Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste Review (Carl Wilson)


Celine Dion. 

What’s your response? Like me, it’s probably: ick. Right? 

Well, you’re not alone as nearly everyone seems to have this response to Dion mostly thanks to her obnoxious monster hit, My Heart Will Go On, from James Cameron’s Titanic that won an Oscar and sold bazillions of copies worldwide. But chances are you won’t have heard much of her music beyond that song, or know much about her as a person, and yet the response to Dion is still: ick. Why?

That’s what Carl Wilson sets out to discover in his look at Dion’s album Let’s Talk About Love. But unlike the other books in the 33 ⅓ series, Dion’s album is barely touched upon as Wilson chooses instead to examine what “taste” is and how people form critical opinions in culture. 

What Wilson does in the book is definitely interesting and laudable but I found his conclusions to be a little obvious and his approach a bit too academic at times. He basically comes to chastise himself for being too much of a snob to exclude Dion and pop music in general because he perceives it to be schmaltzy and decides to be more inclusive of his cultural intake - which is fine, but isn’t an eye-opening revelation (not to me anyway as this is already my own personal approach to all things cultural) especially when that’s what you’d expect in a book that sets itself up the way it has. 

I appreciate the extensive research Wilson’s put into his book like informing the reader of Dion’s life and background, and putting her personality into the context of her Quebec upbringing - if nothing else, you’ll come away knowing a lot about Dion as a person. But did we really need an entire chapter on schmaltz? I understand why it was included but some of the topics here have only the most tenuous connection to the basic thesis that my attention was strained at times throughout. As relatively short as the book is - 160 pages - I feel if Wilson had tightened it up a bit, it’d be a more satisfying read that’d be as informative. 

But I did enjoy many sections of the book. I liked Wilson’s autobiographical notes such as his trip to Las Vegas to watch one of Dion’s last shows when she was a resident there and feeling momentarily touched by her singing, and that he wore headphones when listening to her music at home so his neighbours wouldn’t know he was listening to Celine Dion. Also as a huge Elliott Smith fan, I appreciated his anecdote about how Smith always defended Dion after meeting her at the Oscars (his song Miss Misery was nominated the same year as My Heart Will Go On and Smith performed it before Dion came out) saying that he may not like her music but he respected her as a person for coming up to him pre-show and showing him a basic level of courtesy that no-one else did at the ceremony. 

I think Wilson hit upon a really great idea with this book: take an album you have zero personal connection to and use it to examine music criticism itself, and for that alone it’s a standout in the excellent 33 ⅓ series. It’s just that at times it’s a little long-winded and it’s conclusions aren’t as inspired as the premise. If you want a thoughtful book that takes a nuanced look at music criticism and its faults, or an intellectual review of Dion’s seemingly bland songs, Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste is worth a look.

Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love (33 1/3)

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