“I don’t make culture,” he reportedly once claimed, “I sell it.”
Dick Clark wasn’t wrong often, but he was mistaken there. His American Bandstand holds a spectacular place in pop-culture history, its legacy continuing even if the show and the world’s oldest teenager are no longer around.
Clark, who died of a heart attack Wednesday at age 82, was a Philadelphia disc jockey turned television icon. He hosted and produced the pop-music institution from 1956 until its final season in 1989. Sonny and Cher, the Jackson 5 and Aerosmith all made their first television appearance on American Bandstand. The show inspired Soul Train and Top of the Pops. It instigated a national dance craze by booking Chubby Checker in 1960 to gyrate to The Twist, a social swivel without parallel. Culture? Clark sold it, yes, but like Simon Cowell, he absolutely made it as well.
American Bandstand legitimized rock ’n’ roll. Fakery was okay – lip-synching was a godsend to tone-deaf singers, until blatant fakery began being seen by “purists” as wrong.
The telegenic Clark kept Main Street USA safe from the malt-shop millions – the teeny-boppers who raced home after school each day to take in the sounds. And let’s not underestimate Clark’s eternal youth. The sock-hoppers of the Eisenhower era could for years look upon the suspiciously ageless boy-wonder and know that they were younger than he was, thus extending their own youth.
With his relaxed demeanour, the television personality was a soothing presence, important in an era when some homeowners were building bomb shelters.
He would talk to his guest musicians, yes, but Clark was no journalist. (At a press conference he once asked Elvis Presley if he kept any pets, to which the King replied, “I’ve just added a couple of mules.”) Vapid questioning of celebrities by pretty hosts? Still in vogue.
Clark’s greatest legacy, however, would lie in Bandstand’s interactive character: The dance-happy audience members would “rate” each new record. The show was a precursor to the current phenomenon of televised talent contests, where empowered viewers vote on singers, thus becoming taste-makers themselves.
Clark, who would go on to host a hugely popular game show ( Pyramid) and an annual special ( Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve), operated in a mono-culture that no longer exists. No longer exists, that is, except in small pockets, including the well-watched Idol franchise.
His catch phrase on Bandstand was his signoff: “For now, Dick Clark ... so long.” In many ways, he never left.