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book review

Dion is the book’s cultural touchstone.Clément Allard/The Canadian Press

When Carl Wilson's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste was first released in 2007, it garnered a flurry of well-earned praise. Although it was an entry in 33 1/3, a series of mini-books about individual records, and was putatively about the eponymous 1997 Céline Dion album, Let's Talk About Love doubled as a thoughtful, wide-ranging exploration of the meaning of "taste" – why we like what we like and hate what we hate, with Dion, one of the biggest-selling and yet most-loathed singers of all time, employed as a jumping-off point. Wilson, a former Globe and Mail editor, left few stones unturned, mining everything from French sociology to Québécois kétaineto his own divorce in his search for an answer. Ultimately, although he didn't quite come to love Dion's music, he became a more careful, compassionate listener. "I would be relieved to have fewer debates that over who is right or wrong about music," he wrote, "and more that go, 'Wow, you hate all the music I like and I hate everything you like. What might we make of that?'"

In the interest of what Wilson calls "taste biography": I was in my early twenties when Let's Talk About Love came out. My vestigial teenage indie-rockism was still more or less intact, but I was primed to have just about any core belief upended, especially if that core belief stood to be replaced with something appealingly contrarian, populist, and rooted in rigorous social critique. A reflective, politicized defence of Céline Dion – I was helpless before it, quavering like a diva's vibrato.

Now, Continuum has re-released Let's Talk About Love, newly subtitled Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste and backed up with a swath of essays by other writers, musicians, and thinkers. Some of these contributions (author Mary Gaitskill's) are more valuable than others (former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic's). The reissue is an interesting exercise – at a time when technology is rapidly changing both the way we listen to music and the way we talk about it, it's worth pondering just what has shifted in the seven years since Wilson's book was first unleashed.

So what's different now? For one, some of the transformations he noted – music criticism's move away from "rockism" toward "poptimism," the internet's championing of individual songs over whole albums, the decimation of large record companies' stranglehold over distribution – have only deepened. Railing against a corporate pop star like Dion not only feels dated, it represents the cardinal sin of our age: it's un-novel. As Wilson points out, cultural consumers are now expected to "code switch" – to seamlessly weave between highbrow and low, "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."

In 2007, a rock critic defending Céline Dion was brave, almost unprecedented. Today, though, cultural cachet comes not from slagging Dion and praising some once-obscure indie band but from sly, counterintuitive assessments of same. Lambaste Dion or Nickelback or Avril Lavigne at a certain kind of cocktail party and, instead of being met with haughty agreement, you'll collect a bunch of blank stares. After the internet ended the rock snob's gatekeeper status, "being cool was no longer about what you knew and what other people didn't," the critic Alexandra Molotkow has written in the New York Times Magazine. "It was about what you had to say about the things that everyone already knew about."

Which brings us to number two: with the release of Let's Talk About Love, Wilson put himself on the vanguard of a new breed of critics. As a nakedly honest, self-aware overview of an artist and her aesthetic context, Let's Talk About Love was a far cry from the canonical, guitar-hero model of rock criticism that, until fairly recently, had dominated the field since its infancy.

At the time of its release, Let's Talk About Love was especially notable for its inclusion of the ideas of Pierre Bourdieu, the French sociologist who introduced the concept of "cultural capital," helping establish the idea that taste is formed by social position rather than by individual preference. In the 1970s, Bourdieu became a hugely influential figure in the then-nascent field of critical theory and its classroom counterpart, Cultural Studies – a kind of anthropology applied to Western pop culture. Wilson was not the first critic to name-check Bourdieu, but he did so at just the right time. By now, Cultural Studies has infiltrated nearly every corner of the humanities and social sciences, and so a generation of educated, internet-addicted music listeners has spent their formative university years questioning the primacy of their own tastes and interrogating bricolage in early-nineties hip hop.

The New York journal n+1 has called this "the Theory Generation," in reference to cult-studs-soaked novelists like Jennifer Egan and Jeffrey Eugenides, but it's applicable to any medium, including music writing. Since the initial publication of Let's Talk About Love, a form of popular criticism more interested in the semiotics of any given work than in its supposed aesthetic worth has found a small but influential niche, as witnessed by the rise of outlets like the New Inquiry, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the aforementioned n+1. Wilson's book is much more accessible than the dense, unreadable academese that this criticism occasionally trips into, but the comparison stands; they are the offspring of the same intellectual parents.

Indeed, one of the most interesting additions to the new reissue of Let's Talk About Love is an essay called "Too Much Sociology," by the writer and academic Marco Roth, originally published last year as an unsigned editorial in n+1. We're now at the point where, for a certain kind of listener, it's impossible to talk about music – or any art, really – without talking about cultural capital; that is, our aesthetic judgments are no longer lacking but swimming in social context, in a jumble of referents and disclaimers and appeals to subjectivity. "With the generalization of cultural sociology, however, the critical impact has vanished," Roth writes. "Sociology has ceased to be demystifying because it has become the way everyone thinks."

Like all good polemics, "Too Much Sociology" massively overstates its case, but its inclusion in Let's Talk About Love is an interesting meta-critique of Wilson's project. What's the use of questioning our own tastes if the answer is always, simply, that they are socially determined? Too often, leaning on "cultural capital" to explain our likes and dislikes becomes just another way to indicate our code-switching cultural fluency. As the academic Jonathan Sterne writes in his contribution to the book, "Being omnivorous, being inclusive, can itself mark and perform various kinds of privilege and status."

This omnivorousness can also turn into laziness. On balance, it's undoubtedly a good thing that today's critics treat pop music and TV the way their forebears did rock music and novels, but the pendulum has perhaps swung a little too far. "Part of the problem with anti-rockism is that while it usefully argues that a Britney Spears, Justin Bieber or Céline Dion should be taken just as seriously as a Bob Dylan or a Stevie Wonder, it is a huge leap to then treat the works of these artists as equally meaningful in the historical trajectory of musical output," the musician and academic Jason King writes in his Let's Talk About Love essay. "At its worst, anti-rockism becomes a poor excuse to relativize musical content and to celebrate the mediocre as if it were indeed artistically transcendent." Instead, he insists, when evaluating pop music (or just about anything else, for that matter), "you always have to ask, 'Compared to what?'"

Here, I think, is a crucial point, and the way forward for music critics and fans. If there is no such thing as an objective aesthetic standard, then the best tools we have are the questions we ask. So, rather than artificially pitting Dion against a confessional singer-songwriter like Elliott Smith (to cite an example from Let's Talk About Love), we'd be better off meeting artists on the terms of their efforts. Does this pop song do what a pop song is meant to do? What about this black metal song, or this Ethiopian funk song, or this ethereal, ambient soundscape? Does it succeed or fail within its own limits, skilfully employing or updating or subverting its genre's tropes? Although taste will always be slippery, and genres will always be fluid, asking these questions leaves room for judgment without devolving into the rockist, disco-sucks model of music criticism.

Ultimately, it's not very useful, or interesting, to become a prisoner of your own self-awareness; we still need to like some things and dislike other things, without constantly wringing our hands about our own discursive privilege. Indeed, the "we" here is exclusive in its own right, referring to an elite subset of cultural producers and consumers with the time, inclination, and education to sit around fretting about all this stuff. Wilson's book is so good, in part, because it's a frank, conscientious call for this kind of criticism – one that's open-minded but still, fundamentally, critical. "You can't go on suspending judgment forever – that would be to forgo genuinely enjoying music, since you can't enjoy what you can't like," he writes. "But a more pluralistic criticism might put less stock in defending its choices and more in depicting its enjoyment – to show what it is like for me to like it, and invite you to compare." In other words: let's talk.

Drew Nelles is a senior editor at The Walrus.

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