Bookforum talks with Carl Wilson

Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste BY Carl Wilson. Bloomsbury Academic. Paperback, 320 pages. $19.
Cover of Let's Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste

What does it mean to have good taste? Is the idea of taste relevant anymore? Music critic Carl Wilson reflects on these questions in 2007’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, a “case study” of Céline Dion. The book is part of Continuum’s 33 1/3 series—pocket-sized books about a single album, usually staples of the rock-crit canon. Let’s Talk About Love takes on new life this year with the publication of an expanded edition that includes thirteen additional essays from well-known writers and musicians. Like his subject, Céline, Wilson is a native Canadian; he has been a writer and editor for the Globe and Mail, and is now a music critic at Slate. Wilson took a few moments to speak with me via Skype about the new edition of Let’s Talk About Love.

How did a book about Céline Dion find its way into the 33 1/3 series?

I was corresponding with the people at 33 1/3 and had suggested a couple of ideas. I talked about writing about one of Pere Ubu’s ’70s albums, but the editors were a little skeptical about the marketability of a book like that. So I was racking my brain—and a little annoyed about the marketability conversation—and went online to look up the most popular albums. At the time there were three Céline Dion albums in the top-twenty best-selling American albums ever. I was a little shocked by that. I also immediately had a moment of intuition that perhaps I had something to say about Céline. That brought up an idea that I had years before, which is quite close to this book, about writing about taste, and writing about where taste comes from. I felt like I could use Céline as a case study in which I could explore those questions, while talking about something more concrete at the same time.

It seems like the new edition of the book is about starting a public conversation. What are some responses, printed or otherwise, that have struck you or changed how you think about taste?

More than I could have hoped for, the book did start some public conversation: it was adapted to use in college classes, for example, and referenced by other critics. I think the publishers and I both felt that the book, in taking on that kind of life of its own, had brought itself a bit outside the context of the 33 1/3 series. So we also wanted to give it a new home, in a form that it could live in more permanently. In some ways the new edition is a culmination and celebration of where the conversation has gone. I also really wanted to talk about how the landscape of taste has changed in the last five years, because it’s changed so radically and rapidly. Online listening and conversation has altered the way people get music and the way people talk about music. This idea seemed big enough to bring into the narrative of the book and the book didn’t feel complete without it.

You talk about how easy it is now to discover obscure music in an afternoon online, whereas it took you years to discover what you liked. You say this “hints tantalizingly at the utopian possibility of an era that could be called post-taste.” Can you expand on what you mean by “post-taste”?

A lot of the twentieth-century taste categories that the book contends with (the ideas of high-brow, middle-brow, and low-brow, the idea of cool and not cool) have been thrown up and scrambled by the fact that people can surf from thing to thing on YouTube and pursue obscure references. The young people that I know now have much more eccentrically put-together sets of interests than the young people I knew when I was in my twenties. Now people don’t tend to fall into straight camps centered around genre loyalty in the way they once did. I think people have lost faith in the sense of there being a coherent alternative culture, where politics and aesthetic gestures are related. So when people collage things together from all kinds of influences, they don’t feel like they’re betraying anything or selling out because there’s no strong oppositional cultural camp to be loyal to. We have to be careful about being overly sweeping when we talk about online listening, because it seems like it’s all an effect of technology, but I think it’s also a reflection of where culture and society are. That pendulum can swing, but we are definitely in what feels like a “post-taste” moment right now.

What is it like being a critic in a world moving towards the end of taste?

I started dealing with this question as soon as I was finished with the book. It was a bridge between a bunch of questions and problems that I had about operating as a critic. For quite a while after it was done, I felt stymied about how to keep reviewing records and shows. It’s hard to create depth of conversation and a wide-lens personal context again and again. I eventually started to feel that the trick was not to rely on shorthand, and not to make shorthand references that assume that the audience was coming from the same place that I was coming from. Instead, I try to identify what my references are, and especially identify what the stakes are in this artist’s work—the more human stakes. It is less about what kind of move they are making within their genre and within their set of peers, and more about what kind of emotions or thoughts are evoked by what they are doing. In what way does that matter and in what way does that speak back to the culture at large? I’ve been working to forge a style that keeps those things in the forefront as much as I can.

It seems like many of your reviews have become more personal. For example, your piece “Why I hate the National” seemed to be as much about you as about the band.

The National piece was quite self-conscious. I was starting my tenure at Slate and I knew that this edition of the book was coming up, so I was thinking about what it had said, and how I was going to position myself. In a lot of ways, the question that piece is about is, “Since I’ve made a big public stake about not dismissing things and not hating things for the wrong reason, what about the things I still really don’t like?” The interesting thing is that while there were the usual pissed-off fans, I think because the piece was so personal, a lot of people were able to say, “I completely disagree with you about the National, but I can identify with the way you’re feeling and with how you’re analyzing that feeling.”

I liked Mary Gaitskill’s essay in Part II, even though she often disagrees with your arguments. That kind of essay seems to be just as important to fueling the dialogue.

Oh, absolutely. I was kind of sad that more of the contributors didn’t come at me with something more contentious. Luckily, Mary is someone you can rely on to never pull her punches. I was glad that she took it on that way. The way she goes about it is very clever; she leads with aggression and then brings it around on herself in a way that creates a sense of epiphany. It’s a really charming thing to do. This is all stuff in process. This is all a process of shaking off the biases and prejudices that you start with and trying to see beyond them.

In the afterword, you talk a little bit about why you changed the subtitle of the book from “A Journey to the End of Taste” to “Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste.” Can you tell me more about that change?

I thought the original subtitle was one of the reasons that it was hard to get Céline fans to pay attention to the book. I think they felt, as soon as they saw that, that there was a snarky tone, that Céline represented the furthest reaches of taste. I meant “the end of taste” kind of literally in that “post-taste” way that we were talking about. What is out beyond this idea of taste? I think what the new subtitle suggests, especially when taking the book outside of the 33 1/3 series, is the way that the book is a work of broader nonfiction. It suggests the question that the book is answering. It’s still done with a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor, but the idea is to say, “Here’s the mystery—why do we all think that we have good taste and that other kinds of taste are inferior?”