The Mainstreaming of the Crazy: American Bandstand

Dick Clark’s American Bandstand premiered on this day in 1957. Rock ‘n’ roll had exploded into the mainstream the year before, with the stratospheric rise of Elvis Presley, culminating in three appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show in the fall of 1956 and early winter of 1957. If Ed Sullivan allowed you on his show (even if he made the decision to have you filmed from the waist up, because God forbid your sexual wiggles came through the television screen), it meant that middle-class white-bread regular-old America was starting to come around. It was an announcement: “Here is what the youth of today is freaking out about. Let’s take a look.”

Context is important: People were terrified of Elvis, terrified of what he represented (to those who didn’t “get it”, he was a dumb lascivious grease-bomb with a hick-ish Southern accent and a Pentecostal background that made him even more “other”. The condescension from Yankee writers was breathtaking.) The outcry against him was ferocious and omnipresent. Not only was Elvis himself perceived as scary, the affect he had on girls was destabilizing to the entire world, pure and simple. If girls react like this, what’s next? Where did all these SCREAMS come from? Can we … stop it? Nobody freaked out when male G.I.s covered the walls of their barracks with Betty Grable or Rita Hayworth. But girls screaming and rioting about a singer got everyone’s attention. (The world, sadly, has not changed. Boys can do what they want, culturally, and obsess on what they want. And, except for video games and how they allegedly “cause” violence, the entire culture does not get worried and concern-trolly about the passions of boys. But whatever girls decide to be passionate about – en masse – is seen as everyone’s business. Let’s count the think-pieces about 50 Shades of Gray and what it means, shall we? Women like sex and have fantasies about it. If this is in any way NEWS to you, you have some serious issues.) There is very little insightful critical analysis written about Elvis in those first couple of years, because the journalists (“journalists”) came from the Northeast, mainly, asked rude questions about “Holy Rollers” and seemed mesmerized by the sight of girls going crazy and wanted to know if Elvis was MEANING to cause these unsightly and scary responses in girls. This is not an exaggeration. Nobody even cared to dig into WHAT Elvis was doing with his MUSIC because the “girls girls girls” issue took up all the oxygen. It’s truly bizarre and just an indication of how massive the upheaval really was.

(Kids, on the other hand, understood everything. They couldn’t have written a thesis about it, but they knew what was going on.)

Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show was a HUGE cultural deal, even more so than the Beatles’ first appearance almost a decade later. Because Elvis was the first. The doors busted down. Little Richard (and others, many others) said that Elvis going mainstream opened the doors for them. Before Elvis, they had been relegated to what were known as “race stations,” radio stations that only played black music, many of which were owned by black people, run by black people, with black DJs, and all the rest. After Elvis, the black musicians of the day moved onto mainstream radio. (This is one of the reasons why the “cultural appropriation” conversation can get annoying if it’s too prescriptive. All kinds of unofficial blending goes on in culture, a two/three/four-way current. Joyce Millman just addressed this, beautifully, in her essay about Amy Winehouse.) Besides, you cannot segregate the air waves, which is one of the most fascinating elements of black radio stations back in those days. There are many great articles about the advent of black-run radio stations, and what that meant, economically and culturally – not just to white kids, who tuned in overwhelmingly to listen to the music played – but to the black people who ran those businesses and were able to get their message out and connect their community to one another. Everything is political, even in something as seemingly benign as running a radio station. It was a platform, a place to be heard. And if white kids were tuning in to “race” radio stations, the opposite was true as well. Folks like Ray Charles grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry broadcasts, and you can hear that influence in his music for sure, and the same is true for others of his generation. There was no money, and nothing much else to DO, especially in small towns, rural areas, so people sat around and listened to radio programs. Radio connected people of like-mindedness, but also connected people from different worlds, different regions, opening up space around what was happening, culturally, socially, politically. That growth process was already in place when Elvis entered the scene.

And in 1954/55/56, the classifications and separations started to collapse. And with that collapse came an infinite amount of space. As Lester Bangs wrote in his famous obituary for Elvis:

I mean, don’t tell me about Lenny Bruce, man – Lenny Bruce said dirty words in public and obtained a kind of consensual martyrdom. Plus which Lenny Bruce was hip, too goddam hip if you ask me, which was his undoing, whereas Elvis was not hip at all, Elvis was a goddam truck driver who worshipped his mother and would never say shit or fuck around her, and Elvis alerted America to the fact that it had a groin with imperatives that had been stifled. Lenny Bruce demonstrated how far you could push a society as repressed as ours and how much you could get away with, but Elvis kicked “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window” out the window and replaced it with “Let’s fuck.” The rest of us are still reeling from the impact. Sexual chaos reigns currently, but out of chaos may flow true understanding and harmony, and either way Elvis almost singlehandedly opened the floodgates.

The artists who came before Elvis, the ones who inspired him, knew all this. Had been doing this already, thrilling their own respective groups. But it took one singular figure to bring the message (“I heard the news! There’s a good rockin’ tonight!”) to the rest of us.

In 1957, the year after the roof blew off, television was already taking over – not replacing radio, but altering the whole conversation. Dick Clark started his American Bandstand out of Philadelphia, a show about popular music, with a live audience, “dance parties,” musical guests, and a playlist of jukebox favorites. He opened the first broadcast playing Jerry Lee Lewis’ monster hit “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On.”

Personal side note: Huey Lewis came out with an album called “Four Chords and Several Years Ago,” where he covered all the r&b songs that influenced him. One day in Chicago, my friend Ann Marie was driving home from work and heard a call from a local radio station for extras in a Huey Lewis video. She called me. “WE HAVE TO DO THIS.” My response: “COME PICK ME UP IMMEDIATELY.” Once at the radio station, we joined the throngs. The video was going to be a black-and-white tribute to American Bandstand, so they wanted all of us to look period-appropriate (that had been mentioned in the original radio call). So Ann Marie and I pulled out our pedal pushers and little striped tops – and then we were dragged into hair and makeup and given semi-beehives, etc. There were scaffolds set up around the stage, a la American Bandstand, and Huey played live. It was like an actual concert. We danced ALL DAY up on those scaffolds. It took some doing to not get exhausted, and Huey kept us all invigorated by playing many of his beloved hits. It was a great experience. Here’s the clip of the video. I have looked for us, but I can’t really see us. We were on the first level of the scaffold, directly to Huey’s left.

Dick Clark was no dummy: he made sure the show was aired in the afternoon, right when kids got home from school. It became Appointment Television for American teenagers. You could watch new music, hear new artists, see your favorites perform, and participate in the frenzy of rock ‘n’ roll, which was still exploding, outward and outward and outward, a Big Bang Theory of culture. Elvis had already moved on, his explosion was so powerful (Martin Sheen made the comment that Elvis reached the sun – what was it like up there? Who else knew but Elvis?), but many many more followed in his wake.

Here is Jerry Lee Lewis on American Bandstand in 1957, performing “Great Balls of Fire.”

The crazy had gone mainstream.

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13 Responses to The Mainstreaming of the Crazy: American Bandstand

  1. carolyn clarke says:

    It must have been an absolute blast to be in the Huey Lewis video. You must have some pictures of that. Please share.

    Do you remember watching American Bandstand? To be honest, I didn’t think you were old enough. I used to watch it every afternoon after school. I particularly remember the segment of the show where they would ask the audience to rate a new record. Dick would play and they would give a rating for it. I seem to remember that the rating was always between 4 and 6 and the comment was “That it had a good beat to dance to”.

    Your comment about “girls screaming and rioting about a singer got everyone’s attention” made me laugh out loud. Although I was never a screamer, I remember seeing every one of his movies at our local movie theater, until my mother forbade it(!!) which of course made me want to see him even more. I was really too young I think to get the sexual connotation of Elvis. I didn’t even think about it then but I think the near hysteria that adults, particularly men, felt about Elvis was their projection of what all those gyrations meant. I mean most of the screaming girls didn’t really know that a hip thrust was let alone what it meant, but I’m sure the adults did. I also think it was clearly an effort to control girls stemming from fear.

    I am absolutely convinced (I know I’m going to get into trouble for this) that women have been and continue to be the superior species. The guys have known this for centuries and the unenlightened ones have tried to do everything in their power to ensure that we never really gain full equality, sexual, financial or otherwise. But like my favorite poet says:

    You may shoot me with your words,
    You may cut me with your eyes,
    You may kill me with your hatefulness,
    But still, like air, I’ll rise.

    • sheila says:

      Carolyn – I do have a picture somewhere of Ann Marie and I post-video-shoot, I’ll see if I can find it.

      And actually, no, American Bandstand’s heyday predated me – even though it appears to have still been on while I was a teenager! By that time, though, with MTV and stuff, I don’t think it had the same impact – I honestly don’t remember!

      I love to hear your memories of it. That’s right, there was a whole voting section!! Good way to keep everyone tuned in, right?

      // but I think the near hysteria that adults, particularly men, felt about Elvis was their projection of what all those gyrations meant. //

      Yes. And jealousy too. Certain kinds of men get envious when women express a specific preference. I don’t know why that is. I’ve experienced it on my own site – early on when I wrote more personally. I’d write about the kind of body-type in a man that I like, and my mostly male audience (which it was back then) would say, “So a guy who looks like such-and-such wouldn’t have a shot with you?” It was so weird. I’m just one random woman saying I like big beefy guys. Why is that threatening? Men aren’t required to find ALL women attractive/viable mates – and so why should women be expected to be open to ALL men? I would be like, “I don’t know, I don’t like thin guys. Don’t take it personally. I’m sure you’re a lovely person.” Besides that: I didn’t KNOW these men. They were strangers on the Internet. Why would these men assume I’d be open to them? I commented on lots of sites run by men – and I still do – but I don’t assume that they’d want to mate up with me, and I am not taken aback or threatened when they rave about how hot Raquel Welch was.

      Because that would be insanely self-involved.

      So maybe men getting threatened by women loving Elvis (or Bieber, or whoever) is similar to women getting insecure when men do a double-take at a hot babe walking by – but men take it a whole other level, because of issues of power, privilege, blah blah blah catch-phrases, but true. Women deciding they like something – on their own – rocks the boat. I mean, how many worried think-pieces do we need about 50 Shades of Gray and Sex and the City and Taylor Swift (or whatever)? Guys, you’re not the center of the universe. Women have preferences. Get over it.

      My aunts told me that they all watched Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show – they were kids – and they all thought he was funny and cute – but my grandparents were openly disapproving and didn’t think it was funny at all. So yeah, I’m sure they could tell what he was really expressing and didn’t want their kids to get all caught up in it.

      // The guys have known this for centuries and the unenlightened ones have tried to do everything in their power to ensure that we never really gain full equality, sexual, financial or otherwise. //

      I think it all boils down to the undeniable fact of the life-giving small-human-emerging-from-womens-bodies capability of women. It freaked cavemen out. “How do they DO that? They’re like GODS, creating life! Glad the species will continue because she can do that, but why can’t I do that? We can’t let her get too big for her britches just because she can do THAT.”

      And here we are, 15,000 years later.

      and Maya Angelou!! That is so beautiful and powerful.

  2. sheila says:

    Found a picture of me and Ann Marie, post-Huey-Lewis video-shoot! Taken by her mother. (Scroll down.)

    • Carolyn clarke says:

      Thank you for the picture. You look so cool!

      You’re so right about the miracle of birth, etc. Totally freaks them out. Still remember my first husband being totally astounded by “female plumbing”.

      • sheila says:

        I honestly, yeah, think it’s as primal and weird as that. We have this capability “over” them and they have created an entire culture and philosophy/religious systems to make us feel that that biological capability is “lesser” – because they’re jealous/threatened.

  3. Larry Aydlette says:

    I remember Saturday afternoons where Bandstand was the only interesting thing on TV to watch and helped fill the day until the evening, when the parents would force-feed me a regimen of Lawrence Welk, Hee-Haw and Emergency. (Frank was right: Saturday night is the loneliest night of the week.) My memories of Bandstand are all a disco-era blur of Top Ten strips, rate-a-record, the spotlight dance and commercials for Clearasil. And the paisley horror of ’70s fashions.

    • sheila says:

      // Lawrence Welk, Hee-Haw and Emergency //

      Wow. Larry.

      I love your memories. I actually remember Clearasil commercials too.

      By the 80s I was into theB-52s, Blondie, shit like that – which I don’t know were featured on American Bandstand. Maybe they were!

      • Dan says:

        I think Bandstand did try to book current acts and stay relevant – Johnny Rotten refusing to lip sync comes to mind- but as you said, the show couldn’t really compete with MTV. I mean what’s a kid going to choose to watch on TV – a bunch of other kids dancing, or a million dollar extravaganza like the Wild Boys video?

  4. CGHill says:

    “Guys, you’re not the center of the universe. Women have preferences. Get over it.”

    Pretty much my entire ascent from douchery to quasi-acceptability has been based on learning exactly that.

    • sheila says:

      Women don’t have that at all. We know we are dispensable to men. It must be hard-wired. It’s a very strange thing to be confronted with it. Men reading my site openly offended that my stated preference seemed to exclude them (even though we had never met, and this blog is not a dating site, and I wasn’t considering any of them anyway.)

      Very weird. Anyway, glad you moved through it! Quasi-acceptability is all that any of us can hope for! :)

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