Guru of pop compares three decades of rockin' teens
A 40-year-old today is thinking much younger than a 40-year-old of the '40s and '50s,'' says Dick Clark. ``That's a function of having been loosened up in their perspective. They think younger and kids think older.'' If anyone should know, it's Mr. Clark, one of pop culture's indelible figures. Millions of middle-aged people can mark their youth with an image of him as the boyish TV host of ``American Bandstand,'' deftly presiding over a generation of high school couples as they danced their way through a social revolution.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
``In those days kids were musically not as sophisticated as they are today,'' Clark observed as we chatted here, ``so everybody could like the same thing at the same time. Now it's 17 different kinds of popular music, and classical and jazz.
What changed was that from 1955 on -- and for 30 years thereafter -- you have people who grew up with music and developed a fine taste.''
Clark has now become one of the most visible faces on today's TV -- the only personality, in fact, to be host of series on all three TV networks simultaneously. He's also a hugely successful media entrepreneur. Tonight, for instance, ABC-TV will be airing a three-hour live special -- ``American Music Awards'' -- produced by Mr. Clark's company. And he looks forward -- rather zestfully -- to further adventures in film and series TV production.
Most important, Clark is still host of ``Bandstand,'' now in its 34th consecutive year on the air -- an astonishing record in the face of shifting TV fortunes. During that time, he's watched rock take over, musical tastes become fragmented, and social attitudes reversed.
Because of these changes, he says, ``today there are no huge stars like Elvis Presley. As big as Bruce Springsteen is, not everybody is a Springsteen fan. In Presley's time you didn't dare not to be a fan of his, because you were part of a club. Now you can say I prefer Billy Joel or Tina Turner, or someone else. It's all fractionalized. Nobody will ever approximate the impact that Presley made, or Sinatra.''
Yet ``the only startling difference that you see on the show today, as opposed to 33 years ago,'' he notes, ``is that we are all now -- unfortunately -- more sophisticated, jaded. You've got to remember we were living in a world where certain words were verboten. I could never turn to a guy and a girl and ask, `Are you going steady?' That was absolutely a no-no -- it was the Eisenhower period and no parent wanted their kid going steady, so it wasn't a thing that you could endorse as proper behavior on the air. But there was a secret-service language you would use. I would say, `Are you going together?' Then everybody knew I meant `Are you going steady?' It seems so naive. It's hard to conceive.''
``Bandstand'' took what Clark calls ``an extraordinary leap forward'' in the mid-'50s: ``The first time that black and white kids got on the dance floor together on social occasions,'' he asserts, ``was on that show. It was a very segregated society that we lived in, yet this step was an inevitability. It wasn't anything terribly startling -- it had to be done. The only frightening thing to us about national TV exposure was whether it would cause any disquiet in the South. It didn't. It didn't cause one peep. I don't know what you sociologically learn about this, but if you just quietly do it and don't make a big thing about it, you don't rouse those latent angers.''
When the show gracefully navigated rock's onslaught in the '50s, ``every kid in the country was into it,'' Clark recalls. ``It was their own show and it was their own music and it was universally hated by every adult. So rock had a huge impact. Anything that the older generation hates is usually loved by kids. Nothing much changes -- that still continues today.''
Clark's original viewers -- now the older generation -- have remained fans since he took over ``Bandstand'' in 1956. What is it that gives so many Americans their deep and lasting personal link to the program? After all, it's just young people on a dance floor, with Clark presiding and introducing singers.