Sunday, June 21, 2015

Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love (2007)

I like the original subtitle for Carl Wilson's book about Celine Dion and Wilson's revulsion for her: "A Journey to the End of Taste," which in many ways is how I felt reading it. The fact that the book started life as an entry in the 33⅓ series of monographs on individual albums (in this case, ostensibly, Dion's Let's Talk About Love, from 1997) only makes a weird and wonderful book even weirder. He dislikes Celine Dion at least as much as I do and most of the people I discuss issues of taste with too. That I now feel warmly toward her as a person after reading Wilson's book is further weirdness. Wilson finds a dozen ways to shame himself and the rest of us for our loathing: the unaffected sincerity of her fans ... Dion's own humble origins ... sources of immigrant culture, pride, and adaptation lurking in music otherwise casually dismissed as "schmaltz" (including a nicely researched capsule of its long tangled history in North American music) ... and a very affecting anecdote about Elliott Smith's encounter with her at the Oscars ceremony in 1998 and Smith's subsequent lifelong defense of Dion as a person. I even found a way in to appreciating Dion more on a personal level, reading Wilson's account of her origins in rural Quebec from a family of 14 children, recalling my North Dakota extended family (with a grand total of 16 siblings in my mother's family, 11 of whom made it to adulthood) and their affection for Lawrence Welk and the Lennon Sisters. Yet nothing makes a dent in the abhorrence for Celine Dion's music, for me or for Wilson either. Wilson's formal position of directly addressing this hatred as a matter of taste is absurd on one level; he knows it and he knows we have to know it too. But as he pushes on with the thought experiment he finally uncovers a whole new way of looking at the issue, new to me anyway, when he gets into sociological studies demonstrating that taste is likely in large part a social construction, a subconscious choice about material satisfaction and perceived gain. A ringing explication of what until now I have only muttered to myself and others incoherently about as "junior high bullshit"—which it seems more obvious than ever to me now is exactly what worries most matters of taste. Wilson even gets into it explicitly by brand name: "cool." Wilson's book (and its original subtitle), along with Daniel Levitin's look at the neuroscience of music, This Is Your Brain on Music, are leading me to view the good old question, "What have you been listening to lately?" in what feels like all new ways. In a world where all taste is equal, there may be no taste at all, replaced only by interpersonal connection and alliances, which are affirmed by the music (and other connecting points) in a feedback loop, or "virtuous cycle." The more you like your friends the more you like the music you share—and more importantly, the sharing. That's all it is. This is at once terrifying and exhilarating to anyone with a stake in the critical enterprise, which I think is finally the great big kick of Wilson's book. Really, it's one not to be missed.

In case it's not at the library.

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