By Vish KhannaCarl Wilson is a Toronto-based writer and editor at The Globe and Mail and his work has also appeared online at Pitchfork and Slate and in The New York Times and Blender magazine among other publications. He also tends to the popular blog Zoilus.com and is part of the team behind Trampoline Hall, Toronto’s acclaimed nightclub series of lectures by non-experts, which toured America in 2002. His latest work is part of the celebrated 33 1/3 book series on the music criticism and analysis of individual albums. Surprisingly, Wilson chose one of the most popular records of all time to focus upon, and it’s by Celine Dion. The new book is entitled Let’s Talk About Love; A Journey to the End of Taste.
First off, let me just say that I truly enjoyed this book on every level. It’s sharp, illuminating, and thought provoking. I laughed, I cried — it really is the whole package. I know you detail this rather amusingly in the book but can you discuss how and why you came to be immersed in Celine Dion for this project? When I first was in touch with the 33 1/3 editors, because I have a job and various other things, it seemed like a really great place to write a first book because they’re small, sort of compact volumes. I threw a couple of ideas at them. I had an idea about a Pere Ubu album and a Randy Newman album and, for one reason or another — mostly due to the fact that they were starting to get a sense of their sales patterns — they felt like they were good ideas but a little on the obscure side. I was like, "Okay, what’s the least obscure thing I could do?” I went to the recording industry association’s website where there’s a list of the bestselling albums and quickly noticed that there were two or three Celine Dion albums on it. This re-sparked an idea I’d had, which was to investigate the reasons why people have the artistic tastes they do. I realised that a good way to go at that question was to start looking at something that I really had no affinity with whatsoever but that lots and lots of people clearly do, since Celine’s sold something on the order of 200 million albums. I think there’s an obvious mystery there when you have someone who is all but critically reviled and certainly somebody that the media and probably yourself and your friends have enjoyed making fun of at one time or another, there seems to be this gulf where one audience doesn’t understand the other, so Celine seemed to me a good opportunity for a case study on that type of problem.
Within what you call an "experiment in taste” here, you bring up the notion of "difficult music.” Now, such a term might normally be associated with music on the fringes — avant-garde jazz or improvised music perhaps, or punk and outsider indie rock to name a few styles. As you point out though, there’s very little that is easy about "easy listening” music for discerning music critics. After completing this book and your taste experimentation, what have you come away with? What have you learned about popular culture consumption from writing this book about Celine Dion? It’s hard to sum up because I think a lot of it was an exercise in further complicating my sense of things rather than reaching some clarified conclusion. Since our tastes and perceptions of culture are all filtered through social and personal backgrounds and the ways in which different cultural artefacts become associated with different social meanings and emotional reactions to those meanings, to presume that when you hear something you know what you’re hearing or why you’re reacting to it that way and feel an easy confidence in that, it first of all really risks overlooking stuff that you might be able to get something out of in another way and second of all, it perpetuates a social conflict that we might want to be wary of. It extends the jocks/freaks/nerds model of high school out into the rest of life and all of those things for adults come to have different meanings that are often associated with race and class and these kinds of problematic categories. So, a lot of what I felt like I learned was to cultivate a habit of suspending judgment a lot more than I habitually have in my life. For a long time, particularly when I was younger, I felt the romance of having these robust cultural positions and being able to say "These are the powerful, important parts of culture.” And not necessarily in a high/low culture sense but by whatever sort of register or set of aesthetics you’re using to attach yourself strongly to things. I ended up feeling like all of those sets of aesthetics are dubious and, I don’t think we can really live without them, but I think we can live with them a little more carefully and gingerly than we do. I hate to sound like it’s some sort of plea for open-mindedness because in some ways I don’t think it is. I think it’s more a plea for engaging with layers of reaction and background beyond the first level gut reactions.