Continuum Books' 33 1/3 series began with a simple premise: Enlist passionate, articulate fans of seminal albums like The Rolling Stones' Exile On Main St. or Prince's Sign O' The Times, and let them dissect and discuss every nook and cranny. Carl Wilson's recent addition to the pamphlet-sized series, Let's Talk About Love: A Journey To The End Of Taste, still stands apart. Wilson, an editor and critic at Toronto's The Globe And Mail, decided to write about an album he despised: Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love, a pop blockbuster buoyed by that ubiquitous anthem from Titanic, "My Heart Will Go On." But the book is less about the world's most famous French-Canadian singer than it is about the current state of music criticism, the cultural capital that comes with "good" music taste, and why the stuff we hate defines us more than the stuff we love. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Wilson about the book, hipster douchebags, and the emotional shortcomings of indie rock.
The A.V. Club: Lots of people feel secure in the knowledge that Celine Dion sucks. Why should they think otherwise?
Carl Wilson: The real thrust of the book is to question what we mean when we "know" something sucks. There's a basic philosophical question involved, which is: "On what level is your taste objective, and on what level is it subjective?" The starting point for me was to say, "Here's what I feel I know about this music, and here's what my reaction is. But there are millions upon millions of people around the world who have a positive reaction to this music." If all these people see something in it, there must be something to see. Realizing I couldn't see it suggested to me I had blinders on. So for me, the book is about what those blinders are, and whether there are ways that we can take those blinders off. If we can't share enthusiasm with other people for things we don't quite get, at least we can see where they're coming from.
AVC: Do you think the idea of a universally "great" artist, song, or album should be put to bed?
CW: This is something I didn't come to any firm conclusion about. I think there is something that transcends subjectivity, at least in the sense that it seems to work reliably for large numbers of people over a long period of time. I don't want to be dismissive of that. You have to stop and say, "Well, what about Shakespeare?" That's the ultimate example. But accepting the subjectivity and temporariness and ephemeral nature of the judgments we make can alter the tone in which we make them, and the ways in which we argue about these things. Because the way we argue tends to have an underlying suggestion that there's a superiority of taste that reflects being smarter and more cultured. And I'd like to see that open up a little bit more, so people can exchange subjective opinions and start from the assumption that the other person's opinion, even when it differs from yours, may have some validity to it.
AVC: What's your take on the "hipster douchebag" stereotype? Is that just a caricature, or do you think there really are people that pretend to like M.I.A. or TV On The Radio just because it makes them look cool?
CW: Both. Usually, when people express enthusiasm for music or anything else, they're being sincere, and to doubt other people's sincerity is always a problematic place to argue from. But at the same time, I think enthusiasm, less consciously, can be based on having an image of yourself that you want to fulfill. You want to seem up-to-the-moment, or you want to seem open-minded, or you want to seem worldly. All these things will influence what you're drawn toward. The notion that liking something is a simple instinctive reaction that has no relationship to social status is a naïve position, but it's also an overly cynical position to think people strategically point out the things they're going to fake-like.
AVC: Did you question your own taste while writing the book?
CW: Absolutely. I don't think it changed my mind about anything I liked, but to some degree, it made me wonder why I've had such a long attraction to the dissonant and the difficult. And it really opened me up to thinking about the ways I've avoided what I would have called "easy sentimentality" or "easy emotion." Recently I was at a reading, and there was a guy with an acoustic guitar playing, and the first song he played was an Up With People, "Let's all love each other" kind of thing. My initial response was, "Uh, these lyrics, this is kind of cheesy." But because I was about to read from this book, I was like, "Hold on a bit." [Laughs.] I started to see what he was doing and get into the emotional side of it.
AVC: Does being more open to sentimental music come with getting older?
CW: I think so. Adolescence has its own brand of sentimentality that's set apart from a more adult, domestic sentimentality. Getting past that age makes it easier to think that these everyday domestic emotions are actually valid, and they need to be documented in some way, and spoken to in culture. I still have a knee-jerk reaction to a lot of that subject matter, just because it's part of an aesthetic conversation that's been going on since modernism. It's in that same category as "prettiness," as things that everyone decided needed to be stomped out in favor of a more challenging, radical approach. I think I'm still deprogramming from that.
AVC: You have a great line about punk rock being "anger's schmaltz."
CW: It's just as simple, right? It's just as one-sided, just on the other side. Anger is threatening, and therefore has some kind of sexy cool to it. You can get away with that kind of one-dimensionality in the way you can't get away with being one-dimensional about happiness or comfort.
AVC: In the last chapter, you write that indie rock "seems to be mainly music to judge music by." What did you mean by that?
CW: Among a certain part of the critical community, I think that one of the reasons there's a backlash against indie rock is that it's become much more successful than it used to be, and therefore comes up as more of a juicy target for people to prove their tastes are better than other people's tastes. But I also think a lot of indie rock is very self-conscious about its place in a world of aesthetic judgments, and in some ways, the music seems put together to respond to a conversation about what's cool and uncool. The insularity of that process and the ways that it can crawl up its own navel is something people naturally start to question: Does this music serve any purpose other than to be discussed? Does it actually work as music on other levels? I think that's a legitimate concern to raise.
AVC: You seem to imply that people who like, say, The Decemberists, don't bring the music into their lives like Celine Dion fans bring her music into their lives.
CW: I think The Decemberists is hard music to use for a lot of life experiences. That doesn't mean it doesn't have meaning and value to the people who love it. But I can't really dance to it. It's not really great for having a dinner party or a gathering. All of these kinds of things are what people want out of music, along with whether it's well-crafted or well-written. I think sometimes there's contempt over music playing that role, but music has always been social and part of the rituals of life. In some ways, it's what music has always been for.
AVC: I'm a big music geek, and I've never impressed anyone with my music collection other than other music geeks. Isn't music taste a small piece of the culture-capital pie compared to good looks, wealth, and a cool car?
CW: I think so. But these things go together more than we give credit for. I don't think being an indie-rock geek is necessarily a huge amount of cultural capital, but it's some, it really is. And increasingly, people with Ivy League educations and forward-looking professions and good taste in architecture and furnishings also pride themselves on their eclectic, knowledgeable music tastes. It all comes together in a package. In the book, I'm carving out a piece of that as an example of all the ways taste serves to distinguish and divide us. But it could be a book about IKEA furniture, too. It all works the same way.