What sort of person likes Celine Dion? her fans tend to be "older women living in Middle America." © Rex/Picture Perfect

Learning to love Celine Dion

A book in which the author tries to learn to love Celine Dion is the most important piece of music criticism written in the past two decades
December 11, 2014
Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste by Carl Wilson (Bloomsbury, £10.99)

“33 1/3” is a series of short books  about individual albums of popular music. Its first entry, a 131-page love letter to the Dusty Springfield record Dusty in Memphis, was published in 2003, and almost all of the 100 books that followed have focused on beloved classics (the Beatles, James Brown) or established critical favourites (Big Star, Liz Phair, J Dilla). In 2007, however, the Canadian cultural critic Carl Wilson inverted the “33 1/3” template by writing a book about a global megastar whose music reviewers almost universally revile: Celine Dion. That book, Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, has now been republished in a revised and expanded edition (one that includes new essays on Wilson’s work written by James Franco and Nick Hornby, among others, as well as a much less appealing subtitle than the original). It is the most important piece of music criticism of the last two decades, a book that embodies the way the conversation about pop music has changed in recent years.

Wilson’s book is a rigorous attempt to subject his own critical impulses to the same degree of scrutiny that he accords the music he reviews. His starting point was the standard position on Dion’s work: “Her music struck me as a bland monotony raised to a pitch of obnoxious bombast,” he writes, “R&B with the sex and slyness surgically removed...” Wilson’s initial disdain reached a more acute stage in 1998, when Dion’s enormous global hit song “My Heart Will Go On,” from the soundtrack of the film Titanic, took home the Academy Award for Best Song, triumphing over the sad, delicate songwriter Elliott Smith, who had also been nominated that year. Celine-hatred became a shibboleth among critics who saw themselves as champions of obscure, ambitious, and difficult art. “As far as I knew,” Wilson writes, “I had never even met anybody who liked Celine Dion.”

Wilson spends the rest of Let’s Talk About Love breaking these feelings down, bit by bit. “This book is an experiment in taste,” he writes, “in stepping deliberately outside one’s own aesthetics.” He begins with an attempt to see past Dion’s blandly internationalised persona and understand what her upbringing in a working-class, French-Catholic Montreal suburb eventually meant for her musical output. Dion has remained fiercely loyal to Quebec and its culture, once even speaking briefly at the 1997 Grammys in joual slang, which Wilson notes is largely “incomprehensible even to most other French speakers.” So despite the fact that Quebecers have sometimes grown just as weary of Dion as anyone—the editor of the highbrow newspaper Le Devoir nicknamed her “Miss Tupperware”—the star has gradually earned their affection and respect.

Wilson never quite talks himself into actually enjoying Dion’s music, but like the Quebecers who slowly came to see her as one of their own, he does somewhat reluctantly develop feelings of admiration for Dion’s project. He partially rehabilitates her syrupy, all-or-nothing emotionalism, first by identifying schmaltz as its defining characteristic and then by tracing schmaltz back through the many different forms of romantic song that have been popular among American immigrant groups since the 19th century. Wilson writes that schmaltz “is never purely escapist: it is not just cathartic but socially reinforcing, a vicarious exposure to both the grandest rewards of adhering to norms and their necessary price.” He also tries to redeem Dion’s notorious lack of musical personality, her habit of gliding over her material without ever providing it with any distinctive shape or texture of her own. “My work,” Dion said in an interview, “is to enter people’s lives with my music. Do you think I want to disturb them when they bake? Do you think I want to disturb them when they make love? I want to be part of it.” Wilson argues that Dion puts her enormous vocal energies to use not for the sake of her own ego but because she wants so badly to make her listeners feel better. She “incarnates the woman who takes care of everybody but herself,” says Wilson. And of the famous loudness of Dion’s voice, Wilson argues that it may just be a hyperfeminine incarnation of heavy metal, itself an emotionally outrageous genre of music that nevertheless enjoys critical respect, in part because its expressiveness is so clearly masculine. “Maybe Celine Dion is metal on oestrogen,” Wilson writes.

This slightly perverse effort to force himself to like music that he does not like pushes Wilson to the brink of a much larger crisis. Let’s Talk About Love contains a long discussion of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, whose 1979 book, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, remains the definitive account of where people’s tastes come from. Bourdieu conducted surveys that documented people’s tastes in everything from the theatre to food to beauty regimes to radio, and in every case he found, first, that what people liked inevitably correlated with their class, and second, that people liked what they liked in part because liking it helped to establish their position on the social ladder. Tastes, in other words, are what people use to distinguish themselves from people in other classes, especially people in lower classes. And, Bordieu argued, “Nothing more clearly affirms one’s class, nothing more infallibly classifies, than taste in music.”

What sort of person is a fan of Celine Dion? According to one demographic study, her fans tend to be older women living in middle-America. They often discovered her by watching television, and they are three-and-a-half times more likely to be widows than the average music fan. In other words, they are exactly what music critics, a group composed mostly of white men living on North America’s coasts or in its major cultural centres, are not. So you can see why Wilson’s crisis of confidence emerges: though he does not wholly agree with Bourdieu’s analysis, he is unable to shake the nagging feeling that his disdain for Dion’s music was born not of real aesthetic sophistication but of a much simpler and less attractive desire to see himself as not like a grandmother from Kansas who spends her days in front of the television.

This anxiety is the key to the significance of Let’s Talk About Love, and it consumed pop culture criticism in the two decades that surrounded the turn of the 21st century. For many years, pop criticism, which is to say rock criticism, had celebrated the values of rock ‘n’ roll itself: masculine aggression, hedonism, (hetero)sexuality, and, above all, authenticity. These values served critics well in the evaluation of rock music, but they were less illuminating when applied to other popular genres. Rock critics’ reaction to disco, for example, a genre pioneered largely by gay men and African-Americans, was openly homophobic, culminating in a 1979 radio station promotion in which rock fans were invited to destroy disco records at a baseball stadium. “If critics were so wrong about disco in the 1970s,” Wilson writes, “why not about Britney Spears now? Why did pop music have to get old before getting a fair shake? Why did it have to be a guilty pleasure?”

This worry simmered gently along throughout the 1990s, as hip hop in the United States and rave culture in the United Kingdom, among other genres, steadily pushed rock ‘n’ roll further away from the centre of what was vital and new in popular music. But things didn’t come to a full boil until 2004, when the critic and journalist Kelefa Sanneh published an article titled “The Rap Against Rockism” in the New York Times. A “rockist,” Sanneh wrote, referring to an advocate of the old music criticism standards, “is someone who reduces rock ‘n’ roll to a caricature, then uses that caricature as a weapon. Rockism means idolising the authentic old legend (or underground hero) while mocking the latest pop star… loving the live show and hating the music video.” He wrote that “rockism permeates the way we think about music,” and he asked whether it could really be coincidental that “rockist complaints often pit straight white men against the rest of the world.”

Against rockism, Sanneh proposed a set of critical values that have since been grouped together under the term “poptimism.” “[The challenge] is to find a way to think about a fluid musical world where it’s impossible to separate classics from guilty pleasures,” he wrote. “The challenge is to acknowledge that music videos and reality shows and glamorous layouts can be as interesting—and as influential—as an old-fashioned album.” If you have ever thought of a frivolous television show or frothy pop hit as your “guilty pleasure, poptimism would like to ask you to think long and hard about what it is you actually feel guilty about.”

A decade after its publication, Sanneh’s article continues to define the general terms of the rockism/poptimism debate, but no piece of writing has teased out the debate’s consequences and implications with as much sensitivity and dedication as Let’s Talk About Love. Wilson’s book ends with a vague but hopeful attempt to imagine what it might be like to move past the kind of critical “contempt” that he sees as “inimical to… an aesthetics that might support a good public life.” Instead of being obsessed with the task of judging music as “objectively” good or bad, a critic could admit his social position up front and write as “a more openly interested, invested observer.”

Although Wilson’s book neatly addresses some of the worst tendencies of old-style rock criticism, it also introduces some problems of its own. If rock criticism often ignored the social context of pop and insisted on a rigid set of aesthetic standards, Wilson sometimes does the opposite, subjecting Dion to endless sociological analysis while dodging the question of what her music actually sounds like and what those sounds mean to him. At the end of the book, he takes a trip to Las Vegas and watches Dion in concert, and she is such a consummate performer with such a finely honed routine that Wilson finally sees, or hears, or feels whatever it is that Dion’s millions of fans feel when they listen to her music. “But when I had escaped,” Wilson writes, “back home in Toronto with her CDs, I couldn’t find the feeling again.” At the end of this brilliant and gruelling repudiation of all that he used to believe and cherish, Wilson still can’t bring himself to enjoy her music. That he doesn’t know what to make of this fact is the book’s biggest failing.

It would have helped Wilson to hold on to just a little bit of confidence in his own aesthetic judgement. The idea, on the one hand, that Celine Dion’s music is rooted in a complicated web of social and cultural circumstances, and the idea, on the other, that her music is mostly sentimental and boring—these don’t have to be mutually exclusive. In his essay celebrating Let’s Talk About Love, Nick Hornby writes, “In my ideal world, people would be reading and listening to music and watching movies all the time, and loving the stuff they’re consuming.” But that phrase at the end could just as well be referring to smartphones or exercise equipment as to literature or music. Hornby goes on to say that to judge people for their tastes “is to damage their relationship with culture in a profoundly unhelpful way,” but one should be able to judge a work without denigrating the people who enjoy that work. To claim otherwise is condescending both to art and to the people who derive pleasure from it, guilty or otherwise.