There is something about the utterance of her name which induces an involuntary sneer on some faces. As a Canadian, there is a double-whammy to this in that – of all the internationally recognized names from our country – hers is the most prevalent.
We associate her name, subconsciously, intentionally, metaphorically with everything that is crassly commercial, saccharine, and paradoxically successful in spite of the fact that “people like us” (which is to mean, those of us with cultivated tastes) can’t stand her music.
Yet, despite these reactions, are we giving her a fair shake? Are we just a bunch of snobs? Is it possible to approach her music as we would approach our cherished performer x. This is the premise of the 52nd edition of the wonderful 33 1/3 series of books (appropriately CD-sized) by the publisher, Continuum. The purpose of the series has been for various people to write about albums which influenced their lives (without constraints on form, so rather than all of them being journalistic essays, some are fictional prose, some are non-linear ruminations inspired by said album).
Whereas others wrote from direct inspiration, Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey To The End of Taste is Carl Wilson’s unique attempt to explore the Celine Dion phenomena knowing in advance that he didn’t particularly care for her music.
What begins with curiosity (the fact that Celine shared the stage with Elliot Smith, a fave of Wilson’s, during the 1998 Academy Awards) and a faint appreciation for her success turns into a deep exploration – the kind you would see a fictional FBI agent do in a movie, you know, the guy who gets into the mind of the killer, etc. – of Celine’s life story (her disadvantaged roots in a small Quebec town), the power of her music internationally (from the Caribbean to the Middle East), as well as an astute aggregation of studies done on popular taste (which show that, yeah, sneering at Celine is kinda snobby and narrow-minded when you think about it).
Wilson’s summary of Dion’s youth and Quebec’s socio-political history, the distinction of kétaine (a sort of Quebecois kitsch), and how she is both a product and a paradox of the society in which she was raised is brilliant. It is rare to find someone (Quebecois or not) who can write about Quebec, who can encapsulate its frustrations with the rest of the country, its cultural tonality and political upheaval without either trivializing the causes and effects or isolating the province further from our understanding. The fact that Wilson can do all this in a relatively brief chapter of an already svelte-sized book is commendable.
Also of note is the book’s well researched and thought-provoking exploration of what we mean when we talk about taste and – intriguingly – whether there truly is any point in claiming that one form of art (or one artist) is intrinsically better than another. In particular the perspectives which support the (unfairly derided) trope of sentimentality, that hallmark of Celine Dion’s repertoire, are fascinating. Why, Wilson realizes, must everything be so f#cking bleak in order to be seriously respected? I found myself nodding in agreement with him and pondering the philosophical reach of the arguments.
In the end this is a personal rather than purely journalistic task for Wilson. Celine’s presence and music are weaved, sometimes touchingly, through various aspects and events within his life. However, if there is a fault it is Wilson’s penchant for using 5-dollar words; it lends an unnecessarily academic tone to the book which (thankfully infrequently) obscures an otherwise fun and fascinating read.
That quibble said, I cannot recommend this book enough.
Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey To The End of Taste, by Carl Wilson [ISBN: 978-0826427885] is available at a wonderful, friendly independent bookseller near you, or online via various impersonal vendors.