Questions of Subjectivity and Taste: Reading Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste
Lately I’ve been considering questions of subjectivity and taste because I’ve been having one of those annual doubting sessions about whether blogging is still worth the time and energy that it takes. As a blogger, I have always championed subjectivity and reacted against attempts to defend the categorization of taste, so when I read about Carl Wilson’s book entitled Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste at Things Mean A Lot, I bought it for my kindle and started reading it immediately (in the glow that only immediate satisfaction can produce, especially in a rural area in the dead of a sub-zero-wind-chill night).
Wilson is a music critic who decided to learn more about Celine Dion’s music precisely because he didn’t like it and looked down his nose at those who enjoy it. He not only learned how to enjoy some of it, but did a nice job of tracing some of the disconnections between enjoyment based on sophisticated knowledge in a field and the individual tastes of those outside the field, starting with his own:
“After the tumult of the early 1990s, when ‘underground’ music was seized on by the mainstream and just as quickly thrown overboard, many critics and ‘underground’ fans got in a cynical mood. The ever-present gap between critical and general tastes threatened to become an entrenched war of position….It wasn’t sustainable.”
Wilson traces the history of “schmaltz” as a music genre and locates a place for Dion’s music within it, saying that she has invented a “recipe for hyperschmaltz, a Frankengenre of sentimental intensity.”
Some of my favorite parts are when Wilson talks about sentimentality:
“Manipulative? Manipulating listeners, moving them, is what music is supposed to do, skillfully. Phony? All art is fake. What matters is to be a convincing fake, a lie that feels true. Clearly Celine has her audience convinced. And is her soundtrack-to-your-life approach more ‘self-indulgent’ than James Joyce’s multilingual word games? Is that really a fault in art? Who else should the artist be indulging?”
He goes even further, saying that
“it’s often assumed that audience for schmaltz are somehow stunted, using sentimental art as a kind of emotional crutch. As Solomon points out, there’s no evidence for this slur: isn’t it equally plausible that people uncomfortable with representations of vulnerability and tenderness have emotional problems?”
Finally Wilson builds to discussing why a songwriter named Stephin Merrit would say that “catharsis in art is always embarrassing”, saying that Merrit’s “enjoyment…depends on having the embarrassment built into the art, as irony, which allows him to register emotion without the shameful loss of self-control involved in feeling it.” I love Wilson’s conclusion about this: “Here we reach a crossroads where sophistication is just another word for paralyzing repression.”
As he broadens his argument about taste, Wilson points out that although “Kant was the first to say that aesthetic judgments are by nature unprovable….they always feel necessary and universal: when we think something’s great, we want everyone else to think it’s great too.” If there’s a better explanation for book blogging in the 21st century, I haven’t heard it.
Wilson discusses “the continual process of violating limits” in the early part of our century, and the idea of “separate ‘taste worlds’ in which there is no perception of “need for external, official inspection and verification.” He concludes that “the mandate to dethrone taste orthodoxies remains part of pop criticism’s legacy, so much so that it may help bring its own extinction: Within what more than one writer has called ‘No-Brow’ culture, who needs professional critics? What do they offer, if not objectivity?” I think that’s a good question, don’t you?
At the end of his effort to learn more about Celine Dion’s music, Wilson says “though I now enjoy some of her music, it’s never in the same way I like ‘my’ music, which tells me that I have a way of liking: it forces me to admit I have a taste.” This, to me, is the point of book blogging—to articulate what I like and express the subjective point of view that drives this way of liking. I am always consciously blurring what Wilson describes as “a strong line between private life and public interaction” and trying to “offer something more like a tour of an aesthetic experience, a travelogue, a memoir.”
What Wilson is describing and what I try to do here at Necromancy Never Pays leads to what I was trying to articulate when Teresa at Shelf Love and I had our discussion about occasionally wanting commenters to disagree: it seems lopsided when I try to show you what it is like for me to like something I’ve read without inviting you, as the reader, to compare your experience. I don’t think this necessarily means that you have to have already read the book or poem I’m discussing in order to comment, but that the discussion is more interesting when you compare your experience with mine in order to figure out whether you might react the same way.
What do you say? Do you like knowing more about the reader as a way of figuring out how much you’ll like the book? Do you think it might be time to once again re-examine how book bloggers read and write about books in terms of the time it takes and the little bit of influence it has…or any other reason for doing it which has somehow slipped my mind?