Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Book Will Go On: Carl Wilson's Let’s Talk About Love v2.0

When I received an e-mail asking if I’d like to review a book about Céline Dion, I responded, “I should tell you that I’m not a big fan of Céline Dion.” I thought that would be the end of it. I had no idea of what the book was actually like, just that it was one of those 33 1/3 chapbooks about an album (Let's Talk About Love), a few of which I had enjoyed in the past. But Céline Dion, I thought, you’ve got to be kidding me. The book arrived with no more fanfare within the week. Apparently, the publisher didn’t care whether I was a fan or not. I didn’t pay much attention to it and slipped it under the pile of things I was planning to read over the next little while. Then I had a follow-up e-mail enquiring as to whether I wanted an interview with Carl Wilson, the author of the book. I don’t particularly like doing interviews with people whose work I’m going to negatively review, so I avoided the question. Then I pulled out the book and noticed that it wasn’t in the standard 33 1/3 format. It was nearly twice as big, and much thicker. I saw the new subtitle “Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste” and a list of “New Essays By…” people like James Franco, Krist Novoselic and Nick Hornby among others. “What the heck is going on here?” Clearly, I asked myself, I have to start paying more attention to things!

So… I read the book. And I thought “Hey, this guy’s right on the money!” Someone stopped by as I was reading and asked, “What are you reading?” I replied, “A book about Céline Dion.” “What does a Beach Boy know about Céline Dion?” they continued. “No…it’s not that Carl Wilson…he died a while back.” But the question didn’t bring any comment about why I would be reading about Céline. Many of my friends think Céline is the crème de la crème. I just returned from a meeting with a bunch of francophones and they all thought Céline was great, well, except for one guy who plays blues guitar. We talked about the relative merits of Jeff Beck compared with Jimmy Page. Céline never came up in our conversation. But some of the others couldn’t wait ‘til June when they thought they might be able to see Céline in Vegas.

Why do other people have such bad taste?

Or is that the question at all?

Why do we all have such different taste?

It’s hard to imagine that people who you respect in so many other ways like such schmaltzy music. And then I thought, “Wait a minute…I thought Céline did sound pretty good that one time I actually listened to her.” A little over the top maybe, but her voice wasn’t bad. I just don’t like that whole milieu. But then…I also used to hate the Poppy Family, and I’ve noticed that lately, when their songs come on the radio, I’ve noticed what good production values they had. What’s wrong with me? Am I just getting old?

The first time I saw/heard (Argentinian jazz sax player) Gato Barbieri, I was blown away. It was a TV show from the Montreux Jazz Festival, and he was playing with a small band “Brasil.” It was fantastic. Raw, rhythmic, exciting. I found the LP of the same show in the jazz section at Sam the Record Man. It was called El Pampero, and had two tracks per side. I played the grooves off that thing, and started following Gato’s career. I bought all the new albums as they came out. He did a four-disc series called Third World, in which he interpreted another part of Latin American music each time. I was standing in the jazz section of Sam’s Yonge Street store and overheard a couple of guys talking about bit. “It’s a complete sellout…” he was talking about Chapter Three: Viva Emiliano Zapata which found Gato surrounded by a bigger band with charts by Chico O’Farrill. It was a brilliant record, and Gato was still blowing crazy but this time over top of more disciplined charts, and a nearly 20-piece band. The critic’s main complaint was that Barbieri had “commercialized.” The album was the most accessible of the quartet of albums but still featured the cat with the big hat on sax. So, if it’s treason to aim for commercialization after a long anti-commercial career, where does that place Ms Dion who aimed for commerce with every record?

She’s just doin’ her thang!

Carl Wilson looked at her most famous record. It’s the one with that song from Titanic on it. This record has sold a million and a half copies in Canada alone. It has duets with the BeeGees, Barbra Streisand and Luciano Pavarotti and a title song written by Bryan Adams! Wow. Wilson looked at it, and he didn’t like it. He was tired of “My Heart Will Go On” (from Titanic) and didn’t find much else to like on the album. He found Céline’s vocals grating, almost shouting, and the backing overcooked. Wilson lays out early in the book just how he plans on approaching the album. “Along with immersing myself in this record, I’ll examine Dion the same way I do any artist I get interested in—her background, career and influences, the genre she belongs to, what sensibility she expresses. But I’ll also look at taste itself, what has been said about it. Its role in aesthetic theory and the research that’s been done scientifically and not-so-scientifically. Will I find my inner Céline  Dion fan? The goal isn’t to end in a group hug. If I end up warming up to her music that will be one lesson; if I don’t, we might draw others.” Does he end up “warming to Céline ”? Well, not to spoil things for you, because you really need to read this book for yourself, but yeah, he does kinda warms up to Céline . Not as much as her fans would expect but far more than I expected him to. He almost convinced me to go and listen to some Céline  myself. Not quite…but almost.

And that’s the point of the whole exercise. Why do some people love stuff like Céline and why do others hate it? What is it that causes our taste to develop? Is it political, as Krist Novoselic claims? Do hipsters “kick around Céline Dion” to “feed [their] smug self image”? I’ll wager there’s some of that going on. Nick Hornby asks “who gets to decide whether a work of art is ‘good’” and is challenged by Wilson’s claim that he would think about Dion “with an open mind.” Hornby titles his response “The Artists We Deserve.” Do we deserve artists like Céline? Singers who cause such extreme opinions from the public? Think about an artist you like, and quite often you’ll see that over their whole career they have come in and out and perhaps back in fashion. The Beatles were almost universally loved, then faded, only to return to the “toppermost of the poppermost” time and time again. The Beatles still feature on more music magazine covers than any other group. And in the letters column the next month for and against their appearance letters are about even. Fans of Céline are quieter, maybe equally rabid, but gentler about their passion. 

Wilson titles each of his chapters "Let’s Talk About" and then provides the subject. He talks about Hate, Pop (and its critics), French, World Conquest, Schmaltz, and Who’s Got Bad Taste. He even talks about that movie about the boat that sank. Who really liked that? Wasn’t A Night To Remember so much better? Of course Kenneth More was no Leo DiCaprio and there was no nude Kate Winslet either. Even in black and white! But James Cameron's picture did have the song “My Heart Will Go On.” And it did have Céline.

Céline Dion. Just the mention of her name probably brings out a response. Good or bad. When Continuum first published Let’s Talk About Love in 2007 the sub-title was A Journey to the End of Taste. It was the 52nd book in the 33 1/3 series and it soon became (as the Note From the Publisher tells us) “reviewers' … favourite book in the series ... even though it was about what was perhaps their least-favourite album.” Why? Because it asked those questions about why we like or don’t like a record. Céline can’t take it personally. It’s not her that people don’t like, it’s her whole persona. The package. So when I told the publisher’s rep that I wasn’t a fan, that meant that I was probably going to like the book, and spend a lot of time thinking about it.

And that’s what happened. Once I started reading it, I couldn’t stop. I bought into the arguments, I thought about what it was that made me change the station when Céline came on. Why I wouldn’t get drawn in to an argument with a friend about Céline. I don’t mind arguing for Jeff Beck over Jimmy Page, or why the Emiliano Zapata album is better because of the big band sound than the smaller group albums that preceded it. It’s logical, and the Page fan can counter my arguments with strong reasons of his own. But Céline? People like her records (or they don’t) just because they do. It doesn’t make sense. It’s why American Idol can continue churning out would-be Célines season after season. And why we’ll be talking about good taste versus bad taste…forever. 

– David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas, Ontario with his wife.

No comments:

Post a Comment