WHAT WE SHOULD EXPECT FROM CRITICS (Second Maxim)

Or, “Uh, oh, Hurricane Camille has a book tour…”:

To wit:

“Let’s remember how Bob Dylan broke out of folk music into the public sphere with his great song, ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues,’ which was about the fascist intrusion of Big Brother government.”

(Camille Paglia, interview with Salon.com, Oct. 10, 2012)

Paglia spent part of her interview rightly decrying the growth of the modern security state (though this particular comment was directed–in typically subtle fashion–not at say, the torture state or drone use, but at Obamacare…she gets on a roll sometimes, and the bolts holding the tire in place do tend to come loose).

To each his own in politics, but the use of a pop culture reference to signify one’s own heightened state of awareness is a modern intellectual conceit I generally find annoying even when the reference is acute.

This one is not.

I don’t really mind the suggestion that “Subterranean Homesick Blues” was “about” one particular thing when it’s really about so, so many things. Or that–as is so often the case–this particular reductionist view happens to buttress a larger point Paglia wants to get across. Or that the exercise in reductionism comes in the middle of an interview promoting a book that is supposed to be about art’s expansive qualities.

That’s all opinion anyway. Maybe she thinks the song in question really is about one particular thing that helps her make an interview point, and, if so, she certainly has a right to her misunderstanding.

But, Jesus, do they always have to be so fuzzy on the facts, these ardent Pop Art fans?

If Bob Dylan “broke out of folk music into the public sphere” with any one song–and laying aside whether folk music itself was/is so easily excluded from that public sphere (hint: there was a week just prior to the Beatles arriving in America when Peter, Paul and Mary had three of the top six albums in America and Joan Baez had a string of gold albums before Dylan, no fool he on so, so many levels, literally hooked up with her in Greenwich Village)–that song was surely not “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”

Yes, it was his first top 40 hit. It got the #39 in the spring of 1965. But I doubt it made him a jot more famous than he already was by virtue of Peter, Paul and Mary taking “Blowin’ In the Wind” to #2 on the Pop chart in 1963. I mean, just because Paglia has forgotten it now doesn’t mean anybody had failed to notice it then.

And if there was a leap in fame–a breaking out into some “public sphere” that actually was larger than the massive business folk music in general, and Bob Dylan’s music in particular, were already doing–then it came from the Byrds’ cover of his “Mr. Tambourine Man” which hit #1 a couple of months after “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and ushered in a mini-boom of Dylan covers making the charts, or from Dylan’s own “Like A Rolling Stone,” which got to #2 shortly thereafter and took his own voice to the very center of the culture.

But, of course, these other songs, any of which might have represented one part of Paglia’s point (i.e., Dylan’s “breakout”) accurately, could not really be construed as being “about the fascist intrusion of Big Brother government.”

Hence the fudge…automatic as breathing.

This bit of a stretch on Paglia’s part is no big deal in and of itself. But it is utterly typical of the way professional intellectuals practice the fine art of distortion. One little interview quote at a time.

Hence it deserves inclusion as the inspiration for MAXIM NUMBER TWO:

“Avoid needless embellishment. It only gives you more chances to be wrong.”

 

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