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Lost & Found: Brian DeLeeuw on Carl Wilson

In honor of Halloween, we’re fathoming the dark netherworld of one of pop culture’s spookiest phenomena: Céline Dion and the fans that love her. Brian DeLeeuw plays Virgil for our Lost & Found sojourn into Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of TasteAbandon all hope, ye who enter here.

People like me who spend much of their time reading and proselytizing for literature are almost inevitably, at some point, forced to confront the possibility that they are perhaps elitist assholes.  I could maybe avoid this if I surrounded myself exclusively with other writers and publishing types (or plunged my head, ostrich-like, into the deep sands of reclusion or super-specialized academia), but that’s both implausible and, in its homeogeneity at the very least, undesireable.  If I’m going to be an engaged member of contemporary urban America, my preoccupation with literature is going to be implicitly questioned simply by the fact that I spend a lot of time on something that the culture at large does not.  The impulse is to answer in the negative: I read books because I don’t care about CSI or Iron Man or Us Weekly.  After all, “Tastes are composed of a thousand distastes,” or so said Paul Valéry.  Which is of course a not-so-implicit judgment on the people who do care about those things.  And even if, instead, I choose to argue in the positive and clamber upon my rickety soap-box to declaim those beloved virtues of literature—depth, subtlety, some squirrelly notion of truth—I am asserting the primacy of a particular value system, my value system: these things I care about are more important than the things you care about.  Append an apologetic “to me” to this statement, and I slide into a relativistic morass; leave the statement as is, and I am the aforementioned asshole.

Which brings me to Céline Dion.

When Canadian music journalist Carl Wilson decided to investigate the construction of taste in his excellent contribution to Continuum’s 33 1/3 series, Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, “by looking closely at a very popular artist I really, really can’t stand, Dion was waiting at the front of the line.”  And why not?  Who likes Céline Dion anyway?  Well, it turns out, aside from the stereotypical soccer moms and gay-diva enthusiasts, Céline’s biggest fans include war-weary Iraqis, Ghanaian taxi drivers, China’s minister of culture, and Jamaica’s roughest roughnecks, one of whom explained, “Bad man have fi play love tune fi show ‘dat them a lova too.”  So what’s Wilson’s problem?  And is it a problem he should care about solving?

His approach is to delve into the history of two equally unfathomable concepts: that of a universal, disinterested hierarchy of taste and that of Céline Dion herself.  For the investigation of the latter, we get sharp and lucidly-written précis on Québécoise culture and politics, the history of schmaltz, and the global hybridization of pop music; for the former, discussions of Hume and Kant, the Russian-American artist duo Vitaly Komar and Alexandir Melamid, and the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu.  (Bourdieu, for his part, declared much like Valéry that “tastes are perhaps first and foremost distastes, disgusts provoked by horror or visceral intolerance of the tastes of others;” he also appeared to believe the whole enterprise of culture was to, in Wilson’s words, “perpetuate and reproduce the class structure” through the strategic deployment of “distinction.”)  Wilson also looks closely at his own aesthetic prejudices and what affirming or denying them might mean; it was, after all, his experience as an authenticity-obsessed music journalist now mellowing into more tolerant middle-age that prompted the writing of this book in the first place.

While the Céline trivia is fascinating—her manager and now-husband René Angélil mortgaged his house to pay for her debut album; her first big international break came when she won the 1982 World Popular Song Festival in Tokyo; she has thirteen siblings—what makes this book compulsory reading for anybody invested in the arts are its conclusions about aesthetics and democracy.  Wilson begins by wondering if he could possibly learn to love Céline’s music; he concludes, “perhaps my experiment was too tyrannical.  It would be no solution to say we have to love everything, the equivalent of loving nothing.”  Instead, it is important to give Céline’s album Let’s Talk about Love “a sympathetic hearing, to credit that others find it lovable and ask what that can tell me about music (or globalism, or sentimentality) in general.”  For Wilson, the end result of such sympathy on a mass scale is democracy itself, by which he means “not a limp open-mindedness, but actively grappling with people and things not like me, which brings with it the perilous question of what I am like.”  He continues: “Democracy, that dangerous, paradoxical and mostly unattempted ideal, sees that the self is insufficient, dependent for definition on otherness, and chooses not only to accept that but to celebrate it, to stake everything on it.”  Since the lover of literature in America today exists in a more or less constant state of “grappling with people and things not like me,”  it seems important to realize that such an oppositional stance can be mined for both knowledge of others (but not in a condescending way) and self-knowledge (but not in a narcissistic way), rather than just the usual—for me, at least—cocktail of irritation and self-righteousness.

Wilson’s book was released in December 2007 to review coverage of moderate volume and positive bent; in the very month of this writing—March 2009—he appeared on Comedy Centrals The Colbert Report, which gave his book a delayed bump in publicity and sales.  All of which would suggest this particular piece of writing is not exactly “lost;” yet I suspect the book, filed as music criticism or pop-cultural studies, may still be unknown to many people concerned with the role of literature in contemporary American society.  This would be unfortunate, but today, when it finally seems as though all the ritualized talk of publishing’s impending implosion may be for once warranted, books such as Wilson’s—able to address the knottiness of cultural value without elitist hyperventilation or populist schadenfreude—are more valuable than ever.

Brian DeLeeuw is the author of the novel In This Way I Was Saved (Simon & Schuster, 2009) and a contributing editor to Tin House.

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