Book Review: Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste by Carl Wilson

CarlWilsonOriginally released in 2007 as a standalone entry in the perennially well regarded 33 1/3rd series, Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love was an overdue conversation about taste, snobbery, and the parts of the human race whose opinions are often left out of cultural dialogue. Employing the recorded output of the never fashionable Celine Dion as a jumping-off point, Wilson’s journey into why we like the things we like was released to the warmest of reviews and is expanded here to include contributions from the likes of James Franco, Nick Hornby, Sukhdev Sandhu and Ann Powers.

In Wilson’s central piece, Dion is a figure who becomes more sympathetic the more context she is provided. Far from the theatrical brand of diva showboating that shades-in-the-day clad music critics sneer over, she’s cast here as an heiress to a long tradition of French-Canadian chanteuses. She’s shown as a scrapper from a large, poor family, and as one of those rare and miraculous child stars who has managed to avoid the pitfalls and breakdowns that plague this particular breed of celebrity. Wilson skilfully twists some of the most malignant and repetitive criticisms aimed at Celine to show the classism that lies at their root. It’s an ugly impulse that allows the intelligentsia to blithely dismiss wide swathes of humanity based on the music that brings them pleasure or to dismiss that music because of its listeners. The author sets out on his quest to try and find something to enjoy in the eponymous album, best known for containing the song that soundtracked the sinking of the Titanic, in order to get closer to this often dismissed population.

In Quebec, Dion was a cultural fact you could bear with grudging amusement — a horror show, but our horror show — until Titanic overturned all proportion and Dion’s ululating tonsils dilated to swallow the world.

An interesting question raised in the book is the idea of what “subversive” means now that rock ‘n’ roll soundtracks adverts for very expensive cars. What’s cool is what is distanced, what’s artificial. We react against schmaltz and sentimentality because they are naked and embarrassingly, emotionally, truthful. As the book goes on, we gain poignant glimpses into the writer’s own emotional life, as he recovers from a divorce, and feels lonely out of his element in a glitzy Las Vegas showroom and just about able to meet Dion on her own terms. Even in his pursuit for empathy, though, he isn’t above a cheap shot at the expense of Phil Collins’ “Groovy Kind of Love” – which might read as hypocritical to some, but  strikes me as a man still getting his house in order.

The media landscape has sped away from the book’s original background in the seven short years since its original publication. Print media’s death rattle and the ascendence of blogs and online voices mean that a consensus “cool” opinion on an artist and their work is most likely extinct. That “cool” opinion is something that Wilson recognises as pervasive and unhealthy. We judge ourselves and the world we form around us, he says, and then let that image shape how we live out the consumer aspects of our lives. Wilson is a witty and perceptive writer and the best parts of his book spring from his questioning his own ingrained biases which gently nudge the reader to do likewise. This is a humanist book from the outset, immediately veering away from the cheap jeers at the expense of people the writer doesn’t deign to understand yet. His prose is highly readable, accessible when talking about the likes of Immanuel Kant, but avoids appearing hollow next to the quotes from these long dead philosophers.

I remember being at sound-system dances and hearing everyone from Bob Marley Kenny Rogers (yes, Kenny Rogers) to Sade to Yellowman to Beenie Man being blasted at top volume while the crowd danced and drank up a storm. But once the selector… began to play a Celine Dion song, the crowd went buck wild and some people started firing shots in the air.

This year’s reissue of Love adds thirteen extraneous essays of varying qualities that continue the conversation. Krist Novoselic’s in particular is an exercise in essayistic cliches (any writer quoting The Who’s “meet the new boss – same as the old boss!” in 2014 is moving in worlds of lackadaisical mundanity), while Ann Powers offers up a trenchant and moving piece about femininity’s application in taste. It’s better to consider these additions as mere diverting bonus features, because as little as they add, the 2007 original easily deserved this victory lap of a Criterion edition.

About James Murphy

The waitress sure looks pretty and that's a bad sign. Shrewd & Knavish Sprite. Truth knowing guttersnipe. @LastExitShow & @PexLives.

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