Let's Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste
(Bloomsbury Academic, 2014)
When Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste came out in 2007, it quickly became the most talked about volume in Bloomsbury Academic’s 33 1/3 series of short books about individual albums. Previous volumes had covered a generally predictable—though sometimes fantastic—listing of critics’ darlings from the past half-century: Dusty Springfield, Prince, and Captain Beefheart, among others. Wilson’s was about Celine Dion, a singer at once more beloved and more reviled than any pop music had seen before. It provided critics and bloggers with that most valuable grist for argument, “counterintuitiveness,” letting them talk about Dion without having to listen to her. The silver lining was that Wilson had actually written a good book—a great one, even, essential reading for those who consider themselves to be in the righteous minority of pop and rock literati able to see above the weeds. Wilson’s book is out now in a revised edition, proper book size rather than the six-inch 33 1/3 format, at double the length, with new essays from a baker’s dozen writers and artists, and with a new subtitle. If the revised edition doesn’t do much to improve upon the original, it certainly doesn’t tear it down.
I’ve long championed the first edition of the book—in which Wilson, a rock critic for The Globe and Mail in Toronto, sets out to get to the true heart of Dion fandom, finds it, and loses it again—but I’ve rarely been able to get my high-minded friends and associates to read it. They’re happy to talk about it—it does, after all, constitute counterintuitiveness—but to actually spend time with it, to be seen with it on the subway, seems to be a different story. Their reluctance is a sort of meta-proof of Wilson’s thesis. While talking about a subject so mainstream—and, true enough, of questionable merit—as Celine Dion is archly acceptable, committing to giving her serious consideration is not. Listening to her music, of course, is out of the question. And in truth, the book didn’t get me to listen to Celine Dion either. I tried a couple songs but couldn’t even finish the ones penned by Jim Steinman (“Paradise by the Dashboard Lights,” “Total Eclipse of the Heart”). Fortunately, however, listening to Dion isn’t required to engage with Wilson’s fantastic evisceration of self-aware cultural consumption.
At the time of the first edition of the book, Dion was already a massive industry force. Five of the Recording Industry Association of America’s 100 biggest selling albums of all time were hers; she was the most successful French-language singer of all time and easily the biggest thing ever to come out of Québec. She would prove to be the biggest selling artist of the first decade of the century. Wilson gives due consideration to Dion as cultural export and then goes on to explore such subjects as schmaltz, vocal techniques, global marketing, and, of course, taste, complete with applications of Adorno, Bourdieu, and Kant. It’s in these discussions that Wilson rises above his subject and examines the notion of mass appeal from a variety of angles.
The original volume left one wanting more, and now a new second section of the book attempts to deliver. N.P.R. critic Ann Powers offers an interesting piece on how music exists in our memory and B.B.C. producer Sukhdev Sandhu gives a ringing endorsement of sappiness and overt sentiment. In perhaps the best of the reaction essays, author Mary Gaitskill speaks up for the populace, defending the mainstream and taking Wilson to task for his presumptions. Some of the essays seem little more than reviews of the original book, while others are needless, self-aggrandizing endorsements—but each serves to keep the conversation alive. And it’s a conversation worth having: as a dialogue between Wilson and his 13 disciples, with peers in social circles, and ultimately with oneself. Why we like what we like is always a fun topic to discuss, but it’s often more challenging and more enlightening to discuss the converse: why we don’t like what we don’t like.
My ears can’t stomach Celine Dion, but there are songs I like by Will.i.am, M.I.A., and Miley Cyrus—not to mention Bonnie Tyler, ABBA, and the Carpenters—and I derive a bit of pleasure in lording it over my culturally elite friends. Inclusiveness is a different mask of cool—one Wilson also discusses—but that’s okay. As social critic and McGill University Art History and Communications Professor Jonathan Sterne writes in his essay in the book,
We should refuse to caste good taste—and all the trappings of social class that come with it—as a moral achievement, even if others do. But the abandonment of good taste can also function as a moral ‘achievement,’ as a marker of class and age distinction, in the same way that good taste once did. Democracy may demand pluralism but (particularly in Canada) we are always up against the limits of pluralism.
Any investigation into cool is incomplete without due consideration of too-cool-for. Wilson has provided a primer for that discourse.