The idea that entertainment - or any form of communication for that matter - would seek to reach not a niche or a narrow slice of the public but everybody today seems more than just antiquated, it is downright madness. But Dick Clark, who passed away today at age 82, carved out one of the longest careers in entertainment history doing just that.
Clark’s list of projects reads like a roll call of American culture at its widest point. Among the mountains he conquered: the dance party, the quiz show, the awards show and New Year’s Eve. No one would mistake a Dick Clark opus for Shostakovich, and indeed for his part in creating television’s never-ending story of red carpets and gala awards nights, Clark has much to answer for. His shows were often gaudy, creaky and coated with 17 layers of schmaltz, but compared to the toxic sludge which shows up every night across the dial and in the multiplex, it was benign schmaltz. Clark’s work sought to capture America not perhaps at its brightest, but at its most big-hearted, and appeals to the kind of hateful lewdness we hardly even notice anymore would have been as foreign to the Clark oeuvre as atonal chamber pieces.
In Clark’s line-up one can see an entertainer stretching his arms as wide as possible to take in the entire nation and bring every last person into his audience. It is not a happy moment to realize that in this era of niche channels and micro-targeted messaging, after Dick Clark no one is left in the field who even tries to reach the whole nation anymore. His successor Ryan Seacrest, producer of The Kardashians and Shahs of Sunset, radio buddy to Paris Hilton and her set, certainly plays very comfortably speaking to a certain youngish, jaded demographic to the exclusion of many who do not share his fascination of lifestyles of the dead-inside and famous.
Dick Clark was called America’s Oldest Teenager, but he leaves behind about two-hundred million runners-up to that title. Clark won the elderly teenage crown at a time when the concept of teenagedom was just being invented, signifying that even though he was old and wore a suit, he wasn’t afraid to have a little fun and cut loose with the kids once they finished their chores and homework. A few decades later, the teen phenomenon has become just about the most successful notion ever marketed and there are few celebrities who don’t fashion themselves as geriatric teenagers. So successful has the march of Teenagedom been that now its only cultural opposition comes from the other side. America’s next Oldest Teenager is likely to be put in his place not by the grown-ups in the room, but by America’s Oldest Tweenager, whose day surely can not be far off.