Loads of Learned Lumber

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Carl Wilson, _Let's Talk about Love: A journey to the End of Taste_

GREAT IDEA FOR a book series, but ironically the titles about albums I love are often not that illuminating (e.g., Forever Changes) while those on albums I care almost nothing for (e.g., Masters of Reality) turn out to be interesting. It would have been helpful had the books about the albums been exactly as worthwhile as the albums themselves, but the odds against so lucky an alignment are very long, I can see.

Here we have a case in point of an interesting book about a (to me) not very interesting album, but in this instance Wilson picked his subject not because he loves the music of Céline Dion----indeed, as he explains in his first chapter, he was for a long time in the "hater" camp--but because he is intrigued by the question of how an artist can be as globally, massively popular as Dion is yet be so definitely, sometimes brutally written off by music critics as she also is.  Why do the masses flock so ardently to such mediocre music?--or--to flip the question--why do critics like Wilson disdain what virtually everyone else loves?

An intriguing topic, and Wilson's book deserves the buzz it has gotten (two perfect strangers on two different occasions in two different coffeeshops asked me about it when they saw I was reading it).

Reasons for hating Dion evaporate as Wilson finds out more about her.  She came from a working-class family she remained close to; she honors her French-Canadian cultural roots. There is nothing crass or opportunistic or pandering about her doing the material she does in the way she does it--she really believes in the power of a big, bombastic, tear-jerking ballad. Sentimental? Sure.  Derivative? Yes. But inauthentic? No. She is as committed to what she is doing as Ornette Coleman or Steve Reich or Sufjan Stevens or Julia Holter or whoever your example of unimpeachable musical integrity is.

Is "taste" just a kind of con, then? The idea of taste gets investigated in chapters 7 and 8. The Humean and Kantian versions get fairly short shrift; Wilson cannot see much foundation for the concept of taste, really, and seems to wind up in the Bourdieu camp--that "taste" is just a mask for class, that we construct our aesthetic preferences around our notions of what group we wish to belong to. If you wish to belong to the cool people who have been to college and scorn the musical spectacles mass-produced for the proles, you teach yourself to dislike Céline Dion.

There is certainly something to this. We can all, I suppose, think of things we pretended either to like or to dislike because of what we imagined others would conclude about us based on the liking/disliking. But there has to be more to it than that.

Devotees of Norwegian black metal, say, or of the Insane Clown Posse, would be among those who would sedulously avoid Céline Dion, yet they would not be doing so out of snobbery or elitism, right? Being a devotee of black metal might constitute a kind of inverted elitism, perhaps, in that you might feel a certain contempt for the people who don't get it, who don't understand that the essence of life is GHHRHHGHRGH; you might like black metal as a kind of identity thing, yes--but you don't like black metal as a prestige thing. You might get opera tickets or listen to Charlie Parker because you hope others will notice you are capable of appreciating finer things, or as part of some Leonard Bast-like aspiration program (see Forster's Howards End), but isn't taste also about finding the things that mean something to you, reveal something to you, that seem like the real deal?

I can see Wilson's point about the futility and unreason of resenting Dion's success or scorning her fans. More power to her and to them. But I can't see that I am just being a snob in not enjoying her music. True, she has a gorgeous singing voice, true, her arrangers and musicians are supremely capable, true, the sentiments in her songs seem unexceptionable, but the sum of the parts falls well short of the kind of revelation I know music can provide.

But take Lou Reed's "Perfect Day," for instance--there is a revelation.

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