25 May 2012

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

A friend of mine read this in her intro humanities class on modernity last semester, and I was intrigued. The premise is that the author is trying to figure out why he hates Celine Dion, and why so many other people love her, and what this tells us about Celine Dion, music, and taste more generally. I am very open to this idea, because about 8 years ago, I attended a screening of a film about Britney Spears that had been made for a coffee table book about her, which was followed by a conversation with the director, a woman who had made other, more highbrow documentary films, and the experience was nothing short of life changing. So I am pretty much the friendliest audience you can imagine for an in-depth consideration of critically snubbed pop stars. Let's Talk About Love is not an earth shattering book, but it's a pleasant, thoughtful read.

As much as I tend to dismiss biographical criticism, I have to admit that it somehow does make a difference to me to learn that Dion was one of like 14 children who grew up in an extremely poor Catholic Québécois family. Wilson makes a fascinating point, that what seems like Dion's inauthenticity is arguably illegibility; people just don't know how to interpret her cultural signifiers, because they're unfamiliar with her context. Huh. So yes, I learned a lot about Dion herself. I was startled to realize that he is much younger than I thought. In fact, she was roughly my age when she did My Heart Will Go On, a fact I found somewhat horrifying.

The more theoretical stuff, on taste itself, is a mixed bag. Historical overviews of approaches to taste (Kant meets Bourdieu) are somewhat interesting but ultimately not that useful. The more anecdotal discussions of music and coolness are quite compelling, however. And the examination of the ways that taste and identity politics overlap is thoughtful, though bleeding heart liberal enough to induce a few eye rolls. There is this nice moment where Wilson meets a Dion fan and realizes that they are utterly different people, but finds the guy completely likeable, and is just sort of flummoxed by how people with such different tastes can find each other both likeable and mutually incomprehensible. He frames this as each having complete, discrete "taste worlds," and I like this formulation of it being a world, a combination of opinion and life experience.

What I actually found the most intriguing was the discussion of sentimentality and what it's uses are. There's this moment where he tackles the idea of difficult art being seen as a offering a sort of utopian transcendence of everyday life, and then he tries to think through the inverse notion, that "easy" art is a way of plunging you into that everyday world. There is something really fascinating about that. It will stick with me. Amusingly enough, Wilson's impassioned defense of sentimentality can come across as slightly maudlin at times, especially when he's mentioning his feelings about the end of his marriage, but in a way, this is the whole point, an idea of actually existing in the space of the uncomfortable and embarassing. It's kind of neat.

A very pleasant book. Definitely recommended.

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