1/10/2008

Let's Talk About A Book About Let's Talk About Love


Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste by the Canadian music critic Carl Wilson is an unlikely entry in the Continuum 33 1/3 series of monographs about influential and beloved albums. Unlike every other 33 1/3 book, this one is not an appreciation in any conventional sense. It's also not a work of anti-fandom, a screed against bad music. It is, rather, a reflection on taste as both an aesthetic and a social phenomenon. It is an analysis of one instance in which élite and mass tastes conflict, and of the context in which this occurs. Wilson doesn't like Céline Dion, and his task in this book is to figure out why, to give her music an honest listen, and to understand the ways in which Céline appeals or fails to appeal to various audiences.

This is not a book about guilty pleasures. Wilson doesn't have a secret passion for cheese that he is inviting us to share in a spirit of so-bad-it's-good or mischievous subversion of normative cultural distinction. Rather, for him, it is about guilty displeasures. He is basically apologizing for being a snob--he even calls himself an asshole--and trying to explain the roots and functions and larger implications of his snobbery. To do so he delves into the Céline back catalog, takes in a concert at Caesar's Palace, and gets to know some fans.

This is more than just an autobiographical journey, though. Wilson is a critic in the best sense: keenly inquisitive, wanting to understand how things work, and not content to offer up his own taste as the justification for anything beyond itself. This book is not a work of evaluation but a work about evaluation, a questioning of the basic assumptions that underlie the standard cultural criticism. He has none of the reflexive hostility for academic writing that many journalists exhibit, and his discussion of Bourdieu is as solid as anything a cultural studies prof might write. He clearly knows and cares a ton about the larger implications of his chosen field, music criticism, including the philosophical and sociological concepts that come into play when considering the nexus of art and society. There are also excellent passages describing Céline's background and influences in Québecois pop music, which help explain her emergence as a curious combination of global, national, and local personae, and on the history of schmaltz, which Wilson considers a topic deserving of more consideration (hear, hear).

It is unfortunate that Let's Talk has no notes or references. This is presumably a limitation of the 33 1/3 series, but it's a shame that the quotations and citations in the text aren't backed up by at least a bibliography or some notes for further reading. I also wish it would have given more consideration to gender as an element of cultural distinction. Dion is seen to appeal mainly to women and gay men, and this is undoubtedly a big part of the masculinist, hipsterish rejection of her music. The way gendered hierarchies play into larger taste hierarchies is a ripe subject for future research (and an interest of mine in relation to TV).

Wilson has a lesson here for anyone invested in an élite taste culture or subculture, whether in music of movies or whatever. It is to see your own taste not just as a reflection of your unique individuality, of your sensitive critical intelligence, but also of your social identities and your community memberships. I already believed this before I read Let's Talk, but I have never seen the idea expressed as succinctly and in such an engaging and clear and appealing package (those little 33 1/3 books are such fetish objects). I have been keeping it in mind as the indie tastemakers have been turning up the negative feelings on Juno, insisting that it's not really an independent film (whatever this is supposed to mean). They tend to do this whenever the mainstream audience latches onto something they might have seen as theirs or whenever mainstream institutions like Hollywood studios seem to be co-opting their sensibility. It is to disavow a taste they might have in common with too many others and to affirm their alternative identity. The point is not to question whether anyone in particular really likes or dislikes Juno (or Sideways, or Little Miss Sunshine--I like all three a lot, fwiw), but to try to understand in a broader sense what is at stake culturally in such matters of judgment.

Update 1/12: my brother responds with some thoughts on Juno and twee music. He likes the movie but not its soundtrack songs.

3 comments:

Jonathan Gray said...

I teach a course called Class, Taste, and Mass Culture, and this post made me think of it immediately. I really don't like Celine Dion, so when I talk about anti-fandom, she's often an easy reference point. But the course looks at how and why we like what we like and dislike what we like. It always risks falling into cultural relativism, though, so one of the questions I sometimes ask is "can one hate Celine Dion without being a snob?" Sounds like this book would be a neat read.

I don't know about you, Mike, but one of my issues with her is that with all the cool and amazing Canadians out there, it seems that about 95% of Americans pick her first as a famous Canadian. Sure, that's not her fault, but when she comes before Wayne or Mike Myers or so forth, I feel we need a national campaign or something ;-)

michael z newman said...

Sounds like a good class, Jonathan. I'm going to teach a seminar on indie culture next fall and am thinking of assigning this book. Short books are good for classes.

Americans tend to know so little about Canada and I know what you mean. But we can be proud of her, too. She's such a big star. And I confess I have never had strong feelings about Céline one way or another. But Bryan Adams gets on my nerves, especially that song about having loved a woman. Blech.

Jonathan Gray said...

"If you love a women, tell her that she's a woman" -- hardly the best lyric, I agree. Why? Is she otherwise likely to think she's a dude?? To experiment, I just told my wife that she's a woman, and the look she gave me isn't the one I'm sure Adams imagines receiving!