Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste
By Carl Wilson
Even though I am a lover of pop-culture analysis in the Chuck Klosterman mold, I was skeptical about this book. Celine Dion is an artist who I have largely managed to avoid, with the only exception being "My Heart Will Go On" and its ubiquity around 1998 and the heyday of Titanic. I was only a kid then, I had a patchy concept of cool and hated the song even though I was enraptured by whatever hit Sugar Ray had out at the time.
But even ignoring the majority of Dion's career, I could not help but be well-aware that she was most definitely not cool. Now my music largely consists of folk, 80's punk, and much of the indie rock of the last two decades. Today's culture snobs, from Christgau to Pitchfork, would be proud.
Why do I write that introduction? Because the author of A Journey to the End of Taste is much like me, though over 25 years my senior. Carl Wilson, a native of Quebec, expresses a lifetime embarrassment over the identification of Celine Dion with his home very early in the book. He describes with disdain the 1998, in which an anxiety-ridden Elliott Smith (a critical and indie darling, by the way) performed a shaky version of "Miss Misery". The song was featured in the film Good Will Hunting, and was up against "My Heart Will Go On" for best original song in a movie. Dion also performed an (as usual) ostentatious version of her nominated-song and ended up winning. It seemed to Wilson that the frail but authentic Smith was snubbed and overshadowed by the pop diva, and the moment only fueled his anti-Dion sympathies.
Elliott Smith singing from the other end of the taste spectrum
But this is not a book about indie versus mainstream. It is not a book about how the best music goes largely unnoticed. It is a book about taste, and it takes some unexpected turns.
Wilson is not the hipster stereotype you may have assumed him to be. Yes, he definitely seems it early in the book, but that assumption is betrayed in a way that hits home. The question that drives the book is this: How is one's taste formed? He gives the question an honest and thorough look, and goes about it in several ways.
First of all Wilson immerses himself in a single Celine Dion album: Let's Talk About Love. The album features the aforementioned single "My Heart Will Go On". He listens to the album over and over, at first through headphones so no one in his noise-conductive apartment building could hear him (he mentions having to sign a waiver accepting that noise would just be an unavoidable issue in order to move in). By the end of the book, he's playing the album through speakers. He also attends one of Dion's Vegas performances, meets some of her biggest fans (and seems to make a friend in doing so), and learns about the culture of those who devotedly follow her.
A meaty portion of the book's midsection explores sociological theories on the formation of one's taste. This part engaged me the most, especially with its description of studies done (my favorite: a couple of researchers surveyed participants on their tastes and with the results had someone paint the "World's Most Wanted" and "World's Most Unwanted" paintings. They did the same with music). We are also presented with theories from philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and David Hume. It is far from the most personal section of the book, but provides some of the most thought-worthy material.
An experiment in taste. Top: The United States' Most Unwanted Painting; Bottom: The US' Most Wanted Painting
A Journey to the End of Taste is not without a heart. Wilson comes across as a thoughtful and likeable guy. He is not out to make fun of anyone, nor does he seek to elevate himself with his preferences. He just earnestly wants to know why people's tastes diverge, and why they seem to do so in a demographically consistent manner. He actually provides some self-condemning commentary towards the champions of indie and underground more poignant and meaningful than any criticism someone looking in from the outside could offer. One of the most interesting observations about music often deemed "low-culture" is that they are frequently called sentimental. But why is sentimentality a bad quality? Why does such a high amount of indie and punk put up a brick wall of irony to guard from true emotional reveal? Why is being recklessly caught up in love with a person, a feeling, or an idea so frowned upon by critics (who regard such displays as "schmaltz")?
Carl Wilson's honest writing and introspection alone makes A Journey to the End of Taste a worthwhile read for anyone, regardless of your musical niche affiliations. But there is intellectual depth to be found here as well as social and emotional depth. I recommend the book. Wisdom can come from unexpected sources.
A final motivation to read this book now.