The power of love

By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  March 19, 2008

While elitist tastes are artsier and more “challenging” than the schmaltz of a Celine Dion, elitists aren’t all that unique. They don’t exist in a vacuum; they just happen to inhabit an alternate cultural sphere. The mechanics of popularity are the same — as Jane Doe is interested in Nickelback, Joe Hipster is all about Yeasayer. We’re all trying to fit in by being aware of what our friends like; our friends just like different things.

This isn’t to say we’re all mindless robots, either. Our various backgrounds, friend sets, experiences, feelings, and synapses make us all react to art differently. We’re all individuals, but we’re also members of a society; our tastes aren’t predetermined, they’re just kind of cliquey.

Things get personal for Wilson when he tries to figure out what distinguishes elitist society from average society. Celine Dion's music becomes less important than figuring out why people love it. Wilson talks with her fans over the phone and in person, and sees that they are every bit as devoted and altered by her music as Wilson is by someone like Elliott Smith.

After conversing with one fan, he notes, “I like him so much that for a long moment his taste seems superior. What was the point again of all that nasty, life-negating crap I like?” The difference between the two cliques Wilson juxtaposes — the saps and the snobs — is that Celine Dion fans are inspired by her words, while Wilson (the critic, the hipster) is looking for something more cerebral.

Celine Dion is in touch with schmaltz’s music-of-the-people reputation, and she has made a career of it. She's said explicitly many times that she is singing not for herself but for her audience. She offers people a cathartic experience, and most embrace it.

Those who bemoan it aren’t necessarily averse to emotion — the artifacts of indie culture are, by and large, quite sensitive — but they recoil at seeing it laid bare. Elitists prize ambiguity, art shrouded in dualities and murkiness. It’s Dion’s “Love can touch us one time/And last for a lifetime” versus Elliott Smith’s “And I try to be but you know me/I come back when you want me to.” If Smith’s weary resignation what appeals to us, what does that say about our emotional health?

For a visual example of the hipster aesthetic, take the films of Wes Anderson, a director whose popularity extends nowhere beyond cool-kid circles. These movies (particularly The Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited) are all about shallow depths, bad cases of ennui made to seem more important because his characters wear track suits, carry immaculately detailed Marc Jacobs luggage, and sit in bathtubs all day to express their vague yet overpowering depression. This isn’t profundity; it’s an art of delusion, hinting at truth through quirky visuals and opaque dialogue.

Wilson rescues himself (and his increasingly bewildered audience) from this emotionally deflating wormhole by thinking of the sentimental art he has enjoyed. That is, art that made him cry. It’s a grab bag of pop culture bits with some semblance of hipster appeal — the Buddy Holly song that made him fall in love with his ex-wife, an episode of Gilmore Girls — that remind him that he actually can appreciate pure sentimentality in his own context. Everyone gets sappy, just on their own terms. The end result of this regarding Celine Dion, of course, is that we shouldn’t belittle her or her fans for being moved by such tripe; we’re all moved by art that someone else thinks is cheesy or, worse, pretentious.

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