Subscribe to The Atlantic and get 2 free issues

Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Our story picks of the week, featuring London Review of Books, Billboard, Texas Observer, Narratively and Slate.
PUBLISHED: Feb. 14, 2014

How the Beatles Went Viral

At the end of 1963, very few people in America had heard of the Beatles. Then six weeks later, they blew up. Greenberg explains how the band finally broke through after multiple false starts trying to gain traction with radio airplay:

Transglobal licensed “She Loves You” to a tiny indie, Swan Records of Philadelphia, which released it stateside on Sept. 16. Swan had even less success with the Beatles than Vee-Jay: The song failed to chart at any station, and was roundly rejected by audiences when it was played at all. DJ Murray the K at WINS New York spun “She Loves You” on Sept. 28 in a five-way “battle of the hits,” where it came in third. He continued to play it every night for a week solid, but got no reaction. Swan convinced “American Bandstand,” which broadcast from the label’s hometown, to play the song in its “Rate a Record” segment, where it received a score of 73 out of 100. Worse, the teens on “Bandstand” laughed when host Dick Clark held up a photo of the moptopped Beatles. After that incident, Clark recalled, “I figured these guys were going nowhere.”

PUBLISHED: Feb. 8, 2014
LENGTH: 42 minutes (10704 words)

The Children Who Went Up In Smoke

What happened to five children who disappeared following a 1945 fire in West Virginia?

"For nearly four decades, anyone driving down Route 16 near Fayetteville, West Virginia, could see a billboard bearing the grainy images of five children, all dark-haired and solemn-eyed, their names and ages—Maurice, 14; Martha 12; Louis, 9; Jennie, 8; Betty, 5—stenciled beneath, along with speculation about what happened to them. Fayetteville was and is a small town, with a main street that doesn’t run longer than a hundred yards, and rumors always played a larger role in the case than evidence; no one even agreed on whether the children were dead or alive. What everyone knew for certain was this: On the night before Christmas 1945, George and Jennie Sodder and nine of their 10 children went to sleep (one son was away in the Army). Around 1 a.m., a fire broke out. George and Jennie and four of their children escaped, but the other five were never seen again."
PUBLISHED: Jan. 3, 2013
LENGTH: 11 minutes (2809 words)

Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' at 30

[Not single-page] How the album bridged a racial divide on MTV and radio in the early 1980s:

"Despite the obvious quality of the Jackson videos, MTV initially resisted playing them, claiming it was a rock station and Jackson didn't fit the format. There is to this day some disagreement as to what led the channel to change its policy and add 'Billie Jean.' At the time, a story was widely circulated that CBS chief Walter Yetnikoff resorted to threatening to pull all of his label's videos off the channel if MTV didn't play 'Billie Jean,' but this claim has been refuted over the years by original MTV honchos Bob Pittman and Les Garland. They concede that the channel initially assumed it would not play the video, as its thumping beat and urban production did not fit the channel's 'rock' image. They contend however that in mid-February, after seeing the clip--which was possibly the best that had ever come across their desks--they began to re-think things. Coupled with the fact that even without MTV, the song had just leaped in one week from No. 23 to No. 6 on the Hot 100, the MTV execs concluded they should give it a shot."
PUBLISHED: Nov. 30, 2012
LENGTH: 16 minutes (4240 words)

The Lie Factory

The early days of the political consulting business—starting with Upton Sinclair's failed run for California governor in the 1930s and the opposition work of Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter:

"Whitaker and Baxter weren’t just inventing new techniques; they were writing a rule book. Never lobby; woo voters instead. 'Our conception of practical politics is that if you have a sound enough case to convince the folks back home, you don’t have to buttonhole the Senator,' Baxter explained. Make it personal: candidates are easier to sell than issues. If your position doesn’t have an opposition, or if your candidate doesn’t have an opponent, invent one. Once, when fighting an attempt to recall the mayor of San Francisco, Whitaker and Baxter waged a campaign against the Faceless Man—the idea was Baxter’s—who might end up replacing him. Baxter drew a picture, on a tablecloth, of a fat man with a cigar poking out from beneath a face hidden by a hat, and then had him plastered on billboards all over the city, with the question 'Who’s Behind the Recall?' Pretend that you are the Voice of the People. Whitaker and Baxter bought radio ads, sponsored by 'the Citizens Committee Against the Recall,' in which an ominous voice said, 'The real issue is whether the City Hall is to be turned over, lock, stock, and barrel, to an unholy alliance fronting for a faceless man.' (The recall was defeated.) Attack, attack, attack. Whitaker said, 'You can’t wage a defensive campaign and win!'"
SOURCE:New Yorker
PUBLISHED: Sept. 17, 2012
LENGTH: 27 minutes (6785 words)

M&M World

[Fiction] Taking a trip to Times Square:

"Ginny had promised to take the girls to M&M World, that ridiculous place in Times Square they had passed too often in a taxi, Maggie scooting to press her face to the glass to watch the giant smiling M&M scale the Empire State Building on the electronic billboard and wave from the spire, its color dissolving yellow, then blue, then red, then yellow again. She had promised. 'Promised,' Olivia said, her face twisted into the expression she reserved for moments of betrayal. 'Please,' Olivia whined. 'You said "spring."'"
PUBLISHED: March 6, 2012
LENGTH: 19 minutes (4904 words)

Kiki Kannibal: The Girl Who Played With Fire

The first thing Kiki Ostrenga saw as she ran out the front door of her family's white ranch house were the neon-green words spray-painted across the front path: "Regal Slut." She stopped short. Maybe this is just a dream, she thought. The 14-year-old took a few fearful steps forward. She gasped when she reached the driveway. Her parents' home was splattered with ketchup, chocolate syrup and eggs. And across the garage door, big as a billboard, was scrawled the word "SLUT."
PUBLISHED: April 18, 2011
LENGTH: 25 minutes (6281 words)

The Beck of Revelation

I’m coming to the conclusion that searching for the "real" Glenn Beck makes no sense. The truth is, demagogues don't have cores. They are mediums, channeling currents of public passion and opinion that they anticipate, amplify, and guide, but do not create; the less resistance they offer, the more successful they are. This nonresistance is what distinguishes Beck from his confreres in the conservative media establishment, who have created more sharply etched characters for themselves. Rush Limbaugh plays the loud, steamrolling uncle you avoid at Thanksgiving. Bill O’Reilly is the angry guy haranguing the bartender. Sean Hannity is the football captain in a letter sweater, asking you to repeat everything, slowly. But with Glenn Beck you never know what you’ll get. He is a perpetual work in progress, a billboard offering YOUR MESSAGE HERE.
AUTHOR:Mark Lilla
PUBLISHED: Dec. 9, 2010
LENGTH: 17 minutes (4397 words)

Hollywood Elementary

Adrian Nicole LeBlanc on the Oakwood Toluca Hills, a vast complex of temporary rental apartments that hundreds of aspiring Hollywood families call home:

Each year, between mid-January and May, when some 100-odd pilots are being cast, one-quarter of the Oakwood's 1,151 furnished units are filled by families of child actors. "Home to the Famous, and Almost Famous," a billboard at the front gate reads. Located near Burbank, it's conveniently close to most of the major studios. The Oakwood's orientation for "newbies," the first-timers who make up about 80 percent of the families staying there each year, is also a draw: lectures about the entertainment business; connections to people like Simmons, who give complimentary classes to enlist new students; a show-biz-kid expo that displays all the tertiary industries: diction tapes, head shot photography and packaging, marketing-strategy DVD's. On-site tutoring — unaccredited, held weekday mornings in the conference room — can be paid for weekly to allow children to come and go, given their unpredictable work schedules. Units at the Oakwood start at $2,000 a month for a studio with a Murphy bed.

PUBLISHED: June 4, 2006
LENGTH: 31 minutes (7938 words)