Carl Wilson’s book is one of the best-selling and most widely praised in the series, distinguished both by its subject matter and its systematic, careful consideration of the album and how it sits in a cultural context. It’s approached in good faith, and towards the end, Wilson describes the value of the experiment as “to give Let’s Talk About Love a sympathetic hearing, to credit that others find it lovable and ask what that can tell me about music […] in general” rather than to see if one could learn to love anything given a premise and some time.
The book opens with the 1998 Oscars - some film about a boat was popular and Elliott Smith appeared between Trisha Yearwood and Céline Dion. Presented with Elliott Smith chasing away depression and the spectacle of Titanic and fog machines, fog machines won, confirming Wilson’s rage. (Later, revisiting this, Wilson comes across a story with Smith describing how sweet and genuine and kind she was to him, “too human to be dismissed.”)
There’s an interesting note in considering the critical reception of her work, and that’s the realignments in taste that take place - guilty pleasures, or metal and disco, or taking pop seriously - and the gap between popular taste and the critically acclaimed, part of which is down to criticism involving defining an audience by exclusion. (My reading list grew during this book - on that last point, Deena Weinstein.) There’s then the exclusion of things that are popular and how that relates to snobbery, but that gets a closer look later.
The chapter titles take full advantage of the opportunities in the album name and use it as a running motif, so we get ‘Let’s Talk In French’ for the exploration of Dion’s Québécoise background and huge family, success as a child popstar, reinvention, and the politics of singing in English or French (culturally, as well as lyrical quality vs musical quality). In a Canadian and Québécois context, there’s her celebrity wedding and the question of whether she’s kétaine (cheesy, sort of) and a much longer history with her work - “we hated her before you did” in one sense, but also an understanding of why in a way that doesn’t pass geographical boundaries as easily as other aspects of her work.
This follows into a mention of the Stephin Merritt/EMP Pop Conference 2006 issue, which was followed by accusations of racism. Wilson doesn’t put much weight on that, but instead on the point of Merritt mentioning studio methods in “black music, like Céline Dion” (a slip), and following this into trying to place her music in a genre. The consideration of schmaltz and the rise and fall of the power ballad, and ‘conspicuous production’, begins to make it possibly to understand her popularity and its relationship to other popular culture, which is continued later in interviews with fans.
Bourdieu’s in the background there not just because I’m an asshole, not just because he comes up here, but also because it was music writing (I think Simon Frith’s Performing Rites, specifically) that got me reading him - Wilson draws on a broader range of sources, but his critique of Bourdieu and consideration of how the theory of cultural capital relates to contemporary popular culture (and the practice of self-consciously absorbing high and low culture together) was extremely interesting. There’s plenty of work done on taste and how this relates to someone’s class, experiences, education, identity, and it’s more interesting in non-academic writing about culture than some of the stereotypes that appear earlier in a review Wilson quotes.
My favourite part of the book is a minor thread that gets a solid chapter towards the end, and it’s the one where Carl Wilson listens to Céline Dion, in his poorly soundproofed home: “it turns out I am not so bothered by having strangers hear me have sex, compared to how embarrassed I am having them hear me play Let’s Talk About Love over and over.” (In addition to the part about having to assimilate into new circles through work and doing it “awkwardly, with a lot of crushes”, this is excruciatingly resonant, GPOY territory.) The album gets due consideration, its producers and writers and the moods it passes through, written like a feature on a reissue and pretty satisfying for it. He’s listened to the album many, many times and seen her Las Vegas show, and her own democratic nature is matched with his belief in a democracy that’s “not a limp open-mindedness, but actively grappling with people and things not like me, which brings with it the perilous question of what I am like”.
Watching Carl Wilson with Stephen Colbert, I’m struck by the smug, sneering, LOL-Céline-Dion tack taken by Colbert - Wilson makes a good representation while also obviously getting the joke and taking it in good spirits - and it’s a pity, because this is a genuine approach, keeping himself in the narrative and second-guessing taste and examining approaches to criticism, while also taking the woman and the music and the fans and the cultural baggage on their own terms. It’s enjoyable, too, drawing on a wide swathe of sources from critical theory to fan forums. I’m not going to be falling for the album any time soon, but I’ve thought about it more than I’d ever anticipated.
(Let’s Talk About Love contains an “antisexist dancehall-reggae anthem” cover (yes). Of all the things I learned while reading this, that one’s the most unexpected.)