Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste by Carl Wilson
While the Thirty-Three and a Third series started in 2003, I distinctly remembering seeing them everywhere last year about this time. The local music shop next to my college boasted a fair few, and even a used bookstore I ventured into miles away during a library conference had a complete set. But I was probably noticing them because I’d just decided to take music as seriously as I took the rest of my popular culture intake. I listened to the Beatles discography for the first time, started a playlist on Spotify entitled “Homework,” and started trying to move away from my singles-focused grazing method of musical appreciation. The series seemed like a great supplement to what I was doing, but Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste seemed the best place to start. Not because of my own musical taste—the more overproduced, cheesy, and artificial, the better, frankly—but because Wilson was tackling something almost antithetical to his own musical identity. An open-minded exploration of musical taste seemed the perfect place to start.
So, naturally, I picked it up a year later. Such is my reading life. But while Wilson’s hopes for a more dialogue-oriented criticism have largely come true online (as Ana pointed out in her review) since the book’s publication in 2007, it remains, nonetheless, a pretty timeless assessment. Approaching his fortieth birthday while separated from his wife, Wilson wonders why, if Celine Dion is so reviled among music critics, she’s so incredibly successful? With Let’s Talk About Love, the 1997 album that boasts “My Heart Will Go On,” as his goal, he takes a giant step back not only to place Dion in her own context, but examine how we develop musical taste and use it to affirm our identities, as he psychs himself up to actually listen to and review the thing.
While I was obviously the most touched and inspired by Wilson’s analysis of taste, contextualizing Dion both as a Québécoise and as a singer of “schmaltz” is just as important. I’m particularly sensitive to this, since I often find myself lacking context—after all, I’ve never seen The Wizard of Oz. Wilson has suffered the same problem: “At twelve, my dislike of disco and country didn’t feel like a social opinion. It felt like a musical reaction. I flinched at the very sound of Dolly Parton or Donna Summer, as unaware that I had any choice about finding them stupid as I was of the frameworks in which they were smart” (16). Viewed out of context, Dion’s personal conduct and stylistic choices bewilder Wilson, but as a Québécoise and as someone whose own idols were willfully and happily sentimental, she makes a lot more sense. But some contexts are more useful than others—he also points out that once music is stripped of its social context (one of my favorite eighties songs probably accompanied a prom disaster somewhere), it’s easier to evaluate on its own merits.
But even in contextualizing and decontextualizing Dion to better evaluate her, Wilson always brings it back to the listener’s response to music and how that constitutes taste. For instance, when it comes to sentimentality, Wilson asks why we use it as an insult instead of as something that can be either good or bad, in what is the most beautiful and inspiring passage in the book. I am forced to quote it in its entirety:
A more thoughtful question is one of proportion: is the problem that kitsch sentimentality (in musical terms, schmaltz) takes everyday hopes and affections and inflates them into life-or-death melodramas? Consider Zen scholar R. H. Blyth’s elegant definition, “We are being sentimental when we give a thing more tenderness than God gives to it.” … Like Cage’s silence, God’s love is unspeakable, implacable, its gaze matter-of-fact. But human love is something else: We love in excess of God’s love if we love at all. We love by heaping meaning on objective fact. If I believed in God, I might imagine this is what He created humans for, to give things more tenderness than He granted them, amid nature’s unblinking harshness and the cruelty of fate—perhaps we are here to make up for what Depeche Mode, in its Gnostic pop song “Blasphemous Rumors,” called God’s “sick sense of humor.” God’s love might sound like Kraftwerk, a sonic diagram of passing traffic, or the relentless electronic march of a disco track by Giorgio Moroder, but humanity is the Donna Summer vocal that cannot resist muscling in to overstate the obvious, to exalt the obvious in hallucinatory helixes, insisting over and over, “I feel love, I feel love, I feel love.” God or no God, it’s hubris to pretend to know the correct amount of tenderness it is ours to grant. (123-124)
But Wilson isn’t arguing that taste is a meaningless construct—rather, he’s laying bare elements of the socialization that influences our taste. Wilson’s childhood distaste for disco and country was less about the music itself, which he now loves, but more about rejecting any connection with the stereotype of the people who love disco and country. My adoration of eighties music, while quite visceral, is undoubtedly connected to the fact that it was the first music that was ever presented to me with a whiff of context. If we understand our own taste and the taste of others in the context of those factors, then we can be truly democratic listeners:
…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. 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. Through democracy, which demands we meet strangers as equals, we perhaps become less strangers to ourselves. (151)
It’s funny—this is quite a short book, but it’s threatening to turn into a very long review. I just want to quote the entirety of it at you, really, not only because it’s so thoughtful and open, but because I think everyone can benefit from hearing a call for respectful and dialogue-based criticism. For me, it reinforced my determination to give everything a fair shot. In the spirit of Wilson’s vision, that’s my story. What’s yours?
Bottom line: A clarion call for respectful and dialogue-based criticism that analyzes the very concept of taste. Required reading for critics.
I rented this book from the public library.