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Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste by Carl Wilson

November 15, 2014


This is part of the 33 1/3 series from Bloomsbury, in which each book focuses on some aspect of a single album. In this installment, music critic Carl Wilson uses the Celine Dion album, Let’s Talk About Love, to examine popular taste and, more broadly, taste and criticism in general.

I would not have read this book if I thought it was about Celine Dion. Wilson would not have written it if it were just about Celine. But for context, for background, that’s where he starts. Who is this Canadian diva with the epic pipes? Wilson covers Celine’s life, vocal stylings and status as one of the great pop music icons. He tries to get to the heart of why Celine is so popular. She is certainly a talented vocalist, but she is also the epitome of what critics and serious music fans hate about popular music. She is gaudy, schmaltzy, full of pomp and bombast. She is what I have always found horrible about the Superbowl halftime show—manufactured to appeal to everyone everywhere. There is no depth, no innovation, no risk-taking. Her most amazing feat is that she can create an entire catalog of songs about love, yet there is not a single insightful line about love anywhere. Yet for something so banal, her music evokes strong emotions, both ways. Celine fans shed tears at her terrible lyrics. Celine haters bristle at the very mention of her name. Music writer Barry Mazor once described Celine as “Primary Narcissism with a voice.” You would be hard pressed to find a subject more loathed by “serious” music fans.

While I wouldn’t say I’m a Celine hater, as a writer I find her lyrics offensively dumb, particularly her 1997 mega-hit “My Heart Will Go On.”

Every night in my dreams
I see you, I feel you
That is how I know you go on

Far across the distance
And spaces between us
You have come to show you go on

Near, far, wherever you are
I believe that the heart does go on
Once more you open the door
And you’re here in my heart
And my heart will go on and on

Love can touch us one time
And last for a lifetime
And never let go till we’re gone

What is that? It is like a randomized mad-lib of crappy love song buzz words. It’s unintelligible. But so what? A lot of songs have terrible lyrics. A lot are poorly written. A lot of music sucks. And by all counts, Celine Dion is an incredibly kind, generous and warm person to anyone who has the opportunity to meet her. So why does she, her music more specifically, raise such ire?

That is the question Carl Wilson tackles here. Even bigger (if one can be bigger than Celine), what makes anyone love or hate anything? What is taste? Who makes it? And the central question to criticism, who decides what is “good”?

What Wilson manages to do is balance personal anecdote and humor with academic study. The former made me laugh often. The latter took me back to fond memories of my film and lit theory classes in college. Dissecting music—good or bad—feels the same. And beyond the fun of criticism, the question of what makes something “good” is important, because it underpins the purpose of art and the role it plays in our culture and society.

Way back when music became divorced from its functional uses, primarily as a part of religious ceremony, it took on status as an art form. People consumed it simply for enjoyment. Which introduced aesthetic taste—what about music makes it enjoyable? Which led to debate of taste and an artistic culture where some works were of more value than others. Which led, eventually, to a cultured class—those who had access to art, understood it, could at times produce it themselves and, most importantly, could define what is “good.” That has always been one of the most important roles of culture high and low—taste as a means of self-identification and exclusion.

“…critical authority depends on the power to exclude, not just to canonize. It hinges on turning your relationship into an in-crowd, smarter than some less-discerning audience…

Musical subcultures exist because our guts tell us certain kinds of music are for certain kinds of people. The codes are not always transparent…but music never stops being a badge of recognition.”

So what subculture does Celine’s music fit into? Wilson places it in the historical context of stage production, 70’s musical melodrama and 80’s glam ballads:

 “Celine and her producers have extracted all the most concentrated emotional elixirs, from opera to parlor song to arena rock, and blended them into a recipe for hyperschmaltz, a Frankengenre of sentimental intensity.”

This may sound terribly unimportant and/or pretentious. It probably is. But the point is less about Celine and more about any two pieces of art and why one is better than the other.

Wilson surveys aesthetic and cultural philosophy as well as the intersection of art and commerce, giving overviews of Hume, Kant, Marx and a handful of other names I vaguely recalled from college. It gets fairly dense, but it’s brief.

And here is the crux of Wilson’s experiment: armed with all of this cultural elitism and indy-music, cooler-than-thou snobbiness, he tries to keep an open mind about Celine. He’s on a journey not to denigrate but to understand. Which culminates with him visiting Las Vegas to see Celine Dion’s nightly show, A New Day. Wilson nails the apropos significance of Vegas with this description:

[Vegas is]”…a laboratory demonstration of the antagonism between economic and cultural capital…a city of such pure commercialism that money is its entertainment, interrupted occasionally by a show…Vegas’s fabled love of the ersatz, like its mini Eiffel Tower, is money giddily blashpheming culture’s sacred icons.”

It is the perfect seat for the queen of schmaltz. But there he goes, into the belly of the beast. He finds himself sitting in the dark theater next to a tiny Filipino mom who weeps and whispers, “Wow. Oh wow,” as they are blasted by bombast. And in this moment of schmaltz, in the capital of garish, lurid, glaring, glittery ostentatiousness, he feels a little something that can’t be rationalized or understood in the pages of cultural criticism. It’s just a feeling of understanding. He is moved, begrudgingly, ever so slightly, emotionally. Which, later, listening to Celine’s music in the comfort of his home, he tries but fails to capture again.

I wouldn’t recommend this book to everyone. But I also wouldn’t limit my recommendation to Celine fans. In fact, it’s probably not a book for Celine fans. (Side note: I tried. I really did. I gritted my teeth and listened to a bunch of Celine music with fresh, open-minded ears one night, trying to find something that struck a chord, albeit briefly, with Wilson. My wife made me turn it off). It really is an interesting, entertaining and insightful look at taste, musical and otherwise, and how taste shapes and is shaped by our image of ourselves and who we aspire to be.

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