28 November 2009

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

I must admit some surprise that the best book I've read about judgement, taste, and aesthetics is a book about Céline Dion. Carl Wilson's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste is not only thoughtful and well-informed, it is also compelling in every sense of the word. (It's part of the ever-surprising and wonderfully odd 33 1/3 series from Continuum Books.)

I don't know where I first heard about Wilson's book -- probably via Bookforum -- but it's gotten plenty of press, including a mention by James Franco at the Oscars and an interview of Wilson by Stephen Colbert. The concept of the book is seductive: Wilson, a Canadian music critic and avowed Céline-hater, spends a year trying to figure out why she is so popular and what his hatred of her says about himself. I kept away from the book for a little while because I thought it couldn't possibly live up to its premise, and that in all likelihood it was more stunt than analysis. Nonetheless, the premise kept attracting me, because I am fascinated by the concept of taste and I, too, find Dion's music to be the sonic equivalent of a Thomas Kinkade painting.

What makes Wilson's approach so effective and insightful is that it avoids the fanboy defensiveness marring everything from internet discussions to scholarly studies such as Peter Swirski's From Lowbrow to Nobrow. Wilson isn't grinding axes or settling scores; he's more interested in exploration than proclamation, more inclined toward maps than manifestos. The result is one of the few books I know that is as likely to expand its readers' view of the world as it is to provide the choir with an appealing sermon.

By focusing on Céline Dion, Wilson is able to discuss a wide range of topics: the details of Dion's career, of course, but also the history of popular music, the globalization of certain styles and tastes, the power of local cultures, the role of class and aspiration in forming and policing personal taste, the demonization of sentimentality and excess, the promotion of irony and transgression, etc. Wilson also provides a good, basic overview of histories and traditions of aesthetic philosophy, showing that even the most eminent thinkers and critics tend to do little more than construct elaborate sleight-of-hand routines. Because his goal is not to debunk so much as it is to explore, Wilson is able to use the best of what he encounters -- most fruitfully in his clear-eyed application of ideas from Pierre Bourdieu's Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Taste is not, for Wilson, merely an expression of social influences and aspirations, but it is partly so, and those parts are often what is most invisible to us when we discuss our aesthetic judgments. He examines a marketing survey of Dion's fans and discovers some surprises:
Widows and grannies aside, what occurs to me is that this midlevel cultural-capital audience is not as far from the average white pop critic as we might have expected. We usually make middling incomes or worse, and while most have university degrees, our expertise is usually more self-taught than PhD-certified, a pattern Bourdieu believed would produce an anxious, fact-hoarding intellectual style in contrast with the relaxed mastery of a fully legitimated cultural elite. (If you've met any pop critics, you'll see his point.) When a critic or heavily invested music buff says, as they often do, that discovering music or writing "saved my life," I think what lurks behind the melodrama is a feeling that a facility with pop culture and words has saved us from the life of subservient career, suburban lifestyle and quiet desperation we imagine befalls people like Céline Dion's white American fans, as well as fans of Billy Joel, Michael Bolton and other midlevel musicians whose names so often serve as epithets. Perhaps our scathing tongues are enacting what Freud called the narcissism of small differences, in defense of what Bourdieu might call a very fragile distinction.
Small differences, though, are essential to anyone's taste ("To have taste at all," Wilson says, "is to exclude"). This is especially true now, in an age of media proliferation, where tastes tend to be at least superficially omnivorous, though to like or even appreciate everything is to like and appreciate nothing, making the subtle distinctions within any omnivorous aesthetic especially powerful. Even omnivorous taste, though, tends to correlate to class and education levels: Wilson cites studies showing that when class includes cultural capital and education (rather than just economic power), the people with the broadest tastes tend to be higher class than people with narrower tastes -- and the few sorts of music that higher class people are willing to categorically dismiss as not to their taste are the sorts of music lower class people tend to cite as their favorites (in 1993 this included rap, heavy metal, country, and gospel; there might be some differences in the catagories today, but the effect would likely be similar).

Wilson explores Dion's appeal and his own antipathy to it from many angles (one chapter includes interviews with four very different Céline fans), then tries to apply what he has learned to his life as a music critic, writing a review of the album Let's Talk About Love that is, apparently, different from any he has written before. It begins with a consideration of his own taste -- not merely the sorts of music he likes, but the sorts of artistic expressions that provoke emotion and pleasure within him, and why this is, admitting, "the truth is that my so-called adult life is mortifyingly similar to that of a teenage girl, or at least the bemused existentialists who stand in for them on TV: It's a comedy-drama, centered more on groups of friends than family or workplace." His admission, and his extrapolation of it, is funny and amusing, but it leads to a serious confession: that he lives a life separate from "the center ring of adult life, the hurlyburly of business and domesticity, where the normal grownups live."

His personal approach avoids narcissism, though, by using the personal as a launching pad rather than a reflecting pool. Wilson speculates on Dion's appeal within a cultural moment, giving us both a self-deprecating portrait of himself and an assessment of each song on the album that feels astoundingly fair -- it preserves distinctions without seeming dismissive. And he even manages to link The Magnetic Fields song "The Book of Love" to Let's Talk About Love, uniting many of his ideas in a single, elegant move.

The final chapter of the book provides a summing up and opening out. It mixes practicality and idealism, asserting a kind of aesthetics that is, Wilson says, fundamentally about democracy: "...not a limp open-mindedness, but actively grappling with people and things not like me, which brings with it the perilous question of what I am like." It's not all about me, though, so much as us -- but to get to us, we start from what we can best know: ourselves. There are many ways to love works of art, to revel in culture and creation, and there is no reason we need to accept just one:
You ... can love a song for its datedness, for the social history its anachronism reveals. You can love a song for how its sentimentality gives a workout to the emotions. You can love it for its foreignness, for the glimpse it gives of human variability. You can love it for its exemplarity, for being the "ultimate" disco floor filler or schmaltzy mother song. You can love it for representing a place, a community, even an ideology, in the brokenhearted way I love "The Internationale." You might love it for its popularity, for linking you to the crowd: being popular may not make it "good" but it does make it a good, and a service, and you can listen to learn what it is doing for other people.
It's a gorgeous ideal: "When all these varieties of love are allowed, taste can seem less like a bunch of high school cliques or a global conspiracy of privilege and more like a fantasy world in which we get to romance or at least fool around with many strangers."

Wilson doesn't stop with this polyamorous vision, though, because he ties it to the ideas of Richard Sennett:
Sennett says the moral value of public life depends [...] on sympathy: to be able to say, "Your issues are not my issues, but I want to understand what they are. That, in my view," he told the CBC, "is a more respectful way for people to deal with cultural differences than, as it were, to consume them [...] Something that acknowledges both the effort to understand and social distance is a better way for people in complex communities to live. It actually allows you to have more relationship with them than if you pressure yourself to get as intimate and as close as possible ... which is tyrannical: you tyrannize yourself and you tyrannize the other."
I could quote the entire last chapter of the book with pleasure and excitement, because it is all so provocative and yet also so reasonable, but I will end with a single paragraph, one that I would like to write across all the skies of the world:
The goal is not that we all end up with the same taste, no matter how broad. That seems to be the tacit wish when someone claims to know a work's true value, or when Kant and Hegel suggest that under ideal conditions, we'd all reach aesthetic agreement. As philosopher Alexander Nehamas said in a 2001 lecture, this is an awful vision, out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. To say everyone ought to like what I like is to suggest everyone should be alike. Taste, after all, is part of the character you present to others. Personality is a creative medium, of its own. People depend on you to exhibit some consistency of taste, some sensibility, as they rely that you won't adopt diametrically opposed political views from one day to the next or keep switching in conversation into various foreign accents. So we ought to have musical loves and personal tastes, so long as we're not naive enough to think personal is all they are, or so selfish as to exclude other tastes from legitimacy.

4 comments:

  1. Thank you for this excellent review. Carl Wilson seems to be doing for Celine what Paul Morley did for Kylie: contextualizing the myth and somewhat legitimizing the music.

    I'll certainly look for this on the basis of your review. Fascinating breadth of ideas.

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  2. An excellent review of a book I've spent some time with. You quote one of the most telling points Wilson makes, the creative medium that is personality - not because I agree, or agree entirely, but because it captures much of the flavour of contemporary Western culture, particularly American culture.

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  3. Yeah, this is a great book and an excellent review of it. I should have written about it back when I read it, or at least mentioned it more prominently; perhaps then some few readers at least might have had a better idea what the book was like...

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  4. A/V read-along of book here (relevant videos, etc.):

    http://appendixa.net/tag/lets-talk-about-love-c-wilson/

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