Sunday, November 28, 2010

Book Review: 33 1/3 #52 Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste

A few years ago I wrote record reviews for a small music website that doesn't exist anymore. For whatever reason, the editors had this bizarre policy against the use of first person in our reviews. For most of the time I wrote for this site, none of them really enforced the rule, though I tried to keep my authorial intrusions subtle. For the last year, or so, of the site's existence, the editors started cracking down on writing ourselves into our reviews. I never really got a good explanation as to why. Even in freshman composition courses many instructors are moving away from the hard and fast rule that the first person has no place in academic writing. Let's be honest--the entire question is a bit of a sham anyway, isn't it? When we write essays or reviews or conference papers, we're expressing our own ideas, and the impulse to avoid first person grows out of a misguided notion to make our ideas seem more objective than they actually are. If we're to think about our writing as entering into a larger conversation, doesn't it only make sense that our written words connect back to our selves? Shouldn't we be highlighting our subjectivity so as to more clearly delineate the space in which this conversation is taking place? Our faux-objective ideas don't just drift from our bodies to play with other disembodied ideas in some academic arena, no. These conversations are happening between people and the more we begin to accept this, the better off we'll all be. Carl Wilson makes a similar point in his impressive entry in the 33 1/3 series, Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste. For anyone who might be reading this review who isn't at least familiar with this book (I'm guessing no one), here is the premise: Carl Wilson, like many rock critic types, hates Celine Dion, but rather than writing a book about how awful her music is, he uses his own taste as a gateway into an exploration of how tastes are made, how tastes are relational, and why so many people sincerely love Celine Dion. It's a bold premise, to be sure, and Wilson pays it off at every turn, but there are two moments in particular--not surprisingly as the book enters its home stretch after Wilson has laid a solid foundational understanding of Dion, her work, and her reception--that stand out as being particularly important.

The first (well, actually its the second in the book, but it's the one I'm going to talk about first) is something that Wilson argues--both implicitly and explicitly--throughout the book, but which really comes to full fruition in his penultimate chapter, a traditional record review of a hypothetical re-issue of Let's Talk About Love. Throughout the review, Wilson at times plays the part of the traditional music critic, talking about producers and particular moves that Dion and her team made throughout the album. But then something funny happens--as the review progresses, Wilson integrates more of himself into his critique. This leads to his telling of the one time "My Heart Will Go On," made him cry--when it was used in the episode of The Gilmore Girls when Michelle's dog dies and Zack plays the song at said dog's funeral. At first, this is an incredibly bizarre move for something that is meant to be a "traditional" record review. Here we are, reading about George Martin's production on "The Reason," and the bland ubiquity of "My Heart Will Go On," and suddenly, we encounter a page long synopsis of an episode from a defunct TV show and how Dion's song, in that context, made the author cry. Once the initial shock of such an out-of-place bit of authorial intrusion subsides, I became convinced that this is one of the most brilliant moves I have ever encountered in a record review. Through his "intrusion," Wilson captures exactly what "My Heart Will Go On," is to many, many people, while making clear his own resistance to the song. It is through the inclusion of his personal experience that we, the readers, are allowed to understand that, yes, this song is over-the-top schmaltz, but there's something to it, and one day it might just sneak the fuck up on you and stuff its fist in your gut over and over again until your a sniveling mess on the floor. Over the last decade, I've read countless message board complaints about music reviews that get too personal. to hell with those complaints. Music reviews can only be personal. We need a point of reference to understand how a writer is critiquing and rating an album. This is why we follow particular writers instead of websites, why we trust certain friends' opinions over others, and why an idea like record label allegiance exists. Without the writer's ethos, all we are left with is false objectivity, writers' attempts to universalize that which can not be universalized.

The other point that Wilson spends a great deal of time on that I'd like to briefly mention (I was going to say more, but I've gone on too long, already) is his semi-defense of sentimentality. In fiction workshops, we toss this word around like a racial slur. If something is sentimental, it's bad, it's trite, it's Hallmark, it's Hollywood. Just last week I was commenting on a particular type of sentimentality in an excellent draft of a story written by a close friend, and I got these looks as if I was high to even suggest the piece was sentimental. Admittedly, my use of the word came about because of what I was reading in Wilson's book. After developing a sound working definition of sentimentality, then debriefing us on key figures and texts in the debate about sentimentality, Wilson decides that maybe, just maybe, sentimentality has gotten a bit of a bad rap:

Perhaps the dream content of the sentimental is today in need of liberation, the way that in the early twentieth century, Freud and the surrealists realized western society needed to bare and scratch the sexual, violent underbelly of concsiousness. With inhibitions against them removed, the tender sentiments might unveil their unsuspected splendors. (133)

And reading this, I sense the immediate tug of truth. I think of strange moments from my life, from my interactions with culture, where texts that are lame, cheesy, manipulative--they, well my body up with something like tears. The sensation is deep and rich and sometimes scary. It goes like this: I'm watching this beginning of this fucking Harry Potter movie (spoiler alert?) and the girl wizard erases herself from her parents' lives--waves her wand and is gone from their memories and photographs. I like the Harry Potter movies, but I've never been all that invested in them, but for whatever reason, this sentimental moment guts me. I shudder and laugh because I'm afraid I might cry. This is why I know Wilson is on to something here.

Really, I've gone on far longer than necessary about this book. It's already the most talked about book in the 33 1/3 series, and the most loved. I can't really add to that except to say--everyone who loves this book has good reason to love it. I read a blurb on some website or another saying something along the lines of, "I wish this book could be assigned to every incoming college freshman." As soon as I am able, I will assign this book.

Up next will be reviewing Joe Bonomo's recent volume on AC/DC's Highway to Hell.

1 comment:

  1. James, this is sheer uncanny coincidence, but I'm actually teaching this book as the culminating text in my undergraduate course "Critical Methods." My students are chewing on this text over at their blog. (So I guess this post was part-self promotion on my part. Sorry.)

    Today, we had an uproarious discussion about the politics of taste, Animal Collective, and why one of my students "fucking hates" Best Coast. Today was a good day, to quote Ice Cube.

    This specific link might be of particular interest to you. It includes links to "America's Most Wanted Song" and "America's Most Unwanted Song." Dr. Flota ought to tear into the "Most Wanted" one for his "Songs That Changed the Landscape . . ." column.