erasing clouds

Book Review: Carl Wilson's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste (33 1/3 Series)

reviewed by dave heaton

Most of the entries in Continuum’s series of album-focused books, the 33 1/3 Series, are written by authors about albums they love to listen to. Or at least once did – there are a few which use the device of delayed-listening, where the author takes a once-favorite album and re-listens to it for the first time during the course of the book. In Carl Wilson’s book he’s writing about music he mostly can’t stand listening to, using that reaction to explore the question of what taste is, of how music critics navigate it, of what they do with their inherent loves/hates, and how that relates to the “truth” in their writing. He uses a Celine Dion album to write about the greater story of what’s considered “cool” or not, any why, and what that means in the current environment where music critics are continually trying to upturn that, to second-guess what’s considered hip.

Wilson starts not with the album itself, but with Celine Dion herself: trying to understand what her appeal is and how she fits into music history. In a way much of the book is an exercise in delaying listening as long as possible, in trying to intellectually “get” Celine Dion before he can try again to get the music itself. It’s music that completely, instinctively turns him off… as, it’s fair to say, it turns off most critics and otherwise “hip” music fans. That’s not the reaction, it’s also important to say, that it has on many, many people, though, which is the impetus for Wilson’s project in the first place. How can a musician sell so many copies of her albums while at the same time irritating so many people? It’s an interesting question, making Let’s Talk About Love a thoroughly interesting book, not just because of the question itself as much as how thoughtfully Wilson considers it.

In delaying listening and attempting to understand, Wilson details Celine Dion’s story, the unique place she comes from (Quebec), what people have said against her music, and what people have said for it. But in the process he also contemplates each broader idea or conundrum that arises, including the genres she falls into, explicitly and implicitly, and the forces in her music that may be the cause of listeners’ gut inclinations against her. Then again, he’s also asking questioning about whether listeners really do have a gut-reflex against her music…or at least what sorts of listeners do or don’t, and why. Along the way, unexpected facts emerge, as do fascinating theories about taste and art.

Eventually he does get to the album. But this book isn’t a test to see if Wilson can learn to love her music. It is many other things – a detective story with bad taste as the crime, a parsing of theories about aesthetics, a portrait of music love and hate, a memoir of mid-life crisis, a manifesto about ways critics can more fruitfully engage with music of all stripes – but not that. Not a gimmick, not a game, and certainly not a hollow exercise made only to test out what sort of music can be written about within a series sometimes focused on hallowed, already canonized music. It’s an illustration of the best side of music criticism, the way it can take on questions that are hard to answer, whether it’s by trying in vain to describe something as intangible as music or thinking deeply about preconceptions and gut reactions. In other words, thinking deeply about music and what it means for listeners.


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