Carl Wilson

Carl Wilson
Carl 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 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.

Among the great curiosities about Celine Dion is how she can be so critically reviled while being so insanely popular. She sold 31 million copies of this one record, Let’s Talk About Love. You spoke to Celine fans about her; what makes her such a lightning rod, why has this French-Canadian struck the chords she has, both favourably and negatively?
I explore a lot of the reasons for this in the book. I think she’s sophisticated in a way that is entirely out of date. She’s following a model of being a popular entertainer that really died in the ’50s. Her fan base extends through all walks of life around the world, but I think you get a sense that one thing that that fan base doesn’t include is young, cool music aficionados who read a lot of music journalism. A lot of people still seek traditional entertainment values — everything from escapism, to a sentimental engagement with your emotions, and a large scale for its own sake — all of which are pretty deeply uncool. So, you end up with the cultural tastemakers and people who share that sensibility, who probably skew towards a higher educational background, being dismissive of exactly the things that other people find endearing about her. If I were to say one thing, it’s that particular sense of a shifting set of cultural signals that people read very differently. Someone like Celine is a bit of a threat to people who value their fluency and virtuosity in being able to juggle those signals and have a sense of what’s on the cutting edge. Her almost total indifference to that is offensive to those people’s world views and when hundreds of millions people say, "Yes, we also don’t care,” for a segment of people who’ve really staked their own personal value on being able to navigate that, I think it produces a hostile reaction.

One of the most intriguing aspects of your new book is how personal it is. You’ve really made yourself a part of this critique, beyond your engagement with the subject. You discuss your love life and the dissolution of your marriage and how listening to Celine Dion can affect your perception of these things. Taste is a very personal thing but why do this? Why put yourself on the line any more than you have by writing a whole book about Celine Dion?
[Laughs] When I started writing it, I thought of it as a very theoretical exercise. Because I conceived it as an experiment in thinking, "One of the ways to figure out something about taste is to see how much you can mess with your own tastes and deliberately alter your own perceptions and what kind of sincere effect that’s going to have,” that personalised it immediately. The other thing I found was, over the course of a project you start to question why you’re doing it and despair over whether it’s worth doing. I came to realise that I definitely have been one of those people who’s staked a fair amount of my self-worth on my ability to have an insider’s knowledge of things culturally and felt like that was some kind of social capital for me. What I came to feel as I thought about it and the ways in which those kinds of cultural self-categorisations separate us from people who are unlike us and don’t share that language is that, that’s no longer so interesting for me. The culture and the art still is interesting to me but what that implies about me is not so interesting to me any more. As I get older, I feel like what I’m actually interested in is finding out about people’s experiences that are unlike mine. By having so much at stake in the question of taste, that forms a barrier between yourself and those people because the more unalike your experiences are, the more likely that your tastes are very different. If you feel like that prevents us from having anything in common to talk about, then that’s a way of segregating yourself in a certain way. So, I really felt like I wanted to come out of the writing experience changed to some degree. Whatever my conclusions about Celine Dion were, I wanted to think about the ways in which I think and talk about culture and see if I could find different ways of doing that than I had before. Part of my conclusion is that, it’s the personal register that feels to me like the most universal; no matter what your tastes are, you have a set of personal experiences with them and they interact with your life and emotions in ways that you can communicate to other people without necessarily coming to the same opinions. So, the style of the book ended up reflecting that kind of aspiration towards a contact of a different kind.

That’s interesting because Celine’s a figure who some people deride because they don’t believe her emotions to be real, yet you really engaged with her and her music in a way.
The whole idea of "real” and "fake” in art is something that I’ve come to feel is just a totally unproductive minefield. There’s art that you respond to and art you don’t. It’s always manipulative. That’s what the artist is doing — creating a set of triggers that is supposed to affect the audience. In the case of Celine, rather than saying that "This is all just entertainment business manipulation,” we could say, "This is a different set of manipulative triggers than the ones that I’m used to responding to but that’s not actually a reason to suspect that the person behind it is coolly calculating and cynical about what they’re doing.” If you look at Celine as a persona, she’s actually a very unlikely candidate for cynical and manipulative; she’s kind of gawky, awkward, and over sincere. So, all of those easy kinds of dismissals are things we’ve habituated ourselves to but, when you look closer at them, it’s like "Oh, well that doesn’t really have much to stand on.”

Anyone interested in a taster of Let’s Talk About Love; A Journey to the End of Taste can send an email to [email protected]. You'll be sent the first two chapters in PDF free of charge. And if you like those chapters why not buy the rest of them here?