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January 22, 2008

Book Notes - Carl Wilson ("Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.

Carl Wilson is one of the music critics I respect most. Not swayed by hype, he focuses on songwriting and performing talent and his Zoilus posts and Globe and Mail columns are must-reads for me.

Wilson's 33 1/3 book on Celine Dion, Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, is an odd addition to Continuum's series on seminal albums. While every other 33 1/3 book has been written by an author enamored with its subject, Wilson approaches Dion's music with a critic's skepticism, and explores her commercial (if not critical) success. As refreshing a music book I have read in a long time, Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste examines the basis of musical taste and biases, and even teaches a small lesson about tolerance.

Carl Wilson has two New York readings this week:

Tuesday Jan 22, 7:30 pm: Word bookstore
126 Franklin St., Greenpoint, Brooklyn. (free beer!)

Wed, Jan 23, 8 pm (doors 7 pm): Happy Ending Music and Reading Series
302 Broome St., between Forsythe and Eldridge, in Manhattan

In his own words, here is Carl Wilson's Book Notes essay for his book, Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste:

When you write about music, the primary soundtrack is generally the music that you're writing about. But since this book was about music with which I had an uncomfortable relationship, the songs of Celine Dion and in particular her album Let's Talk About Love -- indeed, it was as much about that uncomfortable relationship, and all such aesthetic conflicts, as about the music itself -- my listening process was unusually fraught. I began by listening to the album primarily on my iPod as I walked around town, secure that what I was hearing was opaque to anyone who saw me. I moved up from there to giving the album a semi-nightly audition on my bedside table from my laptop computer's tiny speakers, hoping to absorb and adjust myself to its musical values subconsciously in my sleep.

Part of the problem was that I lived in an apartment in a poorly soundproofed building, and my neighbours and I can hear too much of each other - from intimate details (a compromise you get used to) to the music that's playing. I know I had opinions about my neighbour because she played Feist's last album (the one with the Bee Gees "Inside and Out" cover, not the one with "1, 2, 3, 4") almost every day for months - not so much because I disliked Feist as because my neighbour's attachment to "Inside and Out" and "Mushaboom" seemed tantamount to an addiction. I would speculate idly about her emotional dysfunctions.

If I were constantly playing Celine Dion, I imagined , she would make similar conclusions about me, ones related to the unflattering stereotypes your typical downtown fan of indie rock (even very MOR indie rock) tends to believe about Celine Dion listeners. I thought those stereotypes were unfair, and was interviewing Dion fans deliberately to undermine those notions. But I flinched to imagine them being applied to me, too - that she'd think I was some sort of moron.

By the end of the writing, I decided that knuckling under to my assumptions about her assumptions made me not just an ass but a collaborator with the enemy - with the perverse over-coding of artistic taste as an indicator of human value. I finally got to the point where I'd play Let's Talk About Love at full volume at home regularly. In the meanwhile, though, I made some substitutions, some related to the content of the book, others to the writing process, and some simply to survive a summer of being barricaded at my desk with a looming book deadline. I haven't tried out this list as an actual mix (an art I revere) but I suspect it would flow, even though the second track breaks every rule of mixtape making by being an hour long in itself...

1. Elliott Smith, 2:45 am
Elliott Smith serves as Celine Dion's foil in the early part of the book, partly because they met upon the field of not-much-honor at the Oscars in 1998 and Dion roundly trounced my own little indie-songwriting hero. In this song, he provides a vague, menacing narrative that sketches a larger cultural trope - the misunderstood, abused, sensitive kid decides he doesn't need society's approval, muttering basically, "You can't reject me. I'm rejecting you." The dynamic between "alternative culture" and the "mainstream" too often carries that sour defensiveness into so-called adulthood. It's a gorgeous, haunting song, still. The irony is that when Dion and Smith met at the Oscars, she was so unexpectedly sweet to him that he ended up defending her to friends who criticized her, for the rest of his all-too-brief, burnt life.

2. Steve Reich, Music for 18 Musicians
Like many writers, I find music with lyrics too distracting as a writing soundtrack. Composing a book that questions the basis of musical aesthetics -- that is, why we like and dislike the music we do, individually -- I even found music with music too distracting. It would pull me around to asking myself why it had that style, who it wanted to speak to, which produced a lot of tangents in my notebooks. As John Cage showed in 4'33", however, silence can be the most distracting of all. Minimalism turned out to be the medium-hot bowl of porridge. Reich's music, properly attended to, is very complex, but if you just turn it on in the background it provides a repetitive, trance-like sound that grows and changes just enough over time to prevent you sinking into stasis. (Drones would have been too much of too little.) I got so habituated to playing the Reich box set as I worked that I came, superstitiously, to imagine that it somehow mirrored what my brain waves do as I read and write. The truth is probably less grand - that it was the perfect antidote to what my brain would otherwise do, that is, dart around impulsively. But research on the neurology of music appreciation is, as I discuss in "Let's Talk About Love," just in its infancy.

3. Big Bill Broonzy, Old Folks at Home
You could consider this track ground zero of the "ironic cover" (a punk-rock-scorn ritual Celine Dion's been subjected to many times, especially for "My Heart Will Go On") - a black blues singer in 1957 singing Stephen Foster's minstrel-dialect tune of an ex-slave's supposed nostalgia for the "old plantation." And Broonzy's loping rhythms and stretched-out syllables do suggest the kind of sneering sarcasm you get from adenoidal emo bands like New Found Glory when they sing the love theme from Titanic. But this cover's also representative of the way that blues and country singers in the South stayed connected to the old parlor and minstrel songs of the 19th century - the underrecognized "roots" of American pop - when the pop industry as a whole had moved on to the Northern-citified sophistries of Tin Pan Alley.

4. John McCormack, Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms
5. The Flamingos, I Only Have Eyes For You
6. Mario Lanza, Be My Love
7. Elvis Presley, It's Now or Never

Before Tin Pan Alley, though, the parlor song, borrowing liberally from Italian opera and Irish ballads, reigned supreme. These recordings all testify to the continuing influence of old-style schmaltz in American music, usually created and represented (for complicated reasons) by immigrant "others" within the U.S. racial matrix, from the Irish tenor of the turn of the century, to the 1930s Italian-written movie hit recreated by a doo-wop group, to the all-but-forgotten Caruso-imitating crossover superstar of the 1950s, to Elvis doing a ballad to the tune of a Neapolitan aria ("O Solo Mio"). When I started my book, I was mystified by the way Celine Dion thought it gave her additional cred to collaborate with Barbra Streisand or Luciano Pavarotti, as she does on Let's Talk About Love, when being a pop icon in the 1990s was surely a heavier deal than being an old-style variety diva or a straining-for-status Italian opera singer. By the time I was done, it didn't seem any weirder than a bunch of young people in the early '60s trying to imitate Woody Guthrie - just different and, in a way, more touchingly traditional. What's the matter with big, uninhibited feelings, exactly? Or put another way, what's so great about small, inhibited feelings?

8. Rihanna feat. Jay-Z, Umbrella
I was pretty tuned out on hot new trends while I was holed up with the book. But it was the summer of 2007 and I was writing about, in part, the communal pleasures of pop music. How could I not have fallen in love with this song?

9. The Ex, Hidegen Fujnak a Szelek
In late June, having just missed a deadline for the book, I was cabin-fevered and neurotic. So I broke my leash to my desk and headed to Lee's Palace in Toronto for a concert by one of the best live bands in the world, the nearly 30-year-old Dutch anarcho-punk-jazz-improv group The Ex. This track, originally recorded on their unbelievable 1991 record with the late New York cellist Tom Cora, Scrabbling at the Lock, is a cover of a Hungarian folk song they learned via the great Budapest band Muszikas. At the concert, they also performed a series of songs influenced by their more recent cultural-exchange projects in Ethiopia, music that proved that feedback-drenched guitars could still make your hips sway and your mind swell with polyrhythmic, polymath possibility. It was the model I needed at that moment, to realize that the project of the book was really to meet people with cultural models unlike your own on equal terms and see what you could learn from one another. It didn't hurt that I had a beautiful woman at my side whose hips and mind were decidedly moved by that sense of open adventure. Mind you, that would lead to a whole other bout of cabin fever and neurosis. I didn't know that at the time...

10. Pernice Brothers, Baby in Two
... But eventually I found out. This song, by my much-underrated fellow Toronto-dwelling 33 1/3 author Joe Pernice (he wrote the high-school-life novella that became the series' volume on the Smiths' Meat Is Murder), invokes the myth of Solomon to describe the impossible choices and the inaccessibility of wisdom that so often marks romantic dilemmas. One of the minor ambitions I had with the book was to take the title of the album (and thus of the book, that being 33 1/3's format) literally, and to make a connection and contrast between the sort of "love" we say we have for the art we admire and the love or separation we feel with other human beings. It was my recent divorce that I had in mind when I proposed the book. It turned out that the writing process would be marked not only by a crisis of the terms of love considered in retrospect but one that was enacted in real time. "Hey, kid, rock'n'roll. a bullseye hung upon your soul," as Joe sings here. "I wish I knew/ A simple way to reach you./I'd be the king if I could say to you/ 'Cut the baby in two.' " At least Dion does know some simple ways to reach people. Are we smarter or more cowardly not to use those ways when we need them?

11. The Mountain Goats, For TG&Y
There are few songs less Celine Dion-like than one that begins, "Out behind the Safeway/ just before the flood/ Huffed two cans of spray paint/ And began to vomit blood." But this song has the courage to hit that "how exactly can we bear to live and love?" Oprah-meets-Celine zone in its own way. "Hang onto your dreams," it counsels, "until there's nothing left of them." I could have put a thousand John Darnielle songs in this place (I probably just didn't have the guts to name "Raja Vocative," "Korean Bird Paintings" or "Going to Port Washington") but this unreleased track was one of the songs that moved me most to sing to myself all summer.

12. Elvis Costello, All This Useless Beauty
In this song, romantic and social problems meet. 20th-century art was in revolt against the uselessness of beauty and dismissed it. Purchase on beauty is so clearly a corrupting influence on daily life and contemporary culture, the way that it becomes a currency in an image-oriented age.And yet Celine Dion on the other hand has a near-religious faith in beauty's excesses that seems true to the instincts of so many people around the world. What are we without beauty and its intoxicating, redemptive effect? The aesthetic issue is that beauty may be both humans' best and our most foolish invention. As Costello sings, "What shall we do, what shall we do, with all this useless beauty?"

13. The Magnetic Fields, The Book of Love
It's an obvious choice, but a case of one of my most notorious fellow anti-sentimentalists grappling with sentiment and having ultimately to admit that it defeats him. Of course his archness protects him from being too personally implicated - oh, it's all formal exercise, folks - but here is a song that makes me cry with its ultimate surrender to the mystery of "things we're all too young to know." Stephin Merritt, the songwriter behind the Magnetic Fields, kept cropping up as a simultaneous defender and critic of pop culture in this book, which only left me more impressed with his problematic, exclusionary and embracing at once, talent. The book he sings about at arm's length, as a critic, Celine Dion reads aloud.

14. Owen Pallett (Final Fantasy) covering Celine Dion's "The Power of Love"

Carl Wilson and Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste links:

the author's blog
the book's page at the publisher

Denver Post review
Globe and Mail review
hipsterbookclub review review
My Tragic Right Hip review
New York magazine review
Said the Gramophone review
The Savage Critic(s) review

The Bryant Park Project interview with the author
Celine Dion forum's response to the book
Exclaim! interview with the author
PRI Fair Game interview with the author
the author's Said the Guests post at Said the Gramophone
The Tyee profile of the author
USA Today Pop Candy podcast interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
directors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)