What Dick Clark means to you

American Bandstand was not what you would call a “great” show. More accurately, it was a functional one. You couldn’t concoct a more basic premise: show kids dancing to rock ‘n’ roll and bring in artists to lip-sync their latest hits. American Bandstand was more a social motivator than a show. The kids would display the latest dance crazes – at one point dance crazes were as important to the proliferation of music as social networking is now – and see presentations of which artists were peaking out the radar. The edgiest portion of the show was when kids offered critical analysis on breaking records, edgy only because some kids might have risked an actual middling or negative opinion (or worse) in the midst of a celebratory event.

But American Bandstand was important to popular music. By most accounts it was the first TV show devoted to rock and roll, having taken a risk in giving full credibility to a still-emerging, very controversial music genre at the precise time it was making its most crucial impact on pop culture. (See also: Yo! MTV Raps.) By some accounts, it was the first dance show to insist upon full racial integration, though that attribution is hotly disputed in some corners.

For me, the importance of American Bandstand’s importance is twofold. One: It presented an environment where all types of music were fair game – it did not just (allegedly) break down the color barrier, but it also broke the style barrier, which is just as vital a practice in the name of promoting music.

Two: It gave the younger demographic a committed elder ally who, instead of judging new music he didn’t initially understand, tried his damnedest to find out what connection it forged with music history, and how it could cement its place in that saga.

Dick Clark wasn’t The Oldest Living Teenager, as his unofficial nickname suggests. Rather, he sought the empathy of the infinite teenager across as many generations as he could muster. He didn’t want eternal youth. He just embraced the natural progression of music’s role in everyone’s lives. And that meant keeping up, asking questions, not judging the sounds of generations later than himself, something all of us do at one time or another.

Clark refused to make a credo out of any misunderstandings he might have had about contemporary music. He saw them as opportunities to learn. He offered himself up as a quick learner.

We could argue that Clark’s motives for doing so were purely ambitious or self-serving – he was a showman in other areas as well, including a rockin’ game show called The $100,000 Pyramid. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that Clark pushed for mainstream acceptance of the new, whether artistically or commercially.

He didn’t see new music as a reproving or “fuck-you” to past traditions, he saw it all as part of a continuum that would outlive all of us. The great John Peel harbored that exact same philosophy: Nostalgia has its place and its sentimental import, but knowing what’s happening now and in the future constitutes where our collective head is at. Clark and Peel presented the evidence with full agnosticism, but also with full respect. Music in total was their identity.

Clark’s death comes a little more than two months since the passing of Don Cornelius of Soul Train fame. That show and American Bandstand were the most emblematic music shows of the 1970’s. Clark and Cornelius presented music as something that was happening and evolving in real time. Neither of them saw the need to editorialize about what was happening, or impose their wills or tastes upon it. (Anybody know what Dick Clark’s favorite kind of music was?) They presented new music as news, as immediately as was possible in their time.

It’s beneficial to acknowledge “youthful” music as eternally potent, that it has the potential for real substance. That’s the message behind the great, deeply troubled song “We Are Young” by the group fun. (And “Pumped Up Kicks,” though much more darkly so.) Clark legitimized that kind of idea on a constant basis. While rock and roll probably would have proliferated without him, it’s possible that our attitudes about it would have soured if he hadn't afforded it respect.

Dick Clark wasn’t a musician, but he tried like hell to understand what a musician thought about the art, the business, the lifestyle. He knew each band, each era, was going to have different answers, and that all those answers would come away from his presence. But he gave it all a shot – anybody was capable of having a hit. Few mastered such varied approaches with Clark’s complete authority and great communication skills.

Whatever you think, whatever you do, you’re not going to stop the kids from dancing. For his entire adult life, Clark had total right to tell those kids to get off his lawn. But he didn’t. He let them dance from 1957 until 1989. And everyone who ever danced in front of him had much more in common with their antecedents than they realized.

Dick Clark knew that. So he not only let ‘em keep dancing, he showed the rest of the world how beautiful that dance was. He wasn’t the first, but he may have been the most devoted. Hopefully you good people will make sure he isn’t the last.
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