Camille Paglia on Stevie Nicks, Adele, and Lady Gaga
From my interview about her new book, Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars:
SD: Many people who study visual culture right now don’t see any strong dividing line between works of fine art and mass culture. What do you think are the advantages or disadvantages of lumping those things together?
CP: I have been an apostle of popular culture for my entire career, and I suffered for it in graduate school at Yale (1968-72), when any interest in pop was regarded as trivial and unserious. But I can’t stand what is currently called cultural studies in academe, where high and low culture are chaotically mixed. I think standards of quality can be established and maintained in both pop and the fine arts. For example, I think that Fleetwood Mac’s eerie “Gold Dust Woman”, written by Stevie Nicks, is a true art work. So is Madonna’s “Vogue” video. The same thing with Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” and “Set Fire to the Rain”. But the strident, manipulative Lady Gaga has not produced a single song or video that rises to that level of quality.
Reviewing Document for Pitchfork reminded me of my first exposure to the band via my older brothers’ cassingle of “The One I Love” b/w “Maps & Legends (live).” I was thirteen, and only really just getting into music beyond the top 40 hits played on my town’s only radio station. My brother’s tape case was just as revelatory as MTV would be a year or two later. Through him I discovered Prince and Newcleus and Van Halen and “Fly Girl” and R.E.M. That one was different. The guitars sounded a lot different than the tinny hair-metal riffs that clogged radio playlists, and the lyrics weren’t obvious: “This one goes out to the one I love, a simple prop to occupy my time.” What did that even mean? How could he love her if she was just a prop? Can you love a prop like that? But I could tell from the way that the other, higher voice came in on the chorus and from the way the guitar unspooled into the solo (and I remember settling on the word “unspooled”) that this was something unique. This was special, although I don’t think I could have predicted at 13 that I would obsess over the band quite so much for quite so many years. Eponymous was the first real album I bought with my own money, and I played that cassette so many times that the tape stretched out and the songs slowed down noticeably. The band taught me how to be a misfit in a small southern town, and my older brother taught me how to keep my ears open to new tunes. Both lessons were lifesavers.
I’m a little baffled by the uproar over this cover, which has proved controversial even ten years after the event. The music is specifically about 9/11, even to the point of including treated excerpts of 911 calls and first responders alerts. If this image is inappropriate, wouldn’t those found sound elements also be inappropriate? Where does the line get drawn? I think that part of healing from this tragedy involves using the images and sounds we associate with it in new ways?
What bothers me about this album cover, then, isn’t that it depicts the second plane just seconds before it hit the Towers. It’s that it’s a terrible image. The sanserif front is just dull, and the photo treatment looks cheap. I’d rather see a starkly untreated image here, with that unnervingly clear blue sky intact.
Or, better yet, I’d rather see a slightly more artful image from that day used, one that isn’t quite so direct. Seth Colter Walls over at Slate has some interesting alternatives, and to that I’ll add my own: a clear blue sky background, with a bit of black smoke invading the bottom of the frame. And since Nonesuch will likely be packaging this with a signature slipcover for the jewel case, I’d have no text anywhere on the exterior.
This guy has a new double live album that’s more talking than singing, funnier than most stand-up records, and more tuneful than just about any other guy with an acoustic guitar. There are killer squirrels, death threats, onstage tackles, dead mentors, and Elizabeth Cook:
One of the hallmarks of your songwriting is that you’ll have sympathy for someone like that, or like the guy trying to break into your house on “Highland Street Incident.”
I tried to make up that song for a long time, and I finally thought I could tell their side of the story. I bet they were having a harder night than me. It took me a long time to figure that out, because he hit me with a fuckin’ gun. It took me a long time to forgive him for that. (laughs) ‘Cause it fucked my life up. I was taking a hammer to the mailbox for about a month after that. I didn’t want to get hit by a gun again. I knew that. That was all I could think about for a long time. And then one year that lifted and I thought, how big of a drag would it be to be a crackhead in Orange Mound, Memphis? My goodness. I wish I’d had money to give him. It’s like when people don’t want to give a bum money because he’ll go spend it on alcohol. But I think, “He lives outside. Can’t the guy have a drink? What if he wants to spend it on alcohol? Shit, here’s a little for food, here’s a little for booze.”