Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Quick thoughts on Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, by my friend Carl Wilson.

[Update with further thoughts below, Jan. 9, 11:55 PM.]

[Update Jan. 11: slightly edited for accuracy.]

1. I’m vain. First thing I did when I bought it -- checked the acknowledgments at the end. Was I mentioned? I was! My almost-five-year-old son was impressed. He likes Carl too.

2. My mentioning that I’m in the book exemplifies a lot of what the book is about: Cultural capital. I’m cool, I’ve been mentioned (listed, really) in a book!

3. And -- it’s a really good book!

4. The main arc, it’s a conversion narrative. How Carl recognized that his hate for Celine Dion’s music was doing him no good; how he set out to learn why other people love Celine’s music; whether he could learn to love it too; and how he came not to hate it any more -- or, at least, not all of it, and not so viciously.

4.a. The root of “vicious” is “vice.” Hate is a vice. A self-destructive one, in my experience. And, it seems, in Carl’s.

4b. The conversion narrative is beautiful.

5. The sub-narrative is a gorgeous, poignant elegy for the end of his marriage. “Let’s talk about love.” Let’s.

6. And -- let’s love. Love, in all its varieties. Sex, for sure; but also friendship, and citizenship -- world citizenship, if you will; not that one will love all of one’s neighbors, but that one can try not to hate, try not to slash and burn the psychic-cultural space that others inhabit.

7. Declaring one’s hatred for other people’s music is a mode of cultural warfare, the goal of which is to distinguish oneself from others. A lucid and detailed discussion of the social function and formation of taste in the book. “Bad taste” is what uncool people have. “Uncool”: suburban, middle-aged, and/or lower class. Celine’s fan demographic skews suburban and middle-aged, though not lower class.

8. A beautiful defense of sentimentality. Lucid and persuasive history of schmaltz. Interesting historical tidbits on nostalgia in the popular arts, going back to early 19th century Irish songs. Room for further research. (It is a short book.) My take is: The nostalgia trend got started shortly after the expulsion from Eden.

9. I’m a sentimentalist lover of schmaltz; have been since I was 19. I was lost forever as a rock fundamentalist that summer after sophomore year, 1983, I went to Alaska to work in the fishing industry. Made it to Kodiak by hitch and train-hopping and bus ride and plane. Before I found work I would sit afternoons listening to records in the Kodiak Public Library on headphones. Nilsson’s collection of “standards,” A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, warmed my lonely, rain-soggy soul with its blankets of sweet violins.

9.a. Actually, my rock fundamentalism was gone before then. New Year’s Day, 1983, 19 years old, party at our friends and neighbors’ house the Aldags, Mr. Aldag put on a Jackie Gleason Orchestra record -- mood music -- with gorgeous trumpet solos by legit jazz player Bobby Hackett (I learned later) -- and moons over the lush arrangements, and his enthusiasm is contagious. I can’t help myself. Months later, hitching toward Alaska, my friend and I get picked up by a late-night trucker, and the Jackie Gleason Orchestra comes on the radio, and I recognize it and start enthusing. The driver looks at me like I’m a freak (I was a young-looking 19) and says, “That’s music for when I want to feel good, not when I want to stay awake,” and switches to country.

9.b. But I was still a snob. Later that same trip, crossing from North Dakota to Montana on an April Sunday night, cold as hell, in the back of a pick-up, picked up by three guys going across the state line because that N. Dakota county was dry on Sundays, and they open up the back window to say, “You guys are from Michigan, right? Here’s Bob Seger!” I dug the Jackie Gleason Orchestra and free jazz and classical and the Beatles and punk rock, and though I recognized the sweetness of the gesture, I hated Bob Seger.

9.d. I don’t any more. In fact, back when we sang as a duo, my friend Jake and I covered “Still the Same” at one show. Jake had written a terrific, unpublished essay on the Ironic Cover Aesthetic (which Carl quotes in his book -- he calls it a “lost classic of rock criticism,” which is true!), and he thought that we were going for an ironic take on Bob, but I just dug that song.

9.e. When I read Carl’s book in the lunchroom at work, I made sure the cover was facing down so nobody could see it. I’d be fine telling anybody I like Celine, but I didn’t want to explain to my coworkers that I know the writer. Nothing against Carl! It would feel like putting on airs. Obviously, I don’t mind telling you.

10. Didn’t know Celine’s music until I came across LTAL in the dollar bin and bought it because of Carl some months ago. As a schmaltz guy, I really like some of it, though some of the lyrics leave me cold. 15 years ago I used to hate U2 (not viciously); I remember saying to a skeptical, diplomatic musician friend that Bono was the least intelligent singer ever, always starting low and groany and building to a bellow. I’ve since grown to like Bono, in medium-to-small doses. Celine is similar, but her band is huge, so there’s more variety between numbers than on a U2 album, and I like that. She has more nuance and variety than Bono too, and more fireworks, all of which I like. Comparisons to Barry Manilow are off-base, because Barry has a sense of humor (though, contra Carl, not farcical!), which Celine and Bono, as singers, lack.

10.a. Agree with Carl that the George Martin production on the opening number of LTAL is tremendous, throwing exhilaratingly complex climaxes at a catchy, passionate Carole King number.

10.b. One of the knocks on Celine, according to Carl, is that her singing lacks personality. In a strange coincidence, the same knock was made on Ezra Pound early in his career, by the English critic and poet (and friend of Robert Frost’s) Edward Thomas, almost 100 years ago.

11. Nuanced readings of all the songs on LTAL in Carl’s book -- really good.

12. Celine’s personal history, interlinked with that of her native Quebec, is fascinating, and she’s an utterly sympathetic character/persona.

13. Great sub-thread on Carl’s love for teen-girl TV. Works beautifully, and I don’t want to give it away.

14. One stumble: Carl imputes a strictly status-seeking motivation to Celine’s getting Streisand and Pavarotti to duet with her on LTAL. Possible, but I doubt it. My guess: Celine is a fan; status-seeking was a secondary consideration. (I like both the duets more than Carl does. [As I seek to distinguish myself from him.])

15. Some laugh-out-loud jokes.

16. Persuasive history of how elitist sensibility shifted from defending cultural hierarchies (classics high, pop genres low) to seeking the unattainable ideal of cultural omnivore-ism. This nails me to my wall. I have a humanist defense of at least partial omnivore-ism, which I don’t think Carl would disagree with: People love their cultures for reasons; the more we can understand why and how others do, the more we can love as well; more love is good. Let’s love!

17. Terrific description (and sly self-description) of the most valued post-modern virtuosity: That of cross-modal symbol manipulation. Adorno and The Gilmore Girls: Carl is a low-key master.

18. Interesting, subtle, complex argument at the end trips me up a little. Carl says, rightly, that people use music in all sorts of ways. I like Schoenberg for housework but not for driving. I love schmaltzy ‘60s and earlier soundtrack music for late night dishes; earlier in the day it’s too syrupy. Rahsaan Roland Kirk is awesome for dishes or driving. And so on. Carl disses the rockcrit -- all music crit, probably -- habit of assuming that a record is to be listened to in quiet contemplation, exclusively -- music to make aesthetic judgments by. I’m with him up to there, but then he says that Sonic Youth is excellent music to make aesthetic judgments by, and Celine Dion is not. The truth, as shown in his book, is deeper, and better and more complex: Only people invested in elitist aesthetic distinction-making are concerned about aesthetic judgments in themselves, and most of Celine’s fans don’t fight that culture war. Maybe next week I’ll sit down and compare Let’s Talk About Love to Goo. I’ll tell you right now that I like Celine better, and -- [expletive deleted] -- I have goddamned good aesthetic arguments to make.

19. Because, of course, I’m still heavily invested in the distinction-making game, as is Carl. The very end of the book, he breathes a sigh of relief that Hillary Clinton’s announcement of a Celine song as her campaign theme is met with avalanches of disdain, not only from music critics but from actual editorial writers! Without the continuing existence -- in powerful places! -- of unconverted haters, Carl’s conversion narrative would not be so urgent or important. Here’s hoping his book makes converts of them all, and he winds up Monarch of the Rock Critics.

* * *

Further thoughts, next day:

20. In comments, Rebecca and Gary talk about their questions about their own relationship with snobbery and critical disdain. (Thanks for your comments!) And they remind me: Carl’s book is deeply personal.

21. And: try as I might to downplay and mitigate it, I still have a strong streak of disdainful snobbery in me.

22. And it’s all personal for me too. My own conversion story happened so long ago I don’t remember the details. Certainly in high school I reflexively hated whole genres. But senior year I met a Duchamp-besotted painter from a different high school -- very talented and cool and ironic and charming, and a talented songwriter too -- who said that he tried to like everything -- he was a dandy, last name Spear; have lost touch and don’t know whether he still paints -- hope he does. The one thing he failed to like, so he claimed, was E.T., which I’ve never seen. But he influenced me along these lines. It took time to take hold. I remember a band mate (was it Stefan?) in college saying he liked Muzak, which appalled me; for a long time now I’ve found Muzak fascinating, and firmly believe that it is the emblematic genre of the recorded age: Most people listen to most music as background. But what put it all together -- what allowed me to articulate my own thoughts about differences in sensibility -- was reading Robert Walser’s
Running With the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music, shortly after it came out in 1993, on the recommendation of the aforementioned Jake. Walser shows how people like different music for a complex of reasons -- always including musical ones.

23. In the middle of reading the Walser book I caught a ride via the U-Washington ride board to Missoula to visit an old friend from junior high who was living there. My benefactor had a giant SUV with a CD player; I didn’t own any CDs at the time. He allowed me to choose every other CD from his collection during the day-long ride. I would choose REM, he would choose Phil Collins, I would choose U2, he would choose Phil Collins, I would choose something else, he would choose Phil Collins. My resolve not to hate someone else’s music was put to the test. I failed. And thought it was hilarious.

24. I still don’t much like Phil Collins. But -- the tunes have hooks and are well-put-together; his voice is distinctive; he conveys the signs of individuality and passion.

25. Sometimes I do miss the irony in a situation. For example, when Jake and I covered Bob Seger, and he thought we were engaging with the Ironic Cover Aesthetic, and I took umbrage at the idea, in retrospect I’m sure he was right that that’s how people would take it.

26. I haven’t been cool since college. And even then whatever cool I had was strictly by association. I’m OK with that, but just so you know.

27. In my account of Carl’s relief that people still disdained Celine when Hillary announced her campaign theme song, I failed to convey the tinge of irony with which Carl described his reactions. It’s complex. What I said above wasn’t wrong, just incomplete.

28. Contra my nomination for Carl as Rock Critic Monarch (“King of the World!”), he
’s all about democracy, baby.

As his book. Do check it out.

As is obvious from reading my blog, I'm still pretty invested in slamming what I consider to be bad music. I know you are probably further along in this process than me, but part of what I'm trying to do is understand what do I really like and dislike, as opposed to what do I think the cool kids like and dislike. Which is why I can profess my unironic enjoyment for Hall and Oates. Still, you've made me want to read Carl's book and keep the conversation going.
This is a very interesting topic as it pertains to aesthetics. I'm both a schmaltzophile AND a snob. I haven't quite figured out the ingredients of those categories, but I'm assuming most people experience this duality, but few investigate it.

There is little music I "hate" (although, if pressed, I'm sure I could come up with a few examples), but there is a whole lot of music I consider a waste of my time. I'd like to read Carl's book and maybe put a bit more thought into WHY I feel the way I do. As for Celine, while I'm not sure I like her music that much, I have come to appreciate her status as a cultural icon, particularly in Quebec. This was highlighted by a spoof seen on "Bye Bye"* this New Years Eve.

Quebec's annual TV New Years celebration: think Dick Clark meets SNL/MadTV.
Gary, I enjoy your thrashings of songs you hate even when I love the song. Something in your tone lets the reader know that you are not working on constructing a canon of cool. Or maybe the "harassed dad" persona excludes the possibility of cool from the get-go. Which is fine by me.

Rebecca, I like to think that snobbery is beneath me . . . Schmaltz, historically, is anathema to cool, but snobs can stake their claims anywhere, right?

Carl's book is very much worth the read.
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