Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste

I read Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, and it’s probably my favorite book of the year so far. Like Wilson, I never cared that much for Céline Dion’s music, and hadn’t tried to care, but I came away with a new appreciation for where she came from and some of her shrewd business moves. But it’s not just about the music and industry angle, the good stuff is how he uses Dion as the pivot to talk about taste, and all the baggage that informs our opinions.

Much of this book is about reasonable people carting around cultural assumptions that make them assholes to millions of strangers.

So this is right in my wheelhouse, as taste and opinions are two of my favorite tags here. Some favorite parts…

On pop criticism and critical reevaluation:

If critics were so wrong about disco in the 1970s, why not about Britney Spears now? Why did pop music have to get old before getting a fair shake?

And later, trying to fight your instincts and keep an open mind:

If guilty pleasures are out of date, perhaps the time has come to conceive of a guilty displeasure. This is not like the nagging regret I have about, say, never learning to like opera. My aversion to Dion more closely resembles how put off I feel when someone says they’re pro-life or a Republican: intellectually I’m aware how personal and complicated such affiliations can be, but my gut reactions are more crudely tribal.

On the acknowledged fakeness of shows like American Idol:

For all the show’s concentration on character and achievement, it is not about the kind of self-expression critics tend to praise as real. It celebrates […] “authentic inauthenticity”, the sense of showbiz known and enjoyed as a genuine fake, in a time when audiences are savvy enough to realize image-construction is an inevitability and just want it to be fun. “Authentic inauthenticity” is really just another way of saying “art”, but people caught up in romantic ideals still bristle to admit how much of creativity is being able to manipulate artifice.

On conformity of opinion:

The bias that “conformity” is a pejorative has led, I think, to underestimating the part mimesis – imitation – plays in taste. It’s always other people following crowds, whereas my own taste reflects my specialness.

On middlebrow:

Middle brow is the new lowbrow – mainstream taste the only taste for which you still have you say you’re sorry. And there, taste seems less an aesthetic question than, again, a social one: among the thousands of varieties of aesthetes and geeks and hobbyists, each with their special-ordered cultural diet, the abiding mystery of mainstream culture is, “Who the hell are those people?”

In a section that ties in the work of Pierre Bourdieu, a bit on class and the varieties of capital:

One of Bourdieu’s most striking notions is that there’s also an inherent antagonism between people in fields structured mainly by cultural capital and those in fields where there is primarily economic capital: while high-ranking artists and intellectuals are part of the dominant class in society thanks to their education and influence, they are a dominated segment of that class compared to actual rich people. This helps explain why so many artists, journalists and academics can see themselves as anti-establishment subversives while most of the public sees them as smug elitists.

I love this section on the double-standards about the emotional content of music, especially when it comes to things like sentimentality, tenderness, etc.

Cliché certainly might be an aesthetic flaw, but it’s not what sets sentimentality apart in pop music, or there wouldn’t be a primitive band every two years that’s hailed for bringing rock “back to basics”. Such double-standards arise everywhere for sentimental music: excess, formulaism, two-dimensionality can all be positives for music that is not gentle and conciliatory, but infuriated and rebellious. You could say punk rock is anger’s schmaltz.

In a section talking about all the ways we can love a song, a reminder:

You can only feel all these sorts of love if you’re uncowed by the questions of whether a song will stand the “test of time”, which implies that to pass away, to die, is to fail (and that taste is about making predictions). You can’t feel them if you’re looking for the one record you would take to a desert island, a scenario designed to strip the conviviality from the aesthetic imagination.

And another one:

When we do make judgements, though, the trick would be to remember that they are contingent, hailing from one small point in time and in society. It’s only a rough draft of art history: it always could be otherwise, and usually will be. The thrill is that as a rough draft, it is always up for revision, so we are constantly at risk of our minds being changed – the promise that lured us all to art in the first place.

While I’m wrapping up, I should mention two things those excerpts don’t capture well: 1) the long, smooth, winding essay feel, as it all snaps into place so nicely, and 2) a lot of fascinating detail on Céline Dion herself. She’s a pro.

This book would pair really nicely with two other books I’ve loved: Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, a sort of historical/sociological exploration of class and taste, and The Age of the Infovore, which runs with the idea of open-mindedness and how we’re all so damn lucky to have so much culture at our fingertips.