Or…a reminder that it isn’t only Elvis that people say stupid stuff about:
“Bayles is a child of the sixties, so it’s a pleasant surprise to find that she rightly identifies as Bob Dylan’s principal defects his ‘deliberate obscurity, self-indulgence, pretentiousness, and (most damning) indifference to the aural texture–the music–of words.’ He might be a great prophet, he might be America’s true political opposition, he might be a handsomely bound Ivy League-approved poet, he might even have ‘the rude beauty of a Southern field hand musing in melody on his porch’ (Robert Shelton in the New York Times), but he is not, on the whole, any sort of songwriter.”
Mark Steyn (The New Criterion, June 1994, reviewing Martha Bayles’ Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music)
The review–a reminder that culture wars are fought out in all kinds of ways and one price of freedom is that even the worst ideas are never truly defeated–can be found here, in case anyone would like the full context of the quote.
This is the first post in a series dissecting the means and methods by which professional critics dissemble (sometimes in the service of masters, though, distressingly, it is usually impossible–as here–to tell the cynics from the pie-eyed believers).
Note the device being deployed. Steyn pulls a quote from Robert Shelton that is so mind-numbing it’s reasonable to assume that even claiming Bob Dylan is not “any sort of songwriter.” will actually sound rational and insicive by comparison.
I believe the thinking is supposed to run along the lines of: If the person you want to attack is supported by anyone capable of Shelton’s drivel, then that’s sufficient proof of your attack’s moral and intellectual worth.
Or something like that.
Half-baked tautology then, with a reverse underhanded sideways spin designed to make the attendant sledgehammer irony somehow magically resemble a scalpel.
Steyn splits his professional time between musical and political propaganda (conservative-who-does-not-conserve in his case, though it works pretty much the same from the other side where the liberal-who-does-not-liberate runs free).
He’s made a nice living at both for decades.
In other words, he’s good at it–or, rather, he’s at the very high end of a particular human pursuit from which no good can come.
So he’s an exemplar of what we can expect.
But what should we expect?
Perhaps adherence to the FIRST MAXIM:
“Just because there’s at least one woozy mooncalf somewhere who supports a proposition (in this case, the idea that Bob Dylan is “some sort of songwriter”) does not mean the proposition itself is invalid.”
Incidentally, I’m in the camp that thinks any one of Bob Dylan’s fifty or so best songs is worth the entire Great American Songbook. (And not only am I a very long way from being a Dylan cultist, my favorite five minutes of film footage in the excruciatingly brief history of the civilized world consists entirely of Ginger Rogers doing “The Yam,” in Carefree, words and music courtesy of one Irving Berlin. Disconcerting as all that might be, it does allow me the hard-won confidence to insist that if Ginger can’t change the camp I’m in, it simply can’t be done). But whatever side I take in this particular debate, it somehow would never occur to me to offer up–as a scorched-earth defense of rock and roll perhaps–the idea that Cole Porter (or Irving Berlin) was not actually a songwriter or even that he was not actually a great songwriter.
I don’t think this makes me a profound moralist or anything. I also don’t think it makes me any superior judge of music.
I only think it makes me sound….not stupid.
Or at least not like I’m getting paid to teach people not to think.
Not much to brag about maybe. But, hey, it’s a mean old world. I have to take my victories where I can find them.
Not sounding stupid. Not getting paid.
There are worse ways to be.