Let’s Talk about Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, by Carl Wilson (33 1/3 series)

Carl Wilson’s book about Céline Dion’s Let’s Talk about Love is apparently the best-selling volume in the 33 1/3 series; of those I’ve read so far, it’s also the one that diverges most boldly from the usual parameters. Whether its success is because of its unusual approach, or simply because it’s about a best-selling artist, I don’t know; one would have to undertake the same kind of sociological survey of its buyers that at one point Wilson draws upon in relation to Dion’s audience.  My guess — by which I mean my prejudice — is that this sold to the usual 33 1/3 readership, and didn’t make great inroads into the Dion fanbase; but that’s just the sort of prejudice that Wilson seeks to examine.

Wilson 333 jacket

I was sceptical at first about Wilson’s style, and the way that he seemed to be stretching out relatively thin materials with verbal inventiveness; but I was gradually won over, especially by the ease and simplicity with which he applied Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas about taste to the question of why people identify with Dion and her music.  The sort of thing that annoyed me is best represented by the opening sentences of chapter 4:

Céline’s passage through the stations of Quebec’s fleur-de-lys-shaped cross, from shameful hick to emblem of national self-realization, tells one story about what Line Grenier calls the “usefulness of global pop.” But it explains less about the globalness of global pop; you could argue her rehabilitation at home reflects Quebec’s contentment to ride along with the steamroller of Anglo-American monoculture as it flattens the world, mowing down regional cultures like so many hectares of rainforest, clearing ground for a Starbucks at every river mouth and a McDonald’s at each desertified crossroads.  Indeed, being a stealth operative of globalization is the most substantial charge Quebec intellectuals still lay against her. (p.39)

I got the point at “Anglo-American monoculture”; the rest of that sentence is designed, if you’re charitable, to inflate the idea and make it memorable; or, less charitably, to pad out the paragraph to the requisite size.

The opening chapter begins very much in the first person, with Wilson recalling the 1998 Oscars, at which Dion was up against (among others) indie songwriter Elliott Smith in the Best Original Song category. Wilson’s extended account of that evening allows him to establish iconic representations of two major forms of taste in popular music: mass-market commercial pop, and self-consciously ‘minor’ indie work. The same Oscars also set James Cameron’s Titanic (in which Dion’s rendition of ‘My Heart Will Go On’ was featured) against Harmony Korine’s Gummo: again, mass-market vs. indie.  The rest of the book works to investigate why we create such oppositions, and to find a way of standing outside the reader’s presumed preference for the ‘elite’ segment of popular culture.

Chapter 2 offers more of an argument, an account of how taste is wrapped up with personal identity. Wilson is interestingly reflexive about how ‘difficult’, ‘underground’, and innovative music might signify: he admits that he prefers to write about ‘knotty music like art rock, psych-folk, post-punk, free jazz or the more abstract ends of techno and hip-hop’, and identifies his underlying justification for this preference in the idea ‘that “difficult” music can help shake up perceptions, push us past habitual limits’; in other words, though he doesn’t cite a theorist, the sort of justification for difficulty advanced by Victor Shklovsky in his essay ‘Art as Technique’ (1917). But for him, he realises, Dion’s music is more ‘difficult’ than any ‘postmodern noise collage.’  We might want to stop and ask whether those two kinds of difficulty are really the same, but Wilson strides over that problem, and launches himself into his ‘experiment in taste.’

Chapter 3 begins a strand in the book that considers the specifically Canadian aspects of DIon’s identity, and, within that, the the specifically Québécois aspects of it. Wilson outlines the division of the Canadian Francophone music market into ‘chanson’ (the more highbrow end) and ‘variety-pop’. International ignorance of Quebec means much of what Dion says doesn’t make sense to the outside world. North American cultural coding of music markets into ‘black’ and ‘non-black’ don’t have a space for Québécois.

Chapter 4, the one that begins with the overblown paragraph above, tackles Dion’s place in the international market.  Here, for a few pages, there is almost too much information, and too little digestion, as Wilson quotes eight accounts of Dion’s place in different national cultures from around the world.  I’d have welcomed a bit more analysis of the subtle differences between these quotations, but Wilson’s argument is that global hegemony is often complicated by creolisation: those in the Anglophone world who criticise globalisation presume that the world ‘will automatically become more like us‘ are betraying a chauvinistic assumption.  One version of the argument is that the music is consumed according to local practices, and the songs that become successful and for which the singer becomes known will depend on those practices; another version, which is relevant in Dion’s case, is that the global corporation selling her music will encourage her to record or re-work material for the tastes of local markets: she has approached Japan, France, and Latin America in this way.

‘Let’s Talk about Schmaltz’, the fifth chapter, provides some historical context for the American love of ‘parlor songs’ and other sentimental popular forms, with Charles Hamm’s study Yesterdays (1979) providing some authoritative support. It’s notable that these forms have often been associated with recent waves of immigrants, whether Irish, Italian, or European Jewish. ‘Céline Dion’s music and career’, comments Wilson, ‘are more understandable if she is added to the long line of ethnic “outsiders” who expressed emotions too outsized for white American performers but in non-African-American codes, letting white audiences loosen up without crossing the “color line”‘ (p.58). More immediate antecedents in the 1970s are found not in Barbra Streisand (too Broadway, too self-conscious), but in ‘the nostalgic showmanship of Barry Manilow or Neil Diamond’ (p.60).

Chapters 6 and 7 were less interesting to me: the first of them, ‘Let’s Sing Really Loud’, is about the bigness of Dion’s voice, and the troubling sense that there is no personality behind it.  In this, she may be contrasted again with Streisand: Streisand imposes herself on a song, while Dion appears to be the impersonal conduit for her material.  The following chapter is more theoretical, considering the apparent incompatibility of ideas of taste with ideas of democracy and popular satisfaction.  Vitaly Komar and Alexandir Melamid’s Painting By Numbers (1997) is Wilson’s key text here, with its hilarious statistical identification of the most popular possible painting, a ‘dishwasher sized’ picture of rolling hills, blue skies, and blue water (p.75).

Chapter 8 is where Bourdieu comes in explicitly. There’s a lovely concise analysis of the indie-kid cliché of ‘I used to like that band’ as meaning I used to like them ‘until people like you liked them’ (p.93): it’s all about differentiation of personal identities. I was also interested to read about Richard Petersen and Roger Kern’s idea of ‘omnivore’ taste, even if, on a little reflection, it’s only what Jean-Francois Lyotard had identified in the late 1970s as postmodern eclecticism: ‘one listens to reggae, watches a western, eats McDonald’s food for lunch and local cuisine for dinner, wears Paris perfume in Tokyo and retro clothes in Hong Kong’.  The upper classes, rather than adopting the taste position of the snob, are now eclectic; Petersen and Kern speculate ‘that the shift corresponds to a new elite requirement to be able to “code switch” in varied cultural settings, due to multiculturalism and globalization’ (p.96). However, cautions Wilson, no one is a true omnivore: to have taste is to exclude (p.97).  Your omnivorousness is thoughtless in its eclecticism, while mine is carefully ‘curated’; your code-switching smacks of desperation, while mine displays the approved brand of self-aware irony. Or so I like to believe.  The chapter ends with Wilson following in Bourdieu’s path and analysing a market-research company’s account of the demographics of Dion’s American consumers.

In the next chapter Wilson as first-person persona looms larger again, as he attempts to go beyond the abstract market-research statistics and meet some real Dion fans in Las Vegas.  (Dion had a show there for several years.) Tragi-comically, as soon as he’s arrived he realises he can’t go through with it, and he ends up making contact through the internet with a very small sample of fans. Most interesting of these, because the most self-aware about how her love of Dion didn’t fit her interests in serious literature and experimental theatre, was the fourth interviewee. Her lack of patience with the way that ‘indie’ taste is just as motivated by external pressures as mass-market taste is a particularly illuminating confirmation of the more theoretical arguments in the book:

“the concept of trying to know who the next-big-thing is just seems so difficulty and exhausting . . . And if someone goes, ‘You don’t like that, you’re not cool’, I’m like, ‘I’m not cool. That’s okay.’  . .  I’m fine with my obsession because I don’t think it makes me any less intelligent.” (p.116)

(One might remark from that last phrase that this is someone whose sense of distinction comes from her belief in her own intelligence and sincerity, rather than from her sense of ‘taste’ being important.) Likewise:

“I just don’t like being told what i want.  It almost comes full circle: People who go out of their way to make sure they don’t listen to anything mainstream, they’ve been told, ‘You’re supposed to like this,’ and then they’re like ‘I don’t want to like this.’  But then these people have their own ‘Celine,’ and everyone is supposed to like that.” (p.116)

What this also points to is that, if we agree with Bourdieu, having good taste was never really about the internal possession of good taste, and was much more about the public display of that taste, the making of statements (explicitly or otherwise) that would help to differentiate you from others.

Chapter ten considers cover versions of ‘My Heart Will Go On’ in a punk mode, and asks what such ‘ironic’ reworkings of a mass-market song do in terms of cultural value.  There’s a good account of the way that elite culture disdains sentimentality as the worst possible aesthetic sin, and a sceptical step back to ask whether within elite taste ‘subversion’ fulfils the same function as sentiment.  And he notes, following Thomas Frank (The Conquest of Cool) and Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter (The Rebel Sell), that ‘anticonformist impulses are the octane of consumerism’ (p.125):

The kind of change implored in the music of strident sarcasm — freedom, equality, less authority — aligns handily with a ‘new economy’ whose trade and labor market needs require a more ‘flexible’, mobile, multicultural social structure (pp.125-6)

In other words, the slogans of enlightenment modernity have been co-opted by a consumerist modernity.

Chapter Eleven finally engages with Let’s Talk about Love on a track-by-track basis, but not in the usual 33 1/3 mode of close analytical reading, but in the form of a review for a fictional music magazine.   Chapter Twelve turns to larger questions: about the different ways that we might love music, and about the tragic decline of what Richard Sennett terms ‘public man’ (in a gender-inclusive way): we don’t have a democratic public realm: what Wilson means by democracy is not ‘a limp open-mindedness’ but ‘actively grappling with people and things not like me’ (p.151).

It’s often the case that a good 33 1/3 book sends me back to an album to listen to it again; ideally I hear things that I’d never heard before, or appreciate it with a new depth.  That was never going to be the case with Let’s Talk About Love. Not just because I have never knowingly heard the album or any of its songs, but because the object of the discussion isn’t so much the album as the things that surround it.  For all that Wilson engages with schmaltz and the distinctive qualities of Dion’s voice and her readings of established songs, it’s not the musical fine detail that he wishes to discuss; rather, it’s the fine detail of the social processes that shape her reception. Books in this series that focus on context at the expense of the music can be frustrating, but in this case Wilson’s approach has created a fascinating survey of the production of value in modern popular culture, and a good introduction to Bourdieu for a general readership.

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