In daily life music is usually part of other activities, from dancing to to housework to sex to gossip to dinner. In critical discourse it’s as if the only action going on when music is playing is the activity of evaluating music. The question becomes, “Is this good music to listen to while you’re making aesthetic judgements?” Which may explain what makes some bands critics’ darlings: Sonic Youth, for instance, is not great music to dance to, but it’s a terrific soundtrack for making aesthetic judgements. [...] Celine Dion, on the other hand, is lousy music to make aesthetic judgements to, but might be excellent for having a first kiss, or buying your grandma, or breaking down in tears.

It’s book review week!

I’ve been reading Carl Wilson’s 33 1/3 book about Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love. I mentioned it a few weeks ago, but I’m really thrilled to report that the book really lived up to the hype. It’s remarkable because it’s such a tiny book and Wilson manages to do at least three distinct things:

  1. Explain Celine Dion to the kinds of people who like “music to make aesthetic judgements by.” He does a great job of tracing Celine’s specific Quebecois cultural context, her musical influences, her relationship to historical schmaltz, and also what makes her so good at what she does.
  2. A brief exegesis of the history of philosophies, from Kant to Bourdieu, basically in that we use our tastes to save up cultural capital.
  3. Bring his own experience as a critic (and person) into the book. It’s jarring and lovely to see a critic’s relationship to both the theoretical material and the object at hand being brought back to his own life and love and feelings and doubts.

I loved it because I’m sort of at a point where I get angry when I see any criticism of anything that assumes that people who like it must be stupid. Also because he winds up finding the feeling in “My Heart Will Go On” by relating it to Gilmore Girls, my TV kryptonite (You know the one with Michel’s dog’s funeral? And Zach plays “My Heart Will Go On”? And then Lorelai goes and breaks up with Christopher?).

It also really made me think about what taste means to me.

For me, it’s not about music, so much, but I’m in one of the few worlds where your taste in movies actually is something upon which you’re judged. I am completely on board with the premise that my tastes are informed by the cultural and social institutions and values that surround me, but it’s not really something I can do anything about. However, I realized I’m sort of an oddball in academia in that I really pride myself on liking basically every kind of movie and generally enjoying most movies that I watch. I even like torture porn! No one likes torture porn! (Okay, so that is totally my perverse desire to “rehabilitate” a culturally detested object, and that is absolutely a learned response. My reaction to those movies would have been way different five years ago. Maybe my gorno essay would have been better if I’d written it like Carl wrote his book? As a first-person oddyssey to unravel what the deal is with those movies that have everyone so pissed off.)

Wilson quotes Valery who says “Tastes are composed of a thousand distastes” and goes on to tell us that when he was 12, he liked “all kinds of music, except disco and country.”1 And, I do have a “but.” It’s right there in my About page on this blog: “I like movies of all kinds (except those in which someone bets someone else, My Fair Lady-style, that they can make someone over for some kind of annual formal ball, and then they fall in love/befriend with the makeoveree, and the makeoveree inevitably finds out about the whole cruel wager and then stutters “Tell me I was a bet”).” What I really mean by that “except” is really just “bad romantic comedies,” and you can bet your ass that is a distinction about cultural capital: I am saying certain very specific things about myself when I say this, things about my gender and how cool I am. I don’t think knowing this will make me enjoy things that I don’t enjoy, nor do I think there’s no room in the world for aesthetic judgements on a semi-objective level, but I guess it’s good that I know this.

PS It is impossible to hate Celine Dion after watching the highlight reel on fourfour. Impossible!

  1. Why is it always two genres? When I was that age, I liked everything but rap and country, both of which I — of course — love now.