Dick Clark was a pioneer who created a television-based empire targeted at teenagers. Stephen Holden looks back at his role in the rock’n’roll culture
Before Ryan Seacrest became the inescapable prince of all media, there was Dick Clark. More soft-spoken and suave than Seacrest, Clark was in the right place at the right time at the right age. When he acquired his moniker, “America’s oldest teenager”, the concept of a teenager was still a little exotic and even slightly racy; he helped make it a bit less intimidating.
As an early promoter of rock ’n’ roll he was the opposite of Alan Freed, the passionate radio man who could get so excited he would shout and sometimes ring a cowbell. Clark remained cool and detached and at times could seem almost robotic.
From the beginning Clark, who died on Wednesday at 82, embodied the stereotype of a certain kind of neutral broadcasting personality skilled at occupying the foreground while remaining in the background. A low-key ringmaster in the rock ’n’ roll circus, he kept his opinions to himself and made sure to offend no one. If he had a public personality, it was the genial but sexually nonthreatening affability of an efficient executive determined to get the job done and to get rich doing it.
Before the invention of teenagers there had been bobbysoxers in the 1940s but no generational tag for adolescence. The cultural deluge of all things “teenage” as the first wave of the baby boom reached puberty made products created for teenagers, from pimple creams to soda pop, big business. Clark was one of the first show business entrepreneurs to leap onto the bandwagon and ride it for all it was worth.
He instinctively understood that the best way to capitalise on the emerging market was to pose as a kind of older brother, who kept the peace between worried parents and their restless children.
As the host of the television after-school dance programme American Bandstand he made an ideal surrogate chaperone: a wholesome, polite, honorary adolescent. Although he was 27 when the programme was first broadcast nationally on August 5, 1957, he could have passed for 17. At the time he seemed the sort of mild-mannered superannuated boy who might once have served on the school safety patrol and been elected class treasurer.
Below his unfailingly polite exterior was a canny businessman who played his cards close to the vest. His underlying wariness was palpable in a 1959 segment of This Is Your Life, when he was toasted by the host Ralph Edwards and fawned over by grateful stars he had helped create like Connie Francis, the Chipmunks’ creator David Seville and Frankie Avalon.
Clark’s well-scrubbed appearance and air of modesty undoubtedly helped him escape being seriously tainted during the Congressional payola investigations when he voluntarily divested himself of his profitable pop music enterprises and signed an affidavit denying his involvement in payola. Freed, not so comely, was also not so lucky.
Clark has had his detractors. Shawn Swords, an independent filmmaker whose 2008 documentary The Wages of Spin examined the Philadelphia music scene in the late 1950s and early ’60s, in a 2009 interview with Reuters called Clark “an alpha villain” whose kingdom was “built on ill-gotten gains”. In exchange for exposure on air singers were expected to sign away their copyrights and all future royalties.
“I’m not saying this man was consummately malevolent, just his business practices and the depth of his avarice and self-enrichment,” he’d said. “I really think the man’s place in pop music history needs to be re-evaluated.”
Content to monitor the tastes of a mass audience and sell to it as an agreeable, mild-mannered pitch man, America’s oldest teenager played the role impeccably.
“My business is teenagers,” Clark once said. “I don’t set trends. I just find out what they are and exploit them.”
©2012 The New York Times