Regular readers [Hi, Glenn] are likely aware of my love for the 33 1/3 series of music guides. Slight, portable, packed with insight on records from the classic to the cultish, they represent some of the best music criticism you can find on the shelves. But one selection gave me pause: Carl Wilson’s book on Celine Dion’s ‘Let’s Talk About Love.’ How could that piece of garbage warrant any booklength examination? Why was it longer than books on Illmatic or OK Computer? So I did what I imagine most petulant and superior music fans would have done: sucked my teeth and walked away.
But this book refused to go away. It made year-end ‘best of’ lists, intelligent people recommended it online and in print, just last week it got an endorsement on the Slate Culture Gabfest. So I finally bit the bullet and read the thing this week. And it is everything they say it is.
Thing is, it’s not about Celine Dion at all.
The key is found in the book’s subtitle, ‘A Journey to the End of Taste.’ Wilson’s with the album, its creation, etc, but he’s more concerned in Dion herself, specifically why he doesn’t like her music when so many other people do. And to understand that, you need to look at the idea of taste, of the different ‘-brows’ of art, and what our own preferences mean to us. And how taste as a concept doesn’t really work anymore. Wilson takes a survey of philosophy, cultural theory and literature to look at how the idea of taste has developed, from Kant’s ideal of a disinterested universal assessment of beauty, to French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu’s argument that our tastes are another form of cultural capital, to place ourselves in the hierarchy of discernment. Hating Celine allows people to feel superior to all the inauthentic sheep who embrace her bland form of adult contemporary, R&B-lite.
Thing is, though, the people who love Celine Dion [and Wilson’s book shows the reader fans from Iraq to Jamaica] don’t care about what it means that they love Celine Dion. Really, we should pray in our lives to love anything as purely as some people love Celine Dion. Because to them, she’s not fake, or a joke. And they’re kind of right.
Dion is a product of the 70s Quebec star system, a bizarre shadow culture of celebrity that the rest of Canada knows next to nothing about. Upon her emergence, Dion was promptly branded ketaine [tacky, white trash] and the press mocked her for her bad hair and snaggleteeth. But she had the voice, and her early success in global singing competitions during the 80s was more a source of embarrassment than pride in her home province. But she had the voice. And you can’t silence a voice like that. So when she entered the world stage, made it in America with all of her gawkish expressing and chest thumping, that’s not an act: that’s really her! Even Elliott Smith started defending her after they shared the stage at the Oscars. Do you think Dion would perform like that if she had any sense what it looked like? Is it awkward? Funny? Yeah. Inauthentic? Not a chance.
This is one of the big arguments about Dion. That she’s not real. And we as a people love our realness. Dion is the anti-realness; she’s schmaltz, kitsch. And kitsch has long been derided for acting as though the dark underbelly of existence isn’t there, for turning a back to the hardships living. But what is gained by turning a back on all the things that make living kinda sweet? If Celine Dion wants to sing about sunsets and babies, what is wrong with that? Sunsets and babies are actually kind of awesome. And you should be able to appreciate that without having to choose one side of an either/or argument. Too much of criticism is nothing more than lame persuasive essays trying to convince you as a reader that the writer is smarter than you and that you should like what they like. Ultimately, what Wilson would like to see is a more democratic approach to pop criticism, not a simple open-mindedness but a willingness to engage in art that does not appeal to your personal likes. So while I, like Wilson, may never choose to listen to a Celine Dion song under my own volition, I can certainly appreciate what she means to so many people.
Because let’s be honest, human existence is a beautifully complex and complicated thing, and sometimes you need a shitty song to dance to at a wedding, or to take some shallow comfort as you bury a young one. And when you do, Celine will be there, her heart going on and on.