This new and expanded issue of Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love is, in essence, two books – it is a reissue of his 2007 exploration of what we mean by good and bad taste, and specifically how that applies to Céline Dion’s 1997 album, Let’s Talk About Love, and it also a collection of essays that respond to that book and expand its arguments. I think it is worth reviewing the two things separately.
The original book is a small, but perfectly formed, masterpiece. It is impossible to read it without questioning your own view of the world because it does not ask whether Céline Dion’s music is good or bad so much as why, and how, we arrive at the conclusion of thinking she is good or bad. This is not a book about Céline Dion, it is a book about us.
OK, so it is kind of a book about Céline Dion. You do learn a lot about her. But you also learn a lot about yourself, especially if you are, and I think it is safe to assume that a fair few of you are, I know I am, someone who has little or no time for her music.
It is a book about musical snobbery, about the modern world’s distrust of the sentimental and the kitsch, about how we mould other people’s perceptions of our selves, about music, about pop music. It is a little bit about Titanic and Las Vegas and Elliot Smith, a tiny bit about photographs of babies in vegetable plots and Hurricane Katrina, and a huge slab about realising that you just might be a massive arse about everything but that is possibly ok because so is everyone else.
The original book is a sorbet after the fish course of your musical taste up to that point. A sliver of clean, fresh, let’s say basil, no, let’s say bergamot, to wipe away the cloying gloop of cod in a béchamel sauce that is making snap decisions about Quebecoise songstresses.
Unfortunately, the essays that make up the second half of this new edition are, mostly, just another fish course.
For a book that so openly, and expertly, deconstructed the myths and misconceptions of criticism generally and music journalism specifically to be accompanied by essays that so often fall into and onto those misconceptions does seem a terrible waste. They are by no means all bad (and Mary Gaitskill’s in particular is very good indeed) but they are all by music journalists or musicians. If the appreciation of music is, and should be, democratic, as Wilson argues (using that very term) in his text, then why should the response to his essay be from such a small part of the music listening world? Why is it so elitist? Where is the essay from the president of a Céline Dion fan club? Or the drag queen Celine impersonator? Or one of the Yardie crime lords that apparently play her music in the roughest neighbourhoods in Jamaica? Or any of her fans really? Where is the democracy so fervently argued for?
The essays, collectively, lack focus. If the first half of the book is not about Celine Dion, not really, the second half is not about Céline Dion at all. Krist Novoselic’s essay is predominately about Krist Novoselic (although he does crowbar a reference to Dion desperately in the last paragraph, like a Radio 2 DJ desperately segueing from a traffic report to a song request). Most are more on topic than his but I struggled with the relative smallness of their point scoring after the revelations of Wilson’s argument. Maybe they mostly just suffer from not being as good as the original book and I am being too harsh. Maybe I am asking too much. Maybe I am on dodgy ground criticising a book that is concerned largely with being wary of critics and criticism. Maybe.
Any Cop?: Maybe.