The news channels tonight are filled with a looped recollection of Dick Clark, which covers his rise to fame as the ever-pleasant host of American Bandstand, on through dozens of other television ventures as host or producer, and culminating in scenes from the boring-but-traditional-as-pumpkin-pie-on-Thanksgiving New Year’s Rockin’ Eve shows, which Clark launched in ’72 and continued to contribute to in this century, long after a stroke made that seemingly impossible.
Dick Clark was a steady presence on television for about five decades, most often in attachment to some kind of presentation of popular music, with unswerving popularity and professional demeanor. But did this guy move the ball forward in any way? Did he really contribute to rock and roll? Was he truly a pioneer, a broadcaster and program creator who opened up a vista? Or was Dick Clark just an opportunist, someone with the same relationship to music that car dealers have to the autos they sell – Doesn’t matter what new models they dump on us this year, just find a way to convince the next guy through the door that this ride was made just for him.
Clark was never a rock and roller by design or lifestyle, the way many noted DJs were, from Tom Donahue to Jim Ladd. Dick was never, ever hip. He looked like a suit, because he was one. But a terrifically affable suit, for sure. Bland, perhaps, but at least bland is not by definition annoying. In fact, compared to the leaping chimps we’re expected to deal with now, blandness is almost an asset. You know it’s true: Flip through three or four channels this instant, and you will find a TV host that is as desirable as refined sugar on a bleeding cavity. Clark could easily be ignored, but for someone so ubiquitous, he could not be hated – There’s a lost art for you.
And forget that “Oldest Living Teenager” nonsense. Clark was purely adult, with the cred of a suit and a wide flat tie, and unflinchingly ‘middle’. That beige personality helped him deflect practically any criticism, and made it easy for him to charm the same payola prosecutors who gave Alan Freed the final push over the edge. Rarely was Clark ever off guard or apparently uncomfortable, because he simply would not enter into public situations where he was at risk. Keep smiling, and if you can’t say something kind of nice, then say something nicer. The only time I can ever remember seeing him pissed off was when Michael Moore ambushed him in Bowling For Columbine for being the hundredth link in a chain of very unfortunate events that killed a 6-year old back in Moore’s home state of Michigan. And in that case, I don’t blame Clark for snapping, and I don’t think he knew there was a camera rolling anyway.
Clark was incredibly willing to pimp ANYBODY, which may have been deceptive. It appeared that he was excited about every act he introduced just as a matter of formula. Read the prompter, move on. But I suspect his enthusiasm was slightly more genuine, if only because he didn’t want to be left out of whatever action was next. ‘Be the guy that holds the door for everybody’ might have been his mantra. And he had a solid platform, because he just looked like a guy you could trust. Or your parents could, anyway.
DJs and TV music personalities love to break acts, and benefit immensely from being in on the ground floor. If Dick Clark broke new acts, it was only by happenstance. He couldn’t lead an act to success, really, or even persuade an audience to try something new. He introduced, not endorsed. But he could always legitimately claim to contribute to hit bands, just because he kept the volume so high – and by ‘volume’, I mean amount, not loudness. Clark continuously spewed so much pop, rock, dance, and country music at our TV screens that he couldn’t help but hit the trifecta now and then. The staggering number and variety of acts he presented over the years on American Bandstand and what seemed like a hundred other programs meant that he couldn’t help but please us eventually. And it also meant that he couldn’t help but be an asset, over and over again, to bands and singers looking for their big break. For him, it wasn’t about making choices of who to promote. It was about creating enough bandwidth to promote everybody. So, if he made a lasting contribution to rock music, it was this: Let everybody in, give anybody a chance. Act like A Taste Of Honey is the next Supremes… Just in case… you know… they actually are. Of course, they most certainly were not, but nobody blamed Dick Clark, just as certainly.
But two points of his career seem to be overlooked tonight. First is the very, very long list of television concepts with his name on top that either were quite short-lived or simply still born. The losers, not the hits. Besides the immense successes as host, from Bandstand to Pyramid to that bloopers laugh-track fest with Ed McMahon, and those as producer, like the pointless but enduring American Music Awards, Clark had a crazy string of flame-out money-losers like World of Talent (on-air for about 10 forgettable weeks) and a kind of live music-and-motorcycle-stunt show on NBC in ’78. And his production resume surely isn’t bolstered by such schlock as Shaq Vs. and that horrible movie he made in the mid-70s about the birth of The Beatles. Didn’t matter to Dick. If the thing blows up on launch, just build another one… Something is bound to stick. My guess is that he put so many concepts on the network execs’ desks, they couldn’t find pitch sheets from anybody else. Besides providing the lesson of “hang in there, kid”, it’s another example of how Clark succeeded just on the volume. Mass media means mass consumption, and Dick knew that feeding the beast was the road to riches. Along the way, as a side effect, many were given their 2 minutes of fame (15 being a standard long ago diminished), and they owe Clark something for it. Just what he wanted: A career bank account filled by millions and millions of 5 cent deposits. Like pop bottles.
Second, it’s worth remembering that Dick Clark’s closest and most successful emulator passed just two months back. Don Cornelius, creator and host of Soul Train, did not introduce black music to white people. He did something even better. He introduced black people to white people, and was far cooler than both Clark and American Bandstand, or at least he seemed that way to those of us who were not privy to black culture, except through sitcoms and Soul Train. But without the concept of a nationally-televised mostly-white dance show to contrast with, Soul Train would not have had the same value, either to my rural community or to those of the inner cities. Cornelius took a more focused approach than Clark, creating niche music programming in contrast to the ‘anything goes’ format of Bandstand and AM Top 40. He went for the pockets of his own community and jumped from the teenage crowd to young adults. And it was clear that Cornelius was truly tight with a lot of the acts that stopped by the studio. Guys like Marvin Gaye and The O’Jays wanted to hang with Don. Dick was nice…. But there’s a party at Don’s place. If the two shows were restaurants, Don was a chef, and Dick a maître d’.
The losses of Clark and Cornelius remind us that presentation of music is only as good as the presenters, whether their approach is that of a friendly doorman or as an insider.
Today, much of the music is presented anonymously. We learn of new acts and releases through Facebook and blogs and sidebar ads, not through an excited TV huckster telling us to “get ready to dance”, as if anybody ever danced in front of the TV anyway. And there’s the contribution that’s lost in the passings of Dick Clark and Don Cornelius. Somebody to stand up and sell it, in a K-Tel, Oh My God You Won’t Believe It style, that we might buy at first, scrutinize later, and forget about down the road. These guys gave us the appetizers, and a reference point to move on from.
The moiré plaid Saturday afternoon countdown aspect of music promotion is gone, and the Colgate smiles with it. People are still selling you music, but Dick and Don looked you in the eye when they did it. Sure, the kids can still find Ryan Seacrest and others, but it’s different. They’re trying to be the audience or get the audience to be them or something. They’re not adults telling you it’s alright to like this stuff.
Don and DIck, especially Dick, made it look safe, which is the first trick to fooling your parents long enough to let you jump from Abba to AC/DC. So, tip one back for the coy subversives of syndicated television, the volume dealers and cool specialists. They won’t pass this way again.
– Mister Stick
Last Album: Toure Kunda – Paris Ziguinchor