While I may never forgive Carl Wilson for getting that Titanic pan flute music stuck in my head for the better part of a week, it is his fantastic book on the French Canadian singer Celine Dion that has me doing the unthinkable: getting me to reconsider why it is that I dislike the pop star. Let’s Talk About Love is part of Continuum’s 33 1/3 series about various record albums (I read a dry one about Let It Be by Steve Matteo last month), but this book isn’t really about the Dion album or the singer at all. Instead, it uses her as a prism by which to investigate the nature of taste itself.
What motivates aesthetic judgment? Why does a woman who has sold tens of millions of record albums cause so many others to run screaming when they hear her voice? Wilson compares the ideas of Kant, who would have us believe that taste involves a universal instinct for beauty-assessment, with those of Pierre Bourdieu, a French sociologist who maintains that taste is never disinterested, but instead a form of cultural capital. In other words, those who hate Celine Dion are not merely making an aesthetic choice; it is an ethical decision made in order to elevate oneself above her fans, who tend to be poor, middle-aged, white women from Middle America. While we use what we like to define who we are and who we are not, we do the same with what we dislike. And as much as this bothers me on a personal level, the (perhaps) subconscious elevation of myself above others, I find it to be almost inarguably true.
Though Wilson does undergo a sort of journey as the narrative progresses, seeing Dion in Vegas and comparing the messages in her songs to his own life as he endures a painful divorce, he never is won over, becoming a fan. But what he does come to believe by the book’s conclusion is that we should move toward a new sort of ‘democratic’ criticism, where we aren’t so much open to all sorts of new ideas, but rather where we refuse to indulge in those cultural capital instincts that elevate us above another taste set, no matter what it is. While Wilson seems to limit himself to the medium of music, such principles remain applicable to just about anything that is judged on taste.
Pop criticism has always tried to articulate the genius behind the underappreciated or devalued. And while there are now canons in rock, rap, and country (not to mention other media like film and television), why should Celine Dion be beyond our capacity for praise. What Wilson accomplishes with Let’s Talk About Love did not make me like Dion’s music, but did help me understand what its appeal might be to others. By defining schmaltz as ‘an unprivate portrait of how private feeling is currently conceived,’ a label that is slapped on Dion’s music by all sorts of people including me, Wilson is able to turn the definition onto other genres of music. After all, he writes, ‘you could say that punk rock is anger’s schmaltz.’