Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Book Review: "Let's Talk about Love: A Journey to the End of Taste"


Let's Talk About Love
I WAS WATCHING The Colbert Report a few weeks ago when a music critic came on to promote his book centered around Celine Dion, called "Let's Talk about Love: A Journey to the End of Taste." With the phrase "the end of taste" I assumed that he meant that Ms. Dion had more or less sailed off the edge of the world of taste, that she had somehow broken the needle off the the taste-o-meter, or that she had murdered taste in the cold of night and buried its corpse in the woods. After all, what else would a self-respecting music critic have to say about Celine Dion?

But Carl Wilson isn't a self-respecting music critic. He is an other-respecting music critic, or at least desiring to become so. He asked himself the question: Rather than just denigrate hypothetical Celine fans for having no taste — imagining them to be frumpy spinsters, preening teens, or weak-spined conformists worthy of contempt — what if he actually talked to some flesh-and-blood Celine fans? After all, she's one of the best-selling artists of all time, so there are no shortage of them, even if they are reluctant to raise their hands and identify themselves lest they be subject to a game of critical-whack-a-mole. After years of being a guardian of taste as a reviewer for the magazine 33 1/3, he asks the question: Are there other, cohesive, taste profiles out there other than the ones cool and edgy enough to make it into a music magazine, and of course the answer is yes.

This is such an amazing act of empathy that I am still flabbergasted after finishing the book. Did I really read that? Did a professional warrior just set down his tools of the trade and sit down and have lunch with his opponent? Did someone who calls himself a critic actually seek a greater understanding of humanity rather than heap praise on a singular view of the heights of humanity?

Why don't we all do that? Why is it that we find it so necessary to scoff at others' taste, whether it be their music, their movies, their food, their clothes. Do we do it to validate our own taste profiles, to set ourselves apart and above? Why are we so quick to denigrate and try to convert, instead of taking time to listen and to break bread with those of other perspectives? Why can't we see that each person's taste is a convoluted mish-mash of identity-staking anyway, one that is continually churning and evolving and being re-written as one grows and changes, meets new people, gets older, finds love. We are none of us the sum of our tastes; we know that, but how often do we read someone's Facebook profile and cringe that someone we know and respect actually likes that book or that band? Wilson's book is a good place to start for a recoil-antidote.

MY OWN EXPOSURE to Celine Dion has come mainly through her movie-soundtrack songs: "Beauty and the Beast," "When I Fall in Love" from Sleepless in Seattle, "Because You Love Me" from Up Close & Personal, and "My Heart Will Go On" from Titanic, as well as a smattering of other songs I heard on the radio but often didn't know they were hers until I read this book. I'm probably one of those few middle-of-the-road people on Celine, because I've never actually sought her out or bought an album, but I never really cringed at her either — potentially because I didn't cringe at the open sentimentality of the movies associated with her songs. Yes, "My Heart Will Go On" was mercilessly overplayed in 1998, but in the context of Titanic, as the song plays over the end credits, what else would you want but an openly effusive tribute to the resilience of the human spirit, the ability to move past adversity but still hold in remembrance what is lost? What would be the point of something more restrained?

Wilson writes: "In critical discourse, it's as if the only action going on when music is playing is the activity of evaluating music. The question becomes, 'Is this good music to listen to while you're making aesthetic judgments?' ... Celine Dion, on the other hand, is lousy music to make aesthetic judgments to, but might be excellent for having a first kiss, or burying your grandma, or breaking down in tears..."

The whole point of art, I think, is that is is meant to be of use to us, to be entwined with us. It is meant to intersect with our emotional life. If you don't have at least ten good stories of experiences you've had at the movies that outshine the movies themselves in your memory, but you love the films all the same for bringing back those memories — of first dates, romantic escapades, graduation parties, a family outing, a drive-in, a trip downtown, a birthday, a reunion of friends, a vacation escape — then maybe you're missing out on what film has to offer. It's the difference between enjoying a Thanksgiving feast around the family table and eating alone at the highest caliber restaurant. The emotional component is part of the appeal, not a hurdle to get past.

"When this album was first released I assumed that it was shallow, that it was beneath me. A decade later I don't see the advantage is holding yourself above things; down on the surface is where the action is, the first layer of the unfathomable depths. Down there is where your heart gets beaten up, but keeps on beating. It does go on and on. The story is true."

My emphasis has largely been on the intersection of faith and art, between Christian living and artistic experience, and even though Wilson is not a Christian, he nails in this paragraph the key intersection I have found between the two, which is that you get the most out of them when you get your hands dirty, when you go where the action is. As long as Christianity remains a certain set of beliefs and theoretical abstracts about life, it is entirely missing the point. Our experiences and failures with trying to love our neighbors brings us to a deeper understanding of the mystery of God and the grace of Christ that ten thousand sermons or hours of study cannot bring us. Analysis is important, to be sure, but moreso in reflection and contemplation after the fact, after jumping in headfirst and wading through the unknown. In the same way, an analysis of art is mostly useful to me only after I've made myself available to be swept up, and fully immersed in the art — when I am seeking to better understand my reactions, my process, and the reasons that the experience affected me a particular way.

"It's often assumed that audiences for schmaltz are somehow stunted, using sentimental art as a kind of emotional crutch. ... Isn't it equally plausible that people uncomfortable with representations of vulnerability and tenderness have emotional problems? Sentimental art can be a rehearsal, a workout to keep emotions toned and ready to use. ... Sympathy and compassion are prerequisites to charity and solidarity. So between the sentimentalist and the antisentimentalist, who is the real emotional cripple? Me, for one."

As I read the book, I was stunned by how many of his observations like this seemed to mirror my own journey as a critic. I too came to a point where I realized that my encounters with art had to lead to more than just reflection, but to action — to be propelled the exercise of sympathy and compassion. I resonate with his characterization of art as a practice ground for the deepening of charity and solidarity.

But while I got to my conclusions through instinctual wanderings and reactive lurches, Wilson lays out his reasoning with strong arguments and good theory and historical precedent, with substance and facts, with humor and humility and cordiality. He's made me so much more aware of how critical interpretations have changed in the last ten and twenty years, and the historical roots of different philosophies of critical theory. My experiences have not been in a vacuum, but have been been shaped by a context larger than what I was able to perceive on my own. I value his book deeply, as a companion piece to my own story. Like a good song, it lets me know that I'm not alone out there in the universe, that others have felt and thought as I have.

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