Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Problem of Taste

Book Reviewed: Let's Talk About Love, by Carl Wilson (vol. 52 of the 33 1/3 series)

So when I decided a couple months ago to start reading the 33 1/3 series, I knew I was going to have to get to this one early.  Carl Wilson's volume on Celine Dion's 1997 album Let's Talk About Love is one of the most famous books in the series, and it has taken on a life on its own because of its broader-scope view.  This book is about a lot more than Celine Dion.  It's about the nature of personal taste.  Wilson is adamently a non-fan of Dion and her music, and he spent years thinking that was one reason that he had better taste in music than most other people.  But as he got older, he realized that taste, while still one of the defining aspects of anyone's personality and individuality, might not be a great value judgment. 

Wilson is a strong writer (better, say, than Rob Trucks, who wrote the last 33 1/3 book I read, about Fleetwood Mac's Tusk).  He spends a lot of the book's first half contextualizing Celine Dion as a uniquely French-Canadian artist and what her national identity means to her fans and her nation.  A fellow Canadian, Wilson lays out this cultural background in a way that is fascinating and informative, shining a different light on everything else in the book.  He never makes fun of Dion and whenever he can, he adds stories that paint her in a positive light (for example, Elliot Smith's vehement defense of Dion because she was nice to him once backstage at the Oscars).  But neither does he give her a free pass.  Her music is often boring, overly loud and histrionic, and very sentimental.  Even then, Wilson still contextualizes this mode of music Dion operates in: sentimental schmaltz.  He traces a brief history of sentimental music in modern Western culture, and these types of historical details really add to the book as a whole.

Unlike Trucks, who went on and on about his own life as a contrived device to talk about Fleetwood Mac, Wilson manages his own presence in the book quite masterfully.  He frames the idea of musical taste with his own experiences, from snobby young journalist to divorced, middle-aged man.  Taste helped define him for years, and he certainly believes that taste makes up a large part of everyone's individuality.  But he wishes the us-versus-them aspect of taste could be lessened, and his experiences with hating Celine Dion show just how hard it is to do just that.  He meets Dion fans and respects them greatly, and he finds that he is more open to sentimental music, music that he knows he spent years cultivating a hatred for that might not have been deserved.  There's some really interesting things happening here about the way we can learn to appreciate emotional responses to art.

I liked this book a lot, although I wish I had been able to read it in just a few sittings instead of over several weeks' time in between homework sessions.  I think it would have connected with me even more than it did had I done that.  That being said, I did have an emotional reaction to this book.  As a kid, I loved Celine Dion, and as I got older, I learned to hate her.  And while I can never go back to liking her music, I can appreciate what it is that people like about her work.  It makes them feel things.  And there is nothing wrong with that.  Just yesterday at lunch, my friend Katie, a fellow writer, said that she's spent the last few years wanting fiction to be innovative and exciting in form.  But now, she said, "I just want it to move me."  She hit the nail on the head.  While I go to my poetry classes and pretend I just want to experiment and applaud all my classmates for being clever, secretly I just want good writing to make me feel something.  It's what got me into this art business, and it might be the only thing worth keeping me in it. 

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