When Carl Wilson hears Céline Dion, he hears nothing he likes - or rather, nothing he's supposed to like. Within the heartstring-tugging, globe-conquering songs that helped transform the gawky kid wonder from Charlemagne, Que., into the marginally less gawky Las Vegas diva of today, he searches in vain for "sonic innovation, verbal inventiveness, social criticism, rough exuberance, erotic charge or any of the other qualities I and a lot of critics listen for," as he writes in Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste.
So while My Heart Will Go On may have scored the marches of countless happy brides who wept through multiple viewings of Titanic, Wilson believes himself to be impervious. No, he will not be moved by a form of cultural comfort food he finds mundane, bombastic and over-emotive (among many other things).
- Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, by Carl Wilson, Continuum, 164 pages, $10.95
That his resistance will make like a wineglass near Ella Fitzgerald is not so surprising, seeing that he's written a whole book about Dion. Wilson - an editor and writer for The Globe and Mail who's also contributed to Slate and The New York Times, and who runs the music blog http://www.zoilus.com - describes it as "an experiment in taste, in stepping deliberately outside one's own aesthetics." As such, his project is very different from the other titles in Continuum's 33 1/3 series, which consists of tributes to the Smiths' Meat is Murder, Love's Forever Changes and other albums that have more of the qualities that excite self-respecting, cool-conscious critics.
And unlike most of those discs, Wilson's subject for exegesis - Dion's 1999 album Let's Talk About Love - was bought by the truckload. It has sold more than 31 million copies worldwide and is the second-largest-selling disc in Canada since 1995. (The champ is Shania Twain's Come On Over, and I look forward to the 331/3 contributor who can unpack the gender dynamics at play in Man! I Feel Like a Woman.)
Wilson's Dion distaste becomes the basis for a wide-ranging book, one predicated on the possibility that what repels us may say more about us than what attracts us. As he writes, "What unpleasant truths might we learn from looking closer at our musical fears and loathings, at what we consider 'bad taste'?"
And what with our eagerness to appreciate camp, trash and whatever else is so-bad-it's-good, distinctions about taste get harder to make. "Middlebrow," Wilson writes, "is the new lowbrow - mainstream taste the only taste for which you have to say you're sorry."
Positing Dion as the epitome of middlebrow, Wilson dates his fixation back to his days living as an anglo in Montreal, where he was a bemused observer of the vedette culture that first spawned her. While his feelings were less than warm, he still felt as proprietorial about her as her early fans did. "In Quebec," he writes, "Dion was a cultural fact you could bear with grudging amusement - a horror show, but our horror show - until Titanic overturned all proportion and Dion's ululating tonsils dilated to swallow the world." Wilson's deft appraisals of Quebec's relationship with Dion and the differences between her French- and English-language oeuvres are two of several aspects of this short book that deserve further analysis.
But this is less a biography, or even a critique, than a primer on aesthetics. Heavy thinkers like Kant, Hume and Adorno all make guest appearances, though more unexpected is the section on French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu's theories about the ways in which class aspirations are embedded in expressions of taste. Equally provocative is the idea that an aversion to schmaltz reflects a gender bias, Dion-haters being more secure with "macho rationalism" than any feminizing displays of sentimentality.
Another element that comes into play is Wilson's own carefully cultivated myopia as a music writer, though he's right to consider the possibility that the music that critics like most may be the music that best facilitates their practice. Sonic Youth, for instance, "is not great music to dance to, but it's a terrific soundtrack for making aesthetic judgments."
Making aesthetic judgments is very serious business to Wilson, and readers who don't happen to be music critics may wonder why the possibility of liking something he shouldn't causes him so much agony. Indeed, he feels as if it could jeopardize his entire identity. But he has a refreshing lack of condescension toward those who are not similarly afflicted. (He interviews a few Dion fans to get their take.)
What's more, the most vivid writing here is born of specific emotions rather than those pondered in the abstract. Since Wilson's quest to discover the true meaning of Céline coincides with the end of his marriage, he turns out to be especially vulnerable to the potency of what Noel Coward once called "cheap music." Particularly moving is his reverie about an early date with his future wife as she sings along to Buddy Holly's Oh Boy. "I've seldom felt so honoured, so human, so sure that merely human was enough," he writes. "That it did not remain enough, that there would be a sadder side to the story, does nothing to mar it, nor to diminish one watt in my memory the soft autumn light that fell across her face as she sang Buddy Holly's words to me."
His heart trembling, he's finally ready to contend with the album's actual contents, something he postpones until the 135th page. While he doesn't necessarily hear much that he likes (the critical apparatus inside his skull cannot be entirely dismantled), he is able to hear in a new way - really, to experience schmaltz without shame. Readers of his insightful, engaging and unexpectedly moving book will likely feel the same.
Jason Anderson is a film and music critic based in Toronto.