I want to call this the best book I’ve read all year. In fact, I want to put it in the running for being the best book I’ve ever read. It’s a pretty tiny book. I could easily carry it around in my pocket. I am seriously tempted to carry it with me everywhere for the rest of my life, just like Napoleon is reputed to have done with The Sorrows of Young Werther.
However, because I just finished reading a book that spent a few dozen pages covering the social dimensions of taste, I’m also painfully aware that the reason I want to rave about this book is because it’s much more obscure than most of my other favorite books. My love for this book certainly has a social dimension. By crowing about it, I’m making a pretty naked ploy to increase my relative social status by showing off the wide range of my reading. And by calling attention to my ploy, I’m utilizing the hipster swerve that’s a common characteristic of most modern popular art:
Now that I’ve taken care of that, let’s talk about this awesome book. It’s part of the 33 1/3 series of 150-page long-form essays in which various critics and personages usually rhapsodize at length about their favorite albums. But critic Colin Wilson decided to do something a little different. Instead, he wrote about an album that he (and much of the English-speaking world) detested: Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love. This is the album that contained the Titanic theme song “My Heart Will Go On”.
Wilson’s aim is to examine taste. We know that taste is not entirely subjective. Or, at least, we don’t treat it that way. We laud people with ‘good taste’ and revile those with ‘bad taste’. As a music critic, Wilson’s stock in trade is his good taste. But he has the same anxiety about it that everyone has. Why do other people like the music that he hates?
His solution is to spend one hundred and fifty pages teasing out every element of Celine’s possible appeal and of his own distaste. His chapters on Celine’s background and place in Canadian culture are interesting, and I found much to think about in his intermediate chapters (which are a more generalized discussion of aesthetics), but concluding chapters (on the the elements of her appeal) are masterful. I especially loved his chapter on sentimentality.
He starts by correcting noting that sentimentality is kind of the bogeyman of modern art. Very few emotional effects are more vilified than the sentimental, and very few emotional effects are so detrimental to a work’s odds of being considered a high-quality, durable work of art.
I love that Wilson never falls down the rabbit-hole of total subjectivity. He remains adamant about what he perceives as the characteristics of Celine’s music–sentimentality, a lack of innovation, and a lack of cultural (and self) awareness. As he puts it:
“The virtuosity that cool audiences today applaud, the sort Celine always fumbles, is not about having a multioctave voice or flamenco-fast fingers: It’s about being able to manipulate signs and symbols, to hitch them up and decouple them in a blink of an eye, to quote Homer but in the voice of Homer Simpson.”
And, in an earlier section (while watching Celine’s Vegas show):
“And this…is why Celine winds up mocked, because her efforts at class and taste always go wrong. With her synthesized strings and genuine pearls and her opera-crossover attempts, she aspires to the highbrow culture of a half-century ago. She doesn’t pass the retina scan: the real elites are now busy affecting muttonchops and trucker caps and reading about teen pop in The New Yorker.”
At no point does he try to argue that bad is good–that Celine’s fans are able to perceive qualities in her music that he cannot. Rather, he seems to come to the conclusion that all the listeners are responding to much the same qualities, but he is responding to them negatively while her listeners respond to them positively.
With this mindset, Wilson comes to the defense of a sentimentality that his cultural programming militates against. He writes some great stuff that I tried for awhile to summarize, but couldn’t. Jesus, a guy works for a year to boil the whole of aesthetics down to 150 pages, and you want me to summarize it in a paragraph? Can’t be done.
Suffice it to say, Wilson gets something out of the whole endeavor. And he doesn’t fall into the trap of saying, “Well, everything is worthwhile if you think about it hard enough.” No, he retains a kind of objectivity (and a kind of belief in artistic quality) while still learning to perceive (and, sort of, appreciate) the ways in which Celine’s music is good. As he writes:
“If I was trying to learn to love Celine Dion’s music, then perhaps my experiment was too tyrannical. It would be no solution to say we have to love everything, the equivalent of loving nothing. (As God does.) What counted in the end was to give Let’s Talk About Love a sympathetic hearing, to credit that others find it lovable and ask what they can tell me about music (or globalism, or sentimentality) in general. The kind of contempt that’s mobilized by “cool” taste is inimical to that sympathy, to an aesthetics that might support a good public life.”
In the end, he starts thinking about the ways that we, as critical and art-loving people, can create a world where the struggle between good taste and bad taste isn’t quite so life and death.
For myself, I think that’s something that’s well worth doing. Some SF fans will, perhaps, try to connect this to endless (and endlessly tedious) debate about genre fiction and literary fiction. However, I think that Wilson correctly notes that the taste is no longer bound by genres (the book is full of great ancillary observations about art and the art world). Most elite consumers of culture are omnivores. Right now, the cool thing is to have extremely diverse tastes–as long as your taste is for something marginal, it doesn’t matter whether it’s marginal high art (poetry) or marginal low art (autobiographical comics). The only thing that it’s still per-se uncool to like (except in a hip, self-aware way) is the mainstream: that thin slice of very popular work (primarily marketed towards middle-aged people) that exists in sort of a null territory–stuff like Two And A Half Men or a Tom Clancy novel. In genre fiction, this divide is between the innovative, well-written genre fiction that we’re supposed to write (Ted Chiang, Jeff Vandermeer, Kelly Link, etc) and the mass-market stuff that we’re supposed to repudiate (David Weber, Terry Goodkind, L. Ron Hubbard, etc.)
Online, one rarely hears the latter discussed with respect, and there are good reasons for that…but I’ve enjoyed books by all three of the authors that I named. By my current standards, I have often had some pretty bad taste. And for a significant fraction of my life, I had bad taste in a completely unreconstructed way. I loved the latter and didn’t even know about the former. My bad taste was untainted by any sort of hipsterish swerve (a prelapsarian self that I have, perhaps unfortunately, lost forever). In fact, during the angstier moments of my youth, I was certainly prone to listening to Celine’s “My Heart Will Go On”.
As an economically and socially mobile artist, I’ve done my best to distance myself from these early loves, but maybe that wasn’t the right thing for me to do. Maybe I should’ve been following Wilson’s example. For me, reading this book providing a road-map for journeying into the heart of my own motivations. In the end, the real value of this book is in the tools that it gives to the reader: Wilson provides a way of thinking–a mode of internal dialogue–that allows the reader to interrogate his own tastes.