Prof. Alan Williams
Special to Campus News
The passing of musician David Cassidy on Nov. 21 appears to have resonated for a far larger number of people than one might have expected, given that his last Top 40 chart appearance in the U.S. was more than 25 years ago. But for folks coming of age in the early 1970s, David Cassidy, and his alter-ego Keith Partridge on “The Partridge Family” – a sitcom about a fictitious family rock band, the Partridges – was the very model of a modern, major rock star. He looked good, he sounded good and he good naturedly suffered scripted jokes at his expense every week on national television.
Television, with its proven power to market pop music, was the raison d’être of “The Partridge Family,” and by extension Cassidy’s career. With the massive success of The Monkees – the pre-fab four whose records outsold The Beatles during their commercial peak years in the mid-1960s while starring in a TV show of the same name – the entertainment industry had found a way to reclaim their dominance over the popular music realm that had been completely upended by upstarts like The Beatles, Bob Dylan and the finely honed outlier machine that was Motown Records. Television made money from its sponsors. Musical acts on TV sold records to the millions of viewers who tuned in to variety shows like “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Songwriters earned decent money from record sales, but earned far more income from the negotiated royalties that came from network broadcasts. Record companies maximized their return on investment by hiring highly skilled professional musicians who could deliver gold-record performances at the rate of one hit single per hour (compare the time taken to record the entire Monkees catalog to that of the Beatles who spent more than 100 hours just crafting the album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”). The Monkees pulled together all of these strands in a coordinated effort to keep middle-aged industry pros employed by tapping the piggy banks of young listeners not yet turned on and tuned out.
As a TV show, “The Partridge Family” was conceived to work in exactly the same manner as “The Monkees” – to sell records by these artists. Sometimes, both shows used the same songwriters and publishers and hired the famed L.A. session musicians referred to as “The Wrecking Crew” to record the pop hits featured on these broadcasts. It was crass commercialism without apology. But a funny thing happened on the way to the bank – David Cassidy, who sang lead on Partridge Family songs. The miracle of Cassidy was that for all of his good looks and comedic talent as an actor, he somehow managed to convey a sense of authenticity in his vocal performance, under the most contrived circumstances imaginable. And his ability to do so meant that millions of listeners not only tuned in weekly and bought the records according to plan, but developed a true bond with the performer.
I was one of those fans, and while the deaths of John Lennon, Marvin Gaye, David Bowie, Prince, and Tom Petty all impacted me predictably, I was somewhat taken aback at the sadness that overcame me with the news of Cassidy’s passing. Over the week since his death, in conversation with people in my age group, eventually the subject of Cassidy and the Partridge Family would come up, and in hushed tones, folks would reluctantly reveal that they had been big fans, and truly mourned the loss of someone they had not listened to in decades.
The guilty pleasure. The cognitive dissonance one feels when trying to reconcile an attraction to things that should not be attractive. Things one didn’t admit in public, but might secretly harbor an abiding love for. As an 8-year-old, I loved the Partridge Family without hesitation, without shame. But as my far older (three years) cousin mocked me mercilessly for my lowbrow tastes, I began to understand that there was good music and bad music, hip and unhip, cool and uncool. And David Cassidy was decidedly uncool. All of my cousin’s friends knew it. And all the critics that wrote for the magazines he and his friends read knew it. And sadly, it turns out, David Cassidy knew it too. That’s why he agreed to an interview with the then ultra-hip magazine Rolling Stone, and posed nude for the accompanying article – to prove that he knew his records were garbage, that his career was the result of big money pulling big strings. And gradually, his audience accepted this as truth and stopped listening.
But while the costumes and arrangements now look and sound as dated as one might expect, re-watching a “Partridge Family” episode demonstrates the near-magical power of Cassidy to transcend the prefabricated TV sets and scenarios. The records themselves make that even easier to experience – and why not? The same musicians played on the now revered Beach Boys album “Pet Sounds” and a host of classic pop Phil Spector productions. And acts like Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears, and Justin Timberlake, all children of the same type of TV-based “package” as Cassidy, are considered serious, worthwhile pop acts.
In the 1970s, having hits on the radio was a scarlet letter, proof of an inauthentic collaboration with the evil pop music industry. But in our current era, pop hits are legit. Taylor Swift, Adele, Beyoncé – pleasures without guilt. And had David Cassidy come on the scene as part of the Disney Channel empire of the 1990s, he might have actually become the serious artist he knew he could never pretend to be. And his fans would champion his music – their music – with the pride and joy of an innocent 8-year-old. Come on, get happy!
Alan Williams is the chairman of the Department of Music at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and records and performs with his band, Birdsong At Morning. He traded in his Partridge Family LPs back in middle school, but now owns the complete series on DVD.