Endangered Rock?

IN the field of popular culture no one's getting more attention than Camille Paglia. A brilliant literary critic and former prot of Harold Bloom at Yale, Dr. Paglia is a one-woman whirlwind blowing into Ivy League schools and talk shows alike with a tough critique of politically correct liberal orthodoxies, phony scholars, and academic fads.

Yet she's no William Bennett. No scholar more gloriously embraces pop culture - its icons, energy, mass appeal - than Paglia. She loves TV. She loves soap operas and kitschy commercials. The fragmented images and sounds of the postmodern world are to her Catholic libertarian sensibilities the triumph of a free culture, a free America.

That's why it is so interesting to find Paglia recently worried about the future of, of all things, rock music and musicians.

In a prominent New York Times op-ed piece she says rock music and film are "the two great" art forms to emerge in the 20th century.

Rock is in danger, she says. The unloosed rhythms of rock are a harbinger of democracy, but the music is swamped by commercialism and is ceasing to be authentic. Record labels want instant success. "There is not a single public voice in the culture to say to the musician: You are an artist, not a money machine," she writes.

Her answer: Mother these musicians through foundations, federal and state arts grants, and college scholarships. Help young rockers mature, study the tradition, and keep pure the sounds of the tribe.

What an odd answer! An art form born of passion and protest should now become a field of preservation! Paglia would be the E. D. Hirsch of heavy metal.

Much original work (some more important than rock) is endangered by commercialism. Small magazines, avant-garde communities, painters, dancers, and poets do not have it easy.

Teaching art and music as protest or a search for authentic expression is one thing. But what does it mean to try to establish an art form that was born in opposition to establishment?

What Paglia's worry may really signal is a change in the modes of popular culture itself. Whatever happens, the constant is that artists will be artists. No one has to tell them to study the tradition; they will. If the old underground dries up, a new one will emerge. Wallace Stevens worked in an insurance company; T.S. Eliot was a bank officer while writing "The Waste Land." Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix played tiny clubs in their early days.

Rockers aren't unsavvy about the risks of "selling out." Obvious examples include the band R.E.M, which have resolutely maintained their musical independence, or Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler, who developed new blends of rock and country, as on his latest album with Chet Atkins.

Paglia wants it both ways - original music but without the trappings of the commercial market that made such art popular in the first place. It's an old dilemma. But we say, have faith.

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