appearances with your significant other – Anne Heche, a delicate dewdrop version of the doppelgänger-girlfriend. But the outing seems to have jolted Ellen’s system into sexo-drive: With her penchant for fifties bowlingwear and her predilection for pawing and groping her lover in public, Ellen DeGeneres is running the risk of evolving into some kind of macho cartoon character, a blonde Fonz for the nineties.

A buzz saw to the national psyche, 1997: You’ve probably seen the Infiniti commercial in which a Danny De Vito-type guy receives divorce papers at the front door of his garish mansion. “Half? She gets half?” he wails. “I’ll give her half!” – and begins a War of the Roses-like tear through the place with chainsaw and blowtorch, hacking the piano, the couch, the pool table in half. When he gets to the garage and the sight of his true inamorata, a shiny, erotic Infiniti Q45, he stops. Now we are bathed in Barry Manilow’s “I Can’t Smile Without You.” “On second thought,” he says, “maybe we can work something out.”

The spot, according to TBWA Chiat/Day, the agency that created it, has been “a tremendous success and has already won a couple of awards.” Fine. But the irony here is that while the nineties zeitgeist is supposedly about asceticism, atoning for the vulgar appetites of the eighties, the reality is that this $48,000 vehicle is now being sold with a show of ostentatious wealth and brute-force aggression. Back when the car was introduced, in the age of late-eighties excess, it was promoted through spots that were Zen-like, soft, and quiet, with calming natural sounds of running water, and shots of rocks and trees. Whose eighties is it, anyway?

We know we live in strange, longing-for-kitchen-ritual times when the presence of Martha Stewart confers hipness on MTV.

It must be because both their first names end in a – why else pair Ms. Stewart with Busta Rhymes as celeb presenters at the MTV Video Music Awards? Race and gender evaporated, and actually, they made a lovely couple: Martha, the Valkyrie of the Viking range, the Schwarzenegger of homemade stollen, standing in a shiny pantsuit, demurely getting kissed by … Mista Busta, who chose for the evening a long, sleeveless, Asian-inspired red-patterned tunic and matching flocked-silk shoes, his dreadlocked hair gathered in gravity-defying bunches set off by white earrings. A New York rapper famous for his liquid legs and the song “Woo-Ha! (Got You All in Check),” Busta was strong enough for Martha yet sensitive enough to add palazzo pants to his ensemble. The pairing certainly boosted awareness of him. Because while it remained clear that Martha never does anything slipshod or slapdash, Busta, this time, was the one who really made an effort.

The nanny trial, and grief over the death of baby Matthew Eappen, opened all sorts of emotional floodgates and was used to legitimize every backlash theory about working mothers devised since the fifties. I thought it was still the fifties, perhaps, when I read the New York Times’s WHEN WAAA TURNS TO WHY: MOM AND DAD BOTH WORK? WHAT DO WE TELL THE CHILDREN? (Note how they were careful to include the dad.) Even though the piece posits that 63 percent of all women with children under 18 work, it also suggests that for middle-class women with spouses, work can be an “illicit pleasure,” an “infidelity.” Perhaps we should take another look at that pin money we’re making by firing up the Selectrics.

The princess-bride dream died hard this year. The idea of being swept away on your wedding day into a fantasyland where you exist to be admired and gazed upon (remember to wave back!) still resonates powerfully in the culture.

Perhaps this was why some of the millions of Diana’s American mourners were so inordinately bereaved. And even though the initial searing images of the princess were of death – the unbearably sad card to MUMMY, the acres of flowers – they were soon superseded by images of her life. While Diana was alive, the concept of being a modern princess – mother, traveler, clotheshorse, she had everything but the prince – offered a new archetype. And still does.

So much so that when New Yorker Nicole Contos was left at the altar (having quit her job as a kindergarten teacher she spent five months planning the dream-perfect wedding) and then, her prince missing, partied as a single bride, she became a media darling. But the entire series of events – focusing all of her energy on the big day, wanting his bow-tie to be perfect – augured a disturbing cultural undertow: The Rules: The Dark Side.

In a year when some high-profile marriages took hits, when bad things happened to biters and cheaters, many of the victims and victimizers sought absolution from TV’s most senior groom, Larry King. How, given his own morality-impaired history, has Larry King become such a TV monument? Perhaps because his physical presentation is the opposite of monumental: collapse. He’s falling. Instead of cocking an ear, he rounds a shoulder to show signs of being a good listener.

But it’s not only the flaccid shoulders. It’s the outsize eyewear too – even the glasses are curved, like windshields. They supply a tele-papal image, suggesting order, ritual, the washing away of sin. King’s Tiny Toon mini-tornado hair completes the trinity, weirdly evoking the calm days of TV yore: It’s as if Andy of Mayberry’s Aunt Bea had moved her gray beehive side to side.

Perhaps that’s why King was the interviewer of choice in 1997 for those desperate for an uncritical hearing. At a time when there is no morality, only TV, he offers us a poignant combination: gangster-sharpie Nathan Detroit as kindly bubbe.

Album of the Year