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

I think I first heard of this book in an interview with Mark O’Connell, author of Epic Fail. Which makes sense because they’re both very personal meditations on how we interact with particular forms of art; almost interactive themselves in the way the reader (for values of The Reader equalling me) is implicated and forced to reexamine her own position. I really enjoyed it, anyway.

From this week’s column:


Among the most chilling final lines in English literature are those of George Orwell’s 1984. “But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.” It’s the ultimate negation of both free will and the self—the power (that of the state, in this case) to not just make people bend to one’s will, which only needs force, but to control what they love or hate.

In Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, Carl Wilson attempts a similar, sinister thought experiment—upon himself. Can he think himself into a position where he can love the music of Celine Dion? Dion is the sort of singer who shows up on “most annoying song” lists all the time; when an elevator full of strangers begins to play “My Heart Will Go On” we silently bond in our disgust. And yet this highly successful pop star must have fans; so who are they?

Wilson examines the context from which Dion’s music emerges and interviews fans for a fuller understanding of what there is in her music that draws them to it. But more importantly he asks questions about his own dislike of her music, the factors that form his aesthetic judgements, goes as far as re-examining the whole of the aesthetic framework within which he judges things. As a result Lets Talk About Love becomes a meditation on taste, and one that is both incisive and deeply personal.

Because these are personal questions, particularly to those of us who make artistic judgements for a living. We’ve (mostly) as a culture outgrown the notion that our aesthetic standards are completely objective and universal, that there exists some platonic ideal of good art. Yet we continue to write reviews and columns (like this one) that rely for their very existence upon the idea that such a thing as critical judgement can exist and can have meaning—that some things are ‘better’ art than other things.

But the personal nature of our tastes isn’t confined to professional critics. Our tastes are more malleable than many of us are comfortable admitting; they depend in large part on things like class, exposure, our peers. A column in this paper last week discussed the new Daft Punk album and the critical to-ing and fro-ing with which it had been greeted as people waited to work out what opinions they could be seen to have. This is a particularly visible example, but we live in a time when a new album is immediately available to us along with the hype leading up to it and the reviews that follow it. If our tastes, in music, movies, art, are one of the ways in which we signal who we are and what identities we wish to construct for ourselves, I don’t know if it’s possible in the twenty-first century to divorce personal taste from social dynamics. I don’t know if it ever was. Wilson’s discussion of taste here moves from Kant to Bourdieu to the trend of reclaiming and finding value in music that was dismissed by critics when it was first released.

Perhaps the sentimentality of “schmaltz”, as Wilson categorises Dion’s oeuvre, is its biggest strength and its critics’ biggest weakness: “isn’t it equally plausible that people uncomfortable with representations of vulnerability and tenderness have emotional problems?” Wilson is able to squeeze out a few tears during a Dion concert, but the most emotionally powerful moment in the book concerns the use of “My Heart Will Go On” in an episode of Gilmore Girls. It’s when Wilson is twice removed from the song (analysing its use in a programme that also comments on its use) and the reader thrice removed (we’re reading Wilson’s commentary on the show that also comments on the song) that for the twenty-first century writer and reader it has most meaning. And perhaps we finally love Celine Dion.


2 Comments to “Carl Wilson, Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste

  1. yeah, I was drawn in by it too, but it was very dubious what carl wilson’s motives really are. his whole shtick seems to be a patronizing reclamation of cheesy pop from the rockist aesthetes (a debate that had some currency roughly between Nirvana’s demise and the early 2000s when Kelefah Sanneh wrote that piece about rockism), but it’s troubling that he doesn’t really discuss his own role as cultural producer/tastemaker (beyond an affinity for college rock and elliott smith, which he adduces to be standard white liberal collegiate fare). He seems most patronizing (and honestly, racist) when he obliviously dumps on a Vietnamese immigrant for earnestly being into Dion. Not to mention his frank and classist discussion of Quebecois rubes, while discussing Dion’s origins.

    • I think there’s *some* level of indirect self-examination when he points out that the rules by which other people have judged taste have historically been pretty biased, but you’re right that there’s almost nothing about his own status as tastemaker (which is a word that reminds me of instant noodles, but I can’t find a better alternative).

      As for patronizing (I’m not sure it’s racist, but then I’m also not sure it’s not) it’s a problem I think a lot of people, including myself, have that we see certain types of engagement as “more complex” and “more complex” as inherently “better”, I struggle with it myself when I’m talking about, say, people’s religious belief; I know people who really want to talk in a non-judgemental way about how people read ‘escapist’ literature/watch blockbuster movies, and they still come across as complete dicks. I think we (and I’m not a white liberal, but I think my cultural circles and Wilson’s may hold similar places in our different contexts) have a problem with this and I don’t know what to do about it other than try harder.

      (Should have replied to this days ago- sorry!)

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