Camille Paglia critiques rock music and tragedies

In an inaptly titled column in the UK Independent, the fiercely original and iconoclastic mind of Camille Paglia is on display:

Earlier this year, there was a spate of media stories about Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 “greatest rock & roll songs of all time” . Number one position in the poll of musicians, songwriters, producers, and critics was won by Bob Dylan’s 1965 hit, “Like a Rolling Stone”.

Dylan is a genius who had a profound influence on my 1960s generation in the US, but his current stratospheric elevation smacks of the faddish. ” Like a Rolling Stone” is an exhilaratingly propulsive song with a wicked rap of bratty put-downs. I have found it personally inspiring in my war on political correctness in academe. But artistically, the song suffers from its compulsive sneering – an adolescent tic.

A truly great song has expansiveness, vision, and emotional range. On those grounds, the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” or ” Gimme Shelter” would rank far beyond “Like a Rolling Stone”. In my course, “Art of Song Lyrics”, which I am teaching this semester at the University of the Arts, we will be studying a much greater song by Dylan, “Desolation Row”, so long and complex that it always takes several class days to do justice to.

We agree, as we do with so much of her thinking. Paglia’s rare descent into defeatism is already yesterday’s news, in our view:

American history is crammed with tales of fortitude in the face of hostile geography and punishing weather, from the struggle of the Mayflower Puritans to survive their first New England winter to the desperate march of pioneers in the 1849 California gold rush through the baking desert of Death Valley. Books and TV features regularly document our list of worst disasters – such as the great blizzard of 1888 that sank 200 boats under five feet of snow or the hurricane-caused 1900 flood in Galveston, Texas that killed 6,000 people.

There is a can-do spirit here that believes it can overcome all odds. It can be detected, for example, in the fixed optimism of the Bush administration that Western-style constitutional democracy can be planted virtually overnight in the Mideast. What is highly surprising now is the disintegration of the administration’s mask of competence and confidence, as New Orleans sinks day by day into squalor and savagery…..

Ah, but America does not dwell on the low points, at least not yet, at least not the majority: the winter of 1775 at Valley Forge, the first two years of the Civil War, 25% unemployment in the Depression, Pearl Harbor, the Carter administration, etc. The Death Wish — so embodied by the navel-gazing media — is not yet at the heart of the culture of America. We can certainly forgive the lapse of a stalwart like Paglia, but we would like to understand the cause of her pessimistic twitch.

Leave a Reply