Much of this book is about reasonable people carting around cultural assumptions that make them assholes to millions of strangers.
What is taste, in music, in movies, in art? We all believe we have it, or proudly decry that we don’t. Sometimes our taste is excited by the provocative, sometimes by the sentimental. We think we know when a joke or an act of public conscience is in bad taste. Good taste generally flows right past us like soft waves of vanilla ice cream. But where do these ideas come from in us and are they something settled or always in flux?
I imagine that everyone who grows up to be a rock journalist or critic was once that guy we all knew in high school willing to educate us, unasked, on what music we should be listening to as opposed to the music we were listening to. Hell, I was that guy. I could tell you why the current pop sensation was bad, yet this obscure band from Minneapolis was the real thing. Anything that was popular was wrong. I was a teenage expert who had taste, while the popular culture was woefully misled.
Carl Wilson cops to having held most of these attitudes, and continuing to hold some. Wilson is a writer and editor at The Globe and Mail and his work has appeared in Pitchfork, Slate, The New York Times, and others. When he was asked to write a short book for Bloomsbury’s fantastic 33 1/3 series, he decided to write about taste and to use the work of Celine Dion as the focal part. The result is the extended essay, Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste.
The 33 1/3 series is a group of small volumes (100-150 pages) in which a writer talks about a single favorite album. Each record has a different volume and author and each approaches the task differently. Some volumes are highly personal explorations of what music can mean at different times in our lives, some are concerned with history, some with technique and technology. It’s this diversity that makes the series endlessly interesting.
Celine Dion, for those newly arriving from Alpha Centauri, was a pop mega-brand who is now a major Las Vegas casino draw. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was impossible to listen to an hour of popular radio without hearing two Celine Dion songs and one of them would always be the theme to the film, Titanic. She was everywhere, constantly serenading the unwilling from grocery aisles, staring out at us from the covers of the magazines at the checkout line. She specializes in soaring, anthemic love songs that build to wildly melodramatic finales. To call them operatic is to disparage opera, but you get the idea.
She is Meatloaf for young girls and your grandmother. She’s a white bread Amanda Palmer on Xanax. She always seems to sing as if she’s trying to shatter glass.
No one with any taste likes Celine Dion except as a guilty pleasure, but Carl Wilson takes her on along with his entire concept of taste, even though and because she’s “a very popular artist I really, really can’t stand.”
So, for Wilson’s volume, he chose Dion’s album, Let’s Talk about Love, which happens to contain the super-mega hit, My Heart Will Go On.
He listens to the CD over and over until he worries the neighbors might think he’s losing his mind. He listens to it loud; because you have to listen to Celine loud. He explores YouTube videos and magazine articles. He attends her Las Vegas stage show. One night, he finds himself alone in his apartment singing My Heart Will Go On at the top of his lungs. He didn’t decide to sing. It just happened.
This is not an ironic book; he doesn’t spend the pages making fun of Dion and her fans. He doesn’t wink knowingly to his readers except in regard to his own opinions. Instead, in a light, funny style, he explores his own musical taste, how it was formed and what it does for him. He wrestles with the elements of Dion’s brand and style that rub him the wrong way and what that annoyance means to him.
If guilty pleasures are out of date, perhaps the time has come to conceive of a guilty displeasure. This is not like the nagging regret I have about, say, never learning to like opera. My aversion to Dion more closely resembles how put off I feel when someone says they’re pro-life or Republican: intellectually I’m aware of how personal and complicated such affiliations can be, but my gut reactions are more crudely tribal.
I won’t reveal the answers Wilson supplies for many of his questions because Let’s Talk about Love isn’t that kind of book. It’s a book about questions and what can happen when we step outside our comfy world to legitimately experience something that isn’t ‘us’. As such, the questions are always much more interesting than any answer we might stumble upon.
So, crank up the bombastic power ballads and curl into your sofa with Carl Wilson. You don’t have to be cool for one evening. Resist all irony and belt out your favorite embarrassing pop song. Wind Beneath My Wings? Time of Our Lives? There’s no reason to feel guilty. !
STEVE MITCHELL’s short story collection, The Naming of Ghosts, is published by Press 53. He has a deep belief in the primacy of doubt and an abiding conviction that great wisdom informs very bad movies. He’s co-owner of Scuppernong Books in Greensboro, NC