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If guilty pleasures are out of date, perhaps the time has come to conceive of a guilty displeasure.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.



Demo of Beat It composed using only Michael Jackson’s voice

As Jackson couldn’t fluently play any instruments, he would sing and beatbox out how he wanted his songs to sound by himself on tape, layering the vocals, harmonies and rhythm before having instrumentalists come in to complete the songs.

One of his engineers Robmix on how Jackson worked: “One morning MJ came in with a new song he had written overnight. We called in a guitar player, and Michael sang every note of every chord to him. “here’s the first chord first note, second note, third note. Here’s the second chord first note, second note, third note”, etc., etc. We then witnessed him giving the most heartfelt and profound vocal performance, live in the control room through an SM57. He would sing us an entire string arrangement, every part. Steve Porcaro once told me he witnessed MJ doing that with the string section in the room. Had it all in his head, harmony and everything. Not just little eight bar loop ideas. he would actually sing the entire arrangement into a micro-cassette recorder complete with stops and fills.”

Reasons why I laugh when people say he wasn’t a real musician.

Dang. Dude was good.

Kanye West

I was a music producer, and everyone was telling me that I had no business becoming a rapper, so it gave me the opportunity to tell everyone, “Hey, I need some time to recover.” But during that recovery period, I just spent all my time honing my craft and making The College Dropout. Without that period, there would have been so many phone calls and so many people putting pressure on me from every direction—so many people I somehow owed something to—and I would have never had the time to do what I wanted to.

Kanye West

I Started a Joke: “PBR&B” and What Genres Mean Now | Pitchfork

This is what genres do really well, for good and for ill: They make large amounts of music easier to talk about (and, by extension, sell). Most often, genres do not stand up to scrutiny, yet they’re a fundamental part not only of music discussions online and off, but of any conversations we have about culture more generally. Particularly with the infinite online options for music access and conversation, pithy and memorable genre names can make it easier (if not necessarily accurate) to classify, discuss, and compare music. Genres arise out of tastes, and are often institutionalized (I wrote about one such example here), though online there’s infinitely more space to create, market, sort and search by micro-genres. (Remember “witch house”?) People have lengthy, years-long arguments using genres as combatants. If nothing else, genres make music easier to fight about.

I Started a Joke: “PBR&B” and What Genres Mean Now | Pitchfork




2013: Roundup • Albums • Songs • Writing • Sounds

This is the third annual installment of my favorite sounds and moments from music this year. All sounds have been extracted from their songs and smashed together in the SoundCloud player above; the list is below so you can follow along.

(I first did this in 2011 and again in 2012.)

For three years now I’ve enjoyed Matthew’s collage of his favorite sounds of the year; you might enjoy it too. 

This is pretty wonderful.

Joe Jonas: My Life As a Jonas Brother

Who knows how much of this is just really good, massaged PR messaging, but still. An interesting look from the inside out.

Joe Jonas: My Life As a Jonas Brother


I feel like this song was, for many American children, an introduction to Deep Thinking. Even at age 8 or 9 you heard this and thought something like, “There is some essential yearning and sadness and an essential sense of loss in life that we can’t escape, though many things are also beautiful and happy and the power of love and human connection is very real,” even if your mind didn’t yet have all these words in that order.

An Interview With Steve Reich, Who Rewrote Radiohead

Steve Reich can talk a mile. The most amusing, Reich-splaining part of this interview is him talking about how, exactly, he was influenced by jazz.:

Yeah, sure, all jazz is improvisation. What I’m saying is what jazz is for me is yes, improvisation is a big part of it, I understand that and I’m just not a very good improviser and I’m not interested in improvisation at all, but I understand that it’s a very, very important part of music. What interests me in jazz is the feel of jazz, the tones of jazz, the gestures of jazz, the way John Coltrane sounds as opposed to some classical saxophone is like two different universes. I’ve had a tremendous influence where, when I was a kid I took piano lessons, but it wasn’t until the age of 14—when I was a kid before the age of 14 I never heard a note of music before 1750, I never heard a note of music after Wagner, and I never heard any real jazz, I heard you know, pop music and all kinds of Broadway shows and that kind of stuff. But at the age of 14 for the first time I heard the The Rite of Spring, the 5th Brandenburg Concerto, and Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and the drummer Kenny Clarke and I decided I want to be Kenny Clarke and I started studying percussion at the age of 14. I studied with Roland Kohloff, who was the local great drummer and later became the timpanist with the New York Philharmonic, and I remained a drummer ever since. And so hence all the percussion in my group. And I went down to hear Miles Davis and Kenny Clarke and Thelonious Monk and Horace Silver and Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and all those groups started when I was 14 years old, on through high school, on through college when I got to Juilliard and continued doing it, and I started listening particularly to John Coltrane.

I got out to the West Coast and I was studying with Luciano Berio during the day, and every time he was in town I would go to hear John Coltrane at night. Now what was it I learned, improvisation? No, forget about it. What I learned was this: John Coltrane could play for half an hour on one harmony. Think of the album, or if you don’t think of it, go out and buy it or steal it whatever, called “Africa Brass”. Do you know it? “Africa Brass” is 17 minutes and it’s all on the low E of the double bass. So if you go to a jazz musician and say ‘hey man, what are the harmonic changes of “Africa Brass” – “This is E” “well what changes?”.”E for 17 minutes!” “Well that sounds strange, how are you going to play one harmony for 17 minutes?” Well I’ll tell you how: you have incredible melodic invention from Coltrane himself, who’s either playing gorgeous melodies or screaming noise through his horn, you have incredible timbral variety because he was working with another great jazz musician Eric Dolphy, who arranged all the brass in the “Africa Brass” and part of it was french horn, which sounded like elephants coming through the jungle. He also was working with Elvin Jones, who as you may know, is a drummer who sounds like he’s two or three or four drummers all at once. If you have rhythmic complexity, timbral variety and melodic invention, then you can stay put on a single harmony for half an hour, and it’s fascinating, it’s fantastic, it gives it more intensity because you’re focused on these other things. And in a funny way my piece “Drumming” doesn’t sound like “Africa Brass”. I didn’t even think about “Africa Brass”, but really it syncs the exact same way. There’s one slight change of key in the glock section, but basically it’s in six sharps for an hour. It doesn’t change. Because of the rhythmic complexity in the drums, the complete change of timbre into marimbas, and the rhythmic complexity and the melodic invention of the women’s voices and then the complete change of timbre into glockenspiel and the melodies in the flutes and piccolo and whistling, and then the complete change of timbre to all those instruments playing together you can listen to one key for an hour and enjoy it. So my interest in jazz is in gestures, the way Kenny Clarke could make an entire band sort of float in a magical way I never heard in any classical music, and the gesture of tones, the style of playing, THAT’S what I loved about jazz.

He also closes talking about his Radiohead piece and a great rant about artists getting expensed out of NYC. Filed under: Steve Reich.

An Interview With Steve Reich, Who Rewrote Radiohead

The Arts – €”Agents of Change and Source of Enchantment | Catholic World Report

Dana Gioia:

Dana’s brother Ted Gioia:

If you asked me to sum up my view of music in one sentence, I could do it: music is a change agent and a source of enchantment. When people start understanding the arts in those terms, you don’t need to sell them on culture. They come out of curiosity, desire, and self-interest. Teachers can help spur this process, but it’s a different kind of teaching than you find in most classrooms

The Arts – €”Agents of Change and Source of Enchantment | Catholic World Report

Beatlemania: ‘the screamers’ and other tales of fandom.

If anyone is likely to look kindly on the excesses of new generations of fans, it’s a former Beatlemaniac. “I understand when I see the One Direction kids going mad,” says Bridget Kelly. “People think they’re silly but they’re not. It’s the togetherness. We had this big communal thing that we all knew and loved and understood — something that was yours and nothing to do with your mum and dad. We were all in it together. It was lovely.”

Remember this old photo? Filed under: fandom.



Drinking Hanson’s beer, Mmmhops, with Hanson

Austin Ray totally nailed this article for Creative Loafing. I took some photos. We drank beer with Hanson. It was a lot of fun.

I mentioned this on Twitter already—I’m not sure what would have seem crazier to 11-year-old Me: That one day she’d have a dude pal (that would be Austin, mentioned above) who “got” Hanson, or that Hanson would make a beer. But now that I think about it, actually, the beer maybe would have seemed more likely.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to write about this for a while and haven’t quite cracked it, but in short: back when I was someone who would have identified in any real capacity as “a Hanson fan,” people in general and boys in particular were, to put it quite elegantly, basically like total megadicks to me about it! Liking this band was probably the thing I got teased about the most in middle school. It probably wasn’t that much, actually, just amplified times a million by the general OMG OMG UGHHHH EVERYTHING IS AWFULNESS of being an adolescent human/female, but it still hurt and made me feel weird and bad about myself in a way nothing else quite could. This was true even on into high school, when Hanson was quickly becoming more of a personal relic than an active~*~*~love~*~*~; I think I was a sophomore when a friend of mine, a senior, in a very convoluted and roundabout and deeply personally stabby way, mocked me for it in front of our entire creative writing class.

MEANWHILE, one of the greatest things ever, when I was a wee fan and an even wee-er Person Thinking About Becoming A Writer One Day, was when people wrote things that seemed to really “get” the band, which is actually not super hard to do but does requires a certain amount of taking-them-seriously, which is a tough prospect when the subjects are widely beloved by teenaged girls. Two pieces I remember in particular: This Rob Sheffield review, and this Spin feature (well, except that subhed, but eh). They took the band seriously, and by extension I felt like I was being taken seriously, and that was huge.

Anyway, can’t wait to drink some of this stuff. I will probably giggle a lot.