When Dick Clark died earlier this week, he was best known as a “New Year’s Eve Icon” from his hosting the annual televising of the Times Square celebration, but he came to prominence earlier as the host of two ground-breaking TV shows, American Bandstand, which aired weekday afternoons and introduced baby boomer teenagers to new records by showing Philadelphia teenagers dancing to the latest releases, and the New York-based Dick Clark Show, which put rock ‘n’ roll performers in front of screaming teenagers for half an hour every Saturday night.
The popularity of American Bandstand reflected the attraction of the reproducible music experience. Kids could watch the show and then go out and buy the same record and try out the same dance steps. Programming the show and the radio top 40 programs that also proliferated at this time was cheap because the record companies wanted their music played — in fact there were scandals over payola — bribes to disk jockeys to favor songs in order to increase sales. The focus on the repeatable, recorded song rather than the original, variable performance made lip-syncing a big draw as well. The advent of disk jockey radio led to a standardization of the length of recorded songs at 3 minutes.
The televised dance show was a standard genre for awhile – a kind of early reality TV – and that allowed it to focus public attention and to serve as a reference point for disruptive social changes. When teenagers started doing the Twist instead of the Lindy on American Bandstand it was a startling and exciting sign of a new sexual openness. When Alan Freed included Negro couples on his local New York dance show in the late 1950s, it represented a different vision of American social life than the images of all-white Philadelphia teenagers on Bandstand. And when Bandstand itself began including black teenagers it was a part of the nation’s collective witness to the change in cultural values brought about by the civil rights movement of the 1960s.