2003, Continuum Books and Bloomsbury have been publishing a series of short monographs
on pop albums under the increasingly anachronistic title “33⅓.” At their best,
the 33⅓ books, mostly written by professional music critics and
cultural-studies academics, are models of passionate, cerebral fandom. (A rough analogue would be the British Film Institute’s
Film Classics series, established in 1992.) Among the albums
included in the series, now nearly 100 volumes strong, are Dusty Springfield’s Dusty
in Memphis, Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, A
Tribe Called Quest’s People’s Instinctive
Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, and Brian Eno’s Another Green World.
These are not necessarily the albums that everyone has heard, nor are they the
ones that have sold the most; they’re ones that the kinds of people who are proud
of their taste in pop music take pride in knowing.
In this gnostic context, Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, first published in 2007, was a counterintuitive masterstroke. Wilson’s gamble—that even people who hate Céline Dion would be curious to read an entire book about why they hate her, and what that hatred might mean—paid off handsomely: Let’s Talk About Love was widely and enthusiastically reviewed outside the usual music-geek circles, Wilson appeared on NPR and The Colbert Report, and last year he was hired as Slate’s chief music critic, as plum a gig as a pop critic can expect in today’s collapsing media economy. Crowning Wilson’s achievement is a “new and expanded edition” of Let’s Talk About Love, just published by Bloomsbury; no other book in the 33⅓ series’ 11-year history has received the deluxe reissue treatment to date.
All of the attention Let’s Talk About Love has received may be surprising, but it’s by no means undeserved. Wilson’s elegant little book—a mere 176 pages in the original edition—is a pleasure to read and a model of journalistic economy and structure. The first two chapters, “Let’s Talk About Hate” and “Let’s Talk About Pop (and Its Critics),” develop a symmetrical contrast between Dion and the late indie rock singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, both of whom performed at the 1998 Academy Awards ceremony. Smith was there to sing his downbeat ballad “Miss Misery,” from the Good Will Hunting soundtrack; Dion, her ubiquitous megahit “My Heart Will Go On (Love Theme from Titanic).” It’s a classic David and Goliath scenario, but the twist here is that Smith, according to several interviews, became a staunch Céline defender after the experience of meeting her backstage at the Oscars: “It was too human to be dismissed,” he said, “simply because I find her music trite.”
Taking Smith’s tip not to dismiss Dion too quickly, Wilson, an admitted Céline-hater at the start of the book, bends over backward to understand her appeal. To this end, he launches a series of pop-anthropological disquisitions on her Québécois background (in a chapter called “Let’s Talk in French”). He analyzes Dion’s place in the history of overtly sentimental popular song (“Let’s Talk About Schmaltz”) and her overwhelming, at times overbearing technical mastery (“Let’s Sing Really Loud”). He talks to a few of her rabid fans, and speculates about the rest of them based on available demographic evidence. According to a market-research survey conducted in 2006, Céline’s American fanbase is disproportionately female, over 35, and low-income; they are more likely to live in the middle of the country than on the coasts, and “about three-and-a-half times more likely to be widowed than the average music listener.” As Wilson puts it: “It’s hard to imagine an audience that could confer less cool on a musician.” He travels to Las Vegas to see her perform her nightly show A New Day, and finds himself intermittently, but genuinely, moved. Finally, armed with a dissertation’s worth of cultural context, he sits down and actually listens to the album and finds things to appreciate, if not love, about it.
There’s no denying that the book is a virtuoso performance on multiple levels, still more so in this generous new edition.
If this were all Wilson’s book aimed to accomplish, it would still have made a splash: bringing Céline Dion into the respectable pop-crit canon is no mean feat, and Wilson does it deftly and without undue condescension. But somewhere around the halfway point, Let’s Talk About Love raises the stakes. In two ambitious yet accessible central chapters, Wilson turns intellectual historian, laying out an exemplary pocket history of aesthetic theory encompassing Hume, Kant, Clement Greenberg, and the nascent science of neurobiology before introducing Let’s Talk About Love’s patron saint: the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. Wilson’s discussion of Bourdieu’s theory of the relations between taste and social class, focusing mainly on his 1979 opus Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, remains one of the most lucid and even-handed explanations of that work for a popular audience. And Wilson’s turn to Bourdieu is important, too, in the intellectual history of his own field—popular music criticism—for helping to revive an interest in class, which, circa 2007, tended to be deemphasized in favor of race and gender. Like Bourdieu, Wilson avoids the anachronistic class categories used by Marx and his immediate successors (“proletariat,” “bourgeoisie,” “aristocracy,” and so on) in favor of a sophisticated framework that makes subtle distinctions between segments within each class and differentiates between cultural and economic capital. “Artistic taste,” Wilson explains, “is most competitive among people whose main asset is cultural capital”: hence the exaggerated disdain for melodramatic, broadly popular artists like Céline among hipsters and cognoscenti.
There is something oddly satisfying about Wilson’s juxtaposition of Dion and Bourdieu, two of the 20th century’s last big Francophone crossover stories. Dion’s first English-language album, Unison, came out in 1990, and her international success peaked in 1998 with the inescapable “My Heart Will Go On.” Meanwhile, Bourdieu, a mainstay of French intellectual life for decades, was a rising star on the North American critical theory circuit throughout the 1980s and ’90s, when many of his most important writings on the sociology of art were finally published in English and began to influence the Anglo-American academic world. Of course, academic theory works according to a different temporality than chart-pop, and it took somewhat longer for Bourdieu to “cross over” than it did Dion. By the mid-2000s, though, the time had come for a cultural critic to make a clear, thoughtful presentation of Bourdieu’s ideas about class and aesthetics to a hip, nonacademic audience—exactly the sector of the population that the 33⅓ series typically reaches. With uncanny timing, Wilson took advantage of the Bourdieu boom, already on the wane in academia, boosting his intellectual cred by explicating a difficult social theorist at the same time as he earned his populist (or “poptimist”) bona fides by choosing a conspicuously uncool subject like Dion. Readers on both sides of the equation were dazzled; academics and pop fans alike felt taken seriously (and were), while hip tastemakers and Wilson’s fellow music critics—the 33⅓ series’ core audience—simply stood back and marveled at the way he played the game.
For all these reasons, Let’s Talk About Love must be accounted a success—a milestone, even. Still, why return to the scene of the triumph a mere seven years later? The 2014 edition of Let’s Talk About Love boasts a new subtitle (Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste), a new afterword by Wilson, and 13 additional essays by divers hands. The least essential of these are by performers, including the actor James Franco and the musicians Krist Novoselic and Owen Pallett, which have their moments but ultimately feel beside the point. Better are the meditations on related themes of taste, shame, and sentimentality by the critics Ann Powers, Daphne A. Brooks, and Sukhdev Sandhu and the novelist Sheila Heti, Wilson’s ex-wife, who makes a couple of uncredited cameos in the original text. (Powers’s essay, a reflection on her mother’s death that posits that “[o]rdinary women’s unsolicited opinions and preferences are hugely influential within the broad experience of material culture,” is particularly lovely.) Other pieces respond more directly to Let’s Talk About Love. The producer and critic Jason King fills out the somewhat underdeveloped musicological aspect of Wilson’s book, while the electronic musician and literary scholar Drew Daniel updates his analysis by pointing out that Dion’s music is already being reclaimed by the same subcultures that previously spurned it—an index, perhaps, of her declining mass popularity: “the result of this downgrade from superabundant superstar to passé icon is that she is now (over)ripe for hipster re-appropriation.”
All of these essays feel like extensions of the methodology and reigning assumptions of Let’s Talk About Love, salted with occasional praise for the original book. A little of this goes a long way, and the pitfall here would be to fill up the back half of the new edition with what amount to extended blurbs. To Wilson’s credit, though, he seems to genuinely want to “keep the dialogue in motion,” as he puts it, and to that end he includes some pretty thoroughgoing critiques of his project along with the kudos. In her essay “The Easiest Thing to Forget,” the novelist Mary Gaitskill (who claims never to have heard Céline Dion before reading the book) gets in some entertaining jabs at “the horrible baroque language of modern criticism, a layering upon layering of poses, assumptions, interpretations and second-guesses trip-wired to catch the uncool.” While she writes that, reading the book, she came “to like and admire Wilson for his empathic and imaginative willingness to pick his way through the dark maze of signifiers and referents,” Gaitskill also admits that she “wanted to say [to him], ‘Good grief, man, music is about sound; that social-meaning shit is … basically shit.’” Referring to a passage in which Wilson puts Dion’s emotional reaction to the looting after Hurricane Katrina in the context of her humble French-Canadian origins, Gaitskill responds:
While there have always been and always will be stunted creatures who make fun of people for showing emotion that said creatures are uncomfortable with, why does a plainly sophisticated, generous and intelligent critic need to marshal lengthy cultural analysis to explain to his equally sophisticated cohort why a person might get emotional and even cry at the sight of her fellows wretchedly suffering day after day after day? Really, you have to explain why that is “culturally sound”?
Gaitskill’s dismissal of cultural studies and the sociology of taste as “that social-meaning shit” is blunter but otherwise not far from the position, taken by Marco Roth and the editors of n+1 (hereafter Roth) in their much-discussed 2013 polemic “Too Much Sociology,” that “[f]ew things are less contested today than the idea that art mostly expresses class and status hierarchies, and only secondarily might have snippets of aesthetic value.” “Think back to the first time you heard someone casually talk of ‘cultural capital’ at a party,” Roth writes, “… or use the words strategize, negotiate, positioning, or leveraging in a discussion of a much admired ‘cultural producer’s’ career.” According to Roth (speaking, here, for many humanists), such inside-baseball conversations miss the point of art, allowing a cynical explanatory discourse to take the place of sympathy, appreciation, or, for that matter, formal critique.
It’s important to note that these aren’t just criticisms of Wilson’s book: they’re attempts at demolishing the foundation upon which he stands. What critics like Gaitskill and Roth are telling critics like Wilson and Bourdieu is that their views, however cleverly expressed, are basically irrelevant where art is concerned. If we could just give up on all the pointless, petty “social-meaning shit,” the scales would fall from our eyes and we’d see what art is really all about.
With all due respect, I don’t think so. Aesthetic judgment is a game with different rules than social judgment, but it’s no less a game, and you can’t stop playing one just because you happen to prefer the other. We can agree, with Roth, that literary intellectuals at parties sound boring and fatuous when they use words like cultural capital, without thinking that using words like genius would be any better, or more authentic. Nor will Gaitskill’s preference for “sound” over “social-meaning shit” get us any closer to understanding why people care about pop music: any plausible critical explanation will have to encompass both, and tell us why and how the two are related.
A better critique of Wilson’s book, I think, comes from the essay by media scholar Jonathan Sterne, author of an exceptional recent history of the MP3 format. After some interesting remarks about the way “certain kinds of taste get baked into the contexts through which we move” (i.e., how media technologies like the television, the radio, and the computer help to invisibly determine our criteria for sonic and musical excellence), Sterne draws conclusions from Bourdieu’s central premise that “everything is social” that are quite different from Wilson’s:
Regardless of the judgments we make ourselves, we also live in a world shaped by the judgments of others. In fact, we depend on it, whether we try to assert our good tastes or to leave them behind. I worry that Wilson’s pluralist position—and my own—runs a little too close to liberal pluralism, where those of us at the center get to enjoy the diversity around us, even as we still make judgments about the basis for reasonable inclusion and exclusion.
In other words, only those “at the center”—i.e., those with power, whether economic, cultural, or social—get to decide when the rules of taste are to be suspended or changed. This may be less true for pop music than it is for, say, conceptual art, but if Bourdieu’s sociology has taught us anything, it’s that basic differences in status (whether economic, educational, sexual, or racial) ramify in every cultural field until they add up to mammoth structural inequalities. Pop fandom may be a relatively diverse field (pop criticism rather less so), but a book-length defense of Céline Dion would not be as effective coming from someone unlike Wilson (a middle-aged Midwestern widow, for instance). Thus, Sterne sensibly concludes, while “[w]e should refuse to cast good taste—and all the trappings of social class that come with it—as a moral achievement … the abandonment of good taste can also function as a moral ‘achievement,’ as a marker of class and age distinction, in the same way that good taste once did.”
This gets to the heart of what bugs me about Wilson’s self-congratulatory final chapter, in which he gets a bit misty-eyed about “democracy, that dangerous, paradoxical and mostly unattempted ideal”—as if his good-faith attempt to appreciate the career of a global pop star should be read as not just a broadminded act of criticism, but a contribution to a more just society. Wilson’s utopianism, however attractive, is ultimately unconvincing. Understanding the passionate fans of an artist you hate is indeed an interesting critical exercise, and maybe even an interesting ethical one; but it’s going too far to see it as political, i.e., as providing the basis for some kind of realizable, universalizable community.
In his new afterword, “Let’s Talk Later,” Wilson provocatively suggests that “books are [often] published on the verge of the moment their arguments will go out of date.” He applies this theory to the regime of taste he describes in Let’s Talk About Love, suggesting that it may have already been superseded by a new, omnivorous, Internet-based culture that has no use for the aesthetic binaries and hierarchies of the past. Maybe, maybe not. But it’s possible to apply Wilson’s insight to another fin de siècle aspect of his book: its guilt-ridden desire to transcend the limitations of the self, a tendency we can associate, following Sterne, with a certain strain of liberal pluralism. “A few people have asked me, isn’t life too short to waste time on art you dislike?” Wilson writes. “But lately I feel like life is too short not to … In retrospect, this experiment seems like a last effort to purge [my] insularity, so that my next phase might happen in a larger world, one beyond the horizon of my habits. For me, adulthood is turning out to be about becoming democratic.” Once again, this seems like a misunderstanding of democracy, which, as I understand it, is not about wasting time on things you dislike, but speaking up about the things that affect you (in every sense of the word).
Of course, the fact that transcending oneself won’t solve all the world’s problems doesn’t invalidate it as a spiritual exercise. We could all afford to try transcending our own points of view a little more often. Nor is Wilson’s vision of “a more pluralistic” or “dialogic criticism” a non-starter simply because it’s based on a liberal chimera (what Drew Daniel nicely calls “the fantasy of taste on behalf of being better at understanding others”). Inviting other writers to participate in what Wilson calls “a cocktail party in prose” is one way to strive toward that dialogic ideal, and probably a sounder one than the heroic process of self-overcoming represented by Let’s Talk About Love. There’s no denying that the book is a virtuoso performance on multiple levels, still more so in this generous new edition. But I hope Wilson’s next book will be less concerned with the dialectic of self-flagellation and self-congratulation, and more willing to talk openly, without shame, about what he really loves.