MAY 1, 2014
THE LONG RUNNING 33 1/3 series consists of books in which a writer dissects a single album. Most authors examine albums they love — usually rock albums already firmly entrenched in the canon (Exile on Main Street say, or Highway 61 Revisited). But when Carl Wilson, currently Slate’s pop critic, got to contribute, he took a different, more interesting approach, using his opportunity to confront a musical work he cannot understand the merits of: Céline Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love. The resulting text represents “an experiment in taste, in stepping deliberately outside one’s own aesthetics,” and that’s the key to its value. Every critic should be attempting these experiments on a regular basis. Since many do not, it’s a good thing Let’s Talk About Love has been given a deluxe reissue, augmented with essays from a varied group of contributors. The resulting volume is not just a critical study of one Céline Dion album, but an engaging discussion of pop criticism itself.
This is not to say that the album alone isn’t worth studying. Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love, which came out in 1997 and has sold more than 30 million copies, is by at least one measure among the most successful albums of all time. Even those who do not listen to Dion will know at least one song here: “My Heart Will Go On,” referred to (usually dismissively), as “that song from Titanic.”
Wilson gives Dion and her music the same handling half a million critics have given classic rock albums: he places it in context! The book begins with an exploration of the singer’s Quebecois heritage. “Quebeckers are also among the world’s most prolific record buyers,” split “between the chanson — intellectual, leftist-oriented — and the variety-pop.” Within this microcosm, “there were two totally different networks […] different sets of record labels, different kinds of career management.” “[O]lder-style ‘variety-pop’ interpreters (mostly women) […] would inspire the young Céline Dion”; eventually Dion managed “to bridge chanson and variety,” reaching a status where “[s]he could claim all the institutional trappings that chanson monopolized a decade before.”
But even after this exploration of Quebec’s musical culture, Wilson is still struggling to classify his subject’s output. Deciding that the best descriptor is schmaltz, he traces the history of that field, moving from the word’s linguistic origins through opera to Elvis and Barry Manilow. It’s slightly easier to answer the question, who listens to it? Dion’s label has studied this. “Around 45% of Céline listeners were over fifty”; “68% of her listeners were female”; “a disproportionate part of her audience was in the lowest income bracket, under $25,000 a year, and again in the next lowest category.” Outliers include several male artists that are widely-respected as musical geniuses — who most definitely roll in higher income brackets. This group includes Prince and a number of famous producers: Phil Spector, Rick Rubin, Timbaland.
Because of Wilson’s mission, the book is not just an exploration of the roots and sound of Céline Dion, but also an exploration of the nature of modern pop criticism. At the end of the 1990s and early 2000s, not long after Dion’s album came out, pop writing began to change its priorities (in some venues more than others). “A new generation moved into positions of critical influence […] they mounted a wholesale critique against the syndrome of measuring all popular music by the norms of rock culture,” writes Wilson. It wasn’t just a new generation — the white male monopoly on writing about music waned (somewhat).
This development — combined with the fact that “a critic often can get noticed […] arguing that some music everyone has trashed is in fact genius” — meant that songs, albums, artists, and entire genres that had previously been ignored were given more critical attention. The manifesto for this swing is Kelefa Sanneh’s New York Times piece, “The Rap Against Rockism,” which has gotten renewed attention lately due to a recent article bemoaning the decline in critical respect for rock. The fact that Sanneh’s piece is still an important read 10 years later testifies to the entrenched forces at work.
The changing shape of pop criticism prompts Wilson to wonder, what’s a critic? He tests some philosophical definitions. David Hume said a critic requires “strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison and cleared of all prejudice.” But this — and other definitions of the skill set required for criticism — tend to run into problems in the real world. “[T]he demand to be at once expert and unbiased is enough of a paradox that you could say Hume’s ideal critic by definition does not exist.”
Wilson also explores the determinants of taste, again starting with the work of philosophers like Pierre Bourdieu, who posited that taste is just another way people differentiate themselves from those they believe exist in a lower class. Summarizing the results of a 1998 sociological study, Wilson notes, “lower-class respondents said what they liked ‘tasted good,’ while the higher-class ones said what they liked was ‘in good taste.’” “To have taste at all means to exclude,” and those exclusion patterns are not forged in a vacuum separate from class, politics, and inequality, no matter how much we think they are.
The book’s bonus material — a number of short essays — connects loosely with various aspects of Wilson’s argument. Daphne Brooks, a professor at Princeton, makes a case for Diana Ross’s “Reach Out and Touch” (“gutsy as hell”) as a schmaltz ballad of the highest order. Other contributors engage with music criticism more broadly, but sometimes end up running in circles. In “The Rap Against Rockism,” Sanneh wrote: “You literally can’t fight rockism, because the language of righteous struggle is the language of rockism itself.” The rhetoric we have to talk about pop criticism can also prevent us from talking about pop criticism. Jason King — a musician, journalist, and scholar at NYU — hopes that critics will be “‘anti-anti-rockist’”: willing to fight “the dangerous relativizing of anti-rockism” as well as “the reductive, essentializing limits of rockism.” Jonathan Sterne, professor in communication studies at McGill University, suggests that the concept of “good taste” is problematic, and “giving up on good taste also requires that we give up on giving up on good taste.”
As Wilson puts it, “the mandate to dethrone taste orthodoxies remains part of pop criticism’s legacy, so much so that it may help bring its own extinction.” Critics must question all orthodoxies — their own as well as the ones employed by musicians and listeners. King and Sterne warn about replacing knee-jerk rockism with knee-jerk anti-rockism, reinforcing the idea that “stepping deliberately outside one’s own aesthetics” is important, no matter what they are. Still, the language problem Sanneh identified is tricky and persistent. It’s confusing to give up on giving up without being right back where you started.
However, Dion, and singers like her, will persist, even if pop criticism’s mandate causes internal combustion (or the field just withers away, starved for cash, lost in its self-created solipsisms). Wilson doesn’t end his book as a Dion superfan. But, he writes, she “has helped conduct me to a more rich, varied, and, yes, compassionate life.” You can’t ask for much more from your music.