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The power of love

A respected music critic contemplates Celine Dion and has a crisis of conscience
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  March 19, 2008

Carl Wilson’s recent entry into Continuum’s esteemed 33 1/3 series — a series of books by critics and musicians devoted to canonical pop albums — is framed by an irresistible concept. Instead of exhausting another album whose impact and context has been well covered by the critical elite, Wilson — the lead music critic for Canada’s national newspaper — turns the series on its head by seriously considering a blockbuster hit by Celine Dion, internationally adored and lambasted French-Canadian pop star.

By immersing himself in the work and life of an artist he “can’t stand,” Wilson is trying to define the difference between “us” — his readers, the music writers and general hipster populace who enjoy challenging music that’s interesting to think about — and “them,” those who unironically embrace Celine Dion’s naked, overpowering sentimentality.

Wilson’s strangely haunting argument is that we’re really not all that different. Elitists are every bit as interested in being moved by art and music as middle American Celine Dion listeners are, but are moved by innovation and ambiguity, whereas Dion’s fans are content to take her words, grand gesticulations, and emotions at face value. This begs a devastating question: which group is more delusional?

Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste begins spitefully. Wilson admits that he’s never liked Celine Dion, but his annoyance “got personal” after she beat out one of his (and my) heroes, the whispery singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, to win an Oscar in 1998. (She won for Titanic’s theme song, “My Heart Will Go On;” Smith lost with “Miss Misery,” from Good Will Hunting.)

Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey To The End Of Taste by Carl Wilson | 161 pages | Continuum | $10.95
The author rather irrationally poses Dion’s inevitable Oscar win as a typically mainstream instance of the oppressive, well-funded bully triumphing over one of the world’s “fragile, unlovely outcasts.” He only softens his bullish stance after he admits that while her music doesn’t speak to him, her schmaltzy style has a long and dominant popular history.

Schmaltz has, in fact, been the most popular music of the Western world for centuries. From opera to the parlor song to the Rat Pack to arena rock, popular music has been about inspiration and aspiration, reaching for higher places by singing in higher octaves. Her music is beholden to all of these populist traditions (she collaborates with Andrea Bocelli and Barbara Streisand, among others), resulting in what Wilson calls “a Frankengenre of emotional intensity.”

The problem, for exclusivist music snobs, is that they don’t want to sympathize with her music. They don’t want emotion thrown at them; they want to find emotion, and throw themselves in it. If elitists see themselves as above Dion’s sentiments, who are they relating to? As it turns out, pretty much the same things as all the other snobs.

Like schmaltz, snobbery has a long history. Urban elites and bohemians have always been quick to embrace new styles, like jazz in the ’20s or today’s ceaseless genre hybrids. A common jibe against music snobs is that they try to exert their superiority over others merely through taste. By liking what’s new and different, they become “special.” Wilson argues this isn’t really the case.

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.

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