Esteemed Canadian music critic Carl Wilson’s recent entry into Continuum’s 33 1/3 series – an ongoing collection of books devoted to hyperanalyzing canonical pop albums – is framed by an irresistible concept. Instead of exhausting another classic record whose impact and context has been well-covered by the critical elite (Pet Sounds and Let It Be are among past 33 1/3 releases), Wilson turns the series on its head by seriously considering a blockbuster hit by Céline Dion.
By immersing himself in the work and life of an artist he “can’t stand,” Wilson attempts to define the difference between “us” – music writers, their readers and a general hipster populace that enjoys challenging music – and “them,” those who unironically embrace Dion’s naked, overpowering sentimentality.
His strangely haunting argument is that the two groups are not all that different. Elitists, he posits, are every bit as interested in being moved by art and music as Middle-American adult-contempo listeners are. One side is moved by innovation and ambiguity, whereas Dion’s fans are content to take her words, grand gesticulations and emotions at face value. This begs a devastating question that the book takes on as a theme: Which group is more delusional?
Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste begins spitefully. Wilson admits that he’s never liked Dion, but his annoyance “got personal” after she beat out one of his heroes, whispery singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, to win an Oscar in 1997 (though it was not Dion, but the songwriters James Horner and Will Jennings who won for Titanic’s theme song, “My Heart Will Go On”; Smith lost with “Miss Misery,” from Good Will Hunting).
Wilson only softens his bullish stance after he admits that while her music doesn’t speak to him, her mushy style has a long and dominant popular history. From opera to the parlor song, the Rat Pack to arena rock, popular music has always been about inspiration and aspiration, reaching for higher places by singing in higher octaves. Dion’s music is beholden to all of these traditions (she’s collaborated with Andrea Bocelli and Barbra Streisand), resulting in what Wilson calls “a Frankengenre of emotional intensity.”
The problem for highbrows is that they don’t want to sympathize with her music. They don’t want emotion thrown at them; they want to find emotion, and throw themselves in it. If elitists see themselves as above Dion’s sentiments, to whom are they relating?
Like schmaltz, snobbery has a long history. Urban elites and bohemians have always been quick to embrace new styles, like jazz in the ’20s or today’s ceaseless genre hybrids (e.g., “I’m way into Nintendo-core porno-grind”). A common jibe against music purists is that they try to exert their superiority over others merely through taste. By liking what’s new and different, they become “special.” Wilson argues this isn’t really the case.
by Carl Wilson
$10.95; softcover; 176 pages
While elitist tastes are artsier than the pathos of a Céline Dion, elitists aren’t all that unique. They don’t exist in a vacuum; they just happen to inhabit an alternate cultural sphere – as Jane Doe is interested in Nickelback, Joe Hipster is all about Yeasayer. We’re all trying to fit in by being aware of what our friends like; our friends just like different things.
Things get personal for Wilson when he tries to figure out what distinguishes elitist society from average society. Dion’s music becomes less important than figuring out why people love it. Wilson talks with her fans over the phone and in person, and sees that they are every bit as devoted and altered by her music as Wilson is by someone like Elliott Smith.
After conversing with one fan, he notes, “I like him so much that for a long moment his taste seems superior.” The difference between the two cliques Wilson juxtaposes – the saps and the snobs – is that Céline Dion fans are inspired by her words, while Wilson is looking for something more cerebral.
Dion is in touch with her bombastic, music-of-the-people reputation, and she has made a career of it. She’s said explicitly many times that she is singing not for herself but for her audience. She offers people a cathartic experience, and most embrace it.
Those who bemoan it aren’t necessarily averse to emotion – the artifacts of indie culture are, by and large, quite sensitive – but they recoil at seeing it laid bare. Elitists prize ambiguity, art shrouded in duality and murkiness. Consider Dion’s “Love can touch us one time and last for a lifetime” versus Smith’s “And I try to be, but you know me/I come back when you want me to.” If Smith’s weary resignation is what appeals to us, what does that say about our emotional health?
Wilson rescues himself (and his increasingly bewildered audience) from this emotionally deflating wormhole by thinking of the sentimental art he has enjoyed, the art that made him cry. It’s a grab bag of pop-culture bits with some semblance of hipster appeal – the Buddy Holly song that made him fall in love with his ex-wife, an episode of Gilmore Girls – that remind him that he actually can appreciate pure sentimentality in his own context. The end result regarding Céline Dion is that we shouldn’t belittle her or her fans for being moved by tripe; we’re all moved by art that someone else thinks is cheesy.
Let’s Talk About Love ultimately serves as a guidebook to what Wilson hopes could be “a more pluralistic criticism,” one that “might put less stock in defending its choices and more in depicting its enjoyment.”
This is itself a sentimental idea and a mindset fairly common in web criticism, where some of the most influential music blogs – Daytrotter.com, SaidTheGramophone.com – are both heart-on-sleeve and uncommonly perceptive. Wilson’s journey doesn’t eradicate taste as a concept, but it makes a convincing argument that taste, as something good or bad, is a lie.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Portland Phoenix.firstname.lastname@example.org