Some people wake up on New Year's Day morning with a hangover. I woke up with a idea for my blog. That's what happens when you watch Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve with Ryan Seacrest cold sober. Next year, I'll have a screwdriver or two before watching.
As I recall, clean-cut, telegenic Ryan Seaquest opened the show somewhere in crowded Times Square in New York City. He described the East Coast guests for the evening, and paid tribute to Dick Clark. Next up was co-host Fergie in Burbank, California. She described the West Coast guests for the evening, and paid tribute to Dick Clark. After that back to Times Square with yet another co-host, Jenny McCarthy. She flirted with all 1000 guys on the Square, and paid tribute to Dick Clark. All these tributes to Dick Clark might have you thinking he was dead. But no, he was alive but not necessarily well in a studio not far from Times Square. For so long seemingly immune to the aging process, the 81-year old Clark had a stroke in 2004, and his slurred sentences are sometimes hard to understand. He said something to the effect that he was excited to be there, and the camera was back on the telegenic Seacrest introducing the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync, who performed a combined medley of their hits. All this took nearly a half an hour, ending in time for Dick Clark to say the countdown as the ball fell down on Times Square. Clark was much easier to understand counting backwards, though the speech impediment, along with a kind of frozen smile on his face, was hard to ignore. When Clark got to "one" followed by "Happy New Year!" the TV screen cut to crowd on the square hugging and cheering and throwing confetti around. Briefly, back in the studio with Clark, no longer smiling and staring at something beyond the camera's range. Suddenly, the crown again, still hugging and cheering and throwing confetti. No less suddenly, back to the studio and Clark and his wife kissing, something I don't recall him ever doing on camera before his stroke. Back outside with clean-cut Ryan Seacrest, who was actually complaining about being hot. A commercial break, I believe, and back in the studio with Clark, again saying something to the effect that he was excited to be there. Ryan Seacrest walks into the picture, and Clark comically chews him out for his "hot" comments. The camera then closed in on a grim-faced Seacrest, who paid Clark yet another tribute.
Seeing Dick Clark in that state made me a bit uneasy, a bit uncomfortable. Yet it was compelling TV. It wasn't until the focus was off of Clark entirely that I could finally go in the kitchen and make myself a cheeseburger (exciting way to ring in the new year, huh?)
Later on in the show, and in contrast to clean-cut, telegenic Ryan Seacrest and the more calculatedly gritty though still telegenic Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync, the Lady Gagaesque Ke$ha made a major bid for controversy, riding in on Santa's back wearing torn fishnet stockings, urging the crowd to make "2011 our bitch", and making a New Year's Resolution not to be a "douche bag." Yet, when I read online reviews of the night a couple days later, the debate wasn't over Ke$ha's antics, but, as has been the case the last few years, the appropriateness of allowing Dick Clark on the air in such an impaired condition. Some argued it was in bad taste, while others found it inspiring (one of those who found it inspiring threw a few brickbats at clean-cut, telegenic Ryan Seacrest for largely usurping Clark's role.) As for myself, I find it interesting that Clark should be the subject of even a mild controversy. After all, Dick Clark has been sidestepping controversy since he first came on the scene in the 1950s.
It's interesting to compare Dick Clark to another figure who came on the scene in the 1950s: Alan Freed. Eight years older than Clark, Freed began playing records by black musicians on a Cleveland radio station in 1951. Contrary to popular belief, he didn't invent the phrase 'rock and roll'--it was already an old black slang euphemism for sex--but was the first to apply it to music. The records took off with white teenagers in the area, and Freed soon moved to New York, where the music proved even more popular. Freed became a national figure when he appeared in five low-budget but high-grossing movies. He also hosted a popular but short-lived TV show called The Big Beat . Why should a popular show be short-lived? Black musician Frankie Lymon was shown dancing with a white girl, not considered proper decorum in the mid-50s. Alan Freed was a true broadcast rebel who was once accused of inciting a riot when he told a teenage crowd at a Boston stage show that "the police don't want you to have fun."
A short time after Freed's The Big Beat went off the air, Dick Clark went on the air with American Bandstand . He wasn't the first host. Bob Horn, a Philadelphia disc jockey had created the show, first on radio, then television. Horn was fired after a DUI (the station he worked for was doing an expose on the subject), and Dick Clark took over hosting duties. The fledgling ABC network, looking for something, anything, to compete with CBS and NBC, picked up the then-local show. Clark had some advantages over Alan Freed when it came to television. Famously, he always looked about 10 years younger than his actual age, whereas Freed in his mid-thirties looked to be in his mid-forties. Clark, then, seemed to have more in common with his show's teenage dancers and audience. In fact, by most accounts, Freed genuinely loved rock and roll, whereas Clark, whenever asked about his feelings toward the music that eventually made him wealthy, was usually noncommittal. What Clark understood that Freed didn't, was that the controversy surrounding rock and roll was only good for business in the short run. So like a vet who wants to keep a dog from roaming too far, he cut off the hound's testicles. Anything challenging or threatening about the music was downplayed. Rock's rough edges were buffed and rebuffed. The closest Clark came to race mixing on his show was Pat Boone lip syncing a deloused cover of Little Richard's "Tutti-Frutti." Well, I'm being a little unfair. If a black artist made the charts, Clark was obliged to play him. Same thing goes for more raucous white acts like Jerry Lee Lewis. But he didn't encourage it. Clean-cut and telegenic himself (you knew I was going somewhere with that, didn't you?), Clark promoted similarly clean-cut and telegenic artists as Frankie Avalon and Fabian. As Clark himself put it: "The thinking behind it was that if we looked presentable, 'normal,' the way 'they think we ought to look, 'they'll' leave us alone." Problem was that songs such as Avalon's "Venus" tended to sound the way "they" thought it ought to sound. Really, if you went into a coma in 1954, when Eddie Fisher and Patti Page ruled the charts, and woke up in 1959, and the first thing you saw was Bandstand, you would have thought the more things change, the more they stay the same.
The end of the '50s saw the payola scandal. Payola in its' rawest form meant that a record company payed a disc jockey to play certain artists. A more refined version had the disc jockey owning an interest in the record, record company or even the performing artist themselves. True to form, Alan Freed seemed to be guilty of the former, and Dick Clark the latter. Actually, both men were guilty of nothing. Payola was perfectly legal at the time. But all the publicity surrounding a congressional investigation into the matter certainly made it seem like it was against the law. Freed complained about the hypocrisy of it all. Payola had been around as long as records had been played on the radio, about a quarter of a century at that point. Why, suddenly, was it a problem? Because some people just didn't like the music being played? Freed refused to cooperate with the investigation. Payola was soon outlawed. Freed was found guilty, fined, and kicked off the radio. He died a broken man in 1965. Meanwhile, when it came Dick Clark's turn to appear before Congress, he nodded politely, and agreed to divest himself of his considerable holdings in the music industry. There were other places to put his money, such as TV.
Starting with American Bandstand, which he now owned. Bandstand would stay on the air until 1989 with the same basic formula, clean-cut young men and women dancing to the most innocuous music. Again, I'm being a bit unfair. If an edgy act like The Doors, hard rock act like Arrowsmith, psychedelic act like Jefferson Airplane, new wave act like Devo, hip hop act like Run-DMC, outré act like David Bowie, or cerebral act like REM cracked the Top-40, or, preferably, the Top 10, Clark would have them perform on the show and play their records. In fact, he would have them perform AS he played their records. But like a Willie Wonka of the airwaves (only more conservatively dressed) ear candy was really Clark's specialty. The Bay City Rollers (Clark: "More has been written about you four individuals than anybody since the Beatles".) The DeFranco Family (appeared on Bandstand 9 times.) Barry Manilow (his song "Bandstand Boogie" opened and closed the show for 10 years.) I myself have a vivid memory from about 1975 of young, bell-bottomed men and women, the Bandstand dancers, getting down to the Captain and Tenille's "Love Will Keep Us Together." By this time the show was relegated to Saturdays at 1:pm. Cartoons had just ended.
In 1973, Dick Clark created the American Music Awards , who winners were determined by a poll of music buyers. As if record sales didn't tell you who was popular already. Despite this lack of suspense, the show was a hit, and airs annually to this day. As with anything based on mass popularity, the moderate common denominator prevails.
Though his company produces the American Music Awards , Dick Clark doesn't appear on the show himself. American Bandstand went off the air twenty some years ago. Other TV ventures that kept him in the public eye, such as $25,000 Pyramid and Bloopers and Practical Jokes, are also long gone. So Dick Clark is probably best known these days for Rockin' New Year's Eve, which premiered in 1972. At the time, bandleader Guy Lombardo was the man whose name was synonymous with December 31st. At least if you were watching TV that night. His highly rated New Year's Eve special televised from some fancy-smancy New York hotel was an annual tradition for 30 years. You have to remember that in 1972, nobody over 40 had grown up with rock and roll. They were just fine ringing in the New Year, and perhaps getting bombed, to Lombardo's renditions of Tin Pan Alley favorites. So Dick Clark's show was really niche programming, targeting teens and twenty somethings who couldn't really get that excited about watching ballroom dancing at the Waldorf-Astoria (even other big band leaders found Lombardo corny.) I've tried to make the point throughout this essay that Dick Clark didn't have all that an adventurous attitude toward pop music or even entertainment in general. But he didn't need one on that first night in 1972. When the hippest competition on TV is Lombardo's Royal Canadians performing "The Band Played On", by contrast, Helen Reddy belting out "I Am Woman" was edgy, even revolutionary. Guy Lombardo died in 1977, and Dick Clark soon became synonymous with December 31st.
By December 31st 2010, everybody under the age of 70 had grown up with some variation of rock and roll. The culture these past 50 years has let its' hair down, somewhat. Dick Clark, or whoever now calls the shots in his name, has adjusted to that cultural change, somewhat. Boy bands perform with five o'clock shadows and make like they're from the 'hood. The trashy, bawdy Ke$ha probably engenders more giggles than gasps as she might have in decades past. Audiences are now willing to live vicariously through their entertainers walks on the wild side, while reserving the right to cluck in disapproval if such off-stage and off-camera walks lands the same entertainers on the cover of The National Enquirer. Sing, you sinners, as long as nobody gets hurt, or challenged. Dick Clark would approve.
But would the old pre-stroke Dick Clark approve of putting the new post-stroke Dick Clark on the air? For amidst all the fun, fantasy, and frivolity, Clark is now the show's unlikely reality check. He now makes us uneasy, uncomfortable. Yet, as occasionally happens with unease and discomfort, we can't turn away. We're compelled to watch.
Whether he realizes it or not, Dick Clark is finally edgy.