Slate music critic Carl Wilson's Let's Talk About Love was first published at the end of 2007 as part of the 33⅓ series of books on albums. Where most of the books in the series were tributes in one way or another to records generally agreed to be important to pop and rock history, this one was a look at the contrast between the mass global popularity of Céline Dion and the equally massive critical hostility toward her music—a case study in why people argue so much about taste. It quickly became one of the best-selling books in the series and certainly the most widely discussed.
Now, Wilson and Bloomsbury Publishing have brought out a fresh, expanded edition of the book, outside the confines of the series, with a new afterword by Wilson and 13 essays on its themes by writers, musicians, critics, and academics, including Sheila Heti, Owen Pallett, Krist Novoselic of Nirvana, Ann Powers, Nick Hornby, James Franco, and more. As Wilson explains in his intro to the new material, while the book had generated a lot of talk, “most of this chatter took place in relatively small circles. I'd like to open it up to everyone. After all, it's a book about the inherent sociability of taste, the way we can't in isolation understand our own aesthetics and therefore our own humanity, but can only make them our own when we share and compare.” So the round-robin is a means to stimulate more of that conversation. (See also Wilson and Powers debating the recent “poptimism” controversy on NPR Music.)
One of the contributors is the novelist Mary Gaitskill, who is well-known for narratives that touch on ostracism and taboo, often from the points of view of “bad” women whose voices go unheard—including, for instance, the story that was adapted to the Maggie Gyllenhaal–James Spader movie Secretary. Wilson writes, “I was curious what she would think about the public perception of Céline Dion, a performer who in many ways presents herself as the ultimate ‘good girl’ and yet suffers other kinds of rejection. Mary responded with characteristically close, unflinching attention.”
Slate is pleased to present Gaitskill's essay from Let's Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste.
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When I first picked up the book Let's Talk About Love, I didn't know what Céline Dion sounded like—and I did not live, during 1996–97, in a “Unabomber-like retreat from audible civilization,” which Carl Wilson claims is the only circumstance under which one could lack this apparently awful knowledge. I started reading anyway, because I wondered why someone would write a whole book exploring and trying to reconcile with a singer whose music he hated. I kept reading because I liked Wilson's supple and subtle voice, and because I was increasingly fascinated to see just how much emotion and energy he and apparently hordes of others have expended in hating and despising this singer who I had never even noticed.
It’s not that I don't know from weird singer-hate: Billy Joel, Boy George, and Mark McGrath of Sugar Ray all have voices that used to make me inwardly spasm with misanthropic disgust for seconds at least. But apparently Céline-haters don't spasm in silence or for seconds—they scream and froth at the mouth at length: “ ... the most wholly repellent woman ever to sing songs of love,” spewed Cintra Wilson, “I think most people would rather be processed through the digestive tract of an anaconda than be Céline Dion for a day.” Bitch, excuse me? We're not talking about Bernie Madoff or the Abu Ghraib torture team—this is a pop singer who annoys Your Excellency. In response to the relentless snideness described by Carl Wilson about Dion's teeth, her Québécois accent, her kooky arm-movements, or her clueless fans (which some asshole in the U.K. sneeringly imagined as “over-weight children” and “Grannies”), by midway through the second chapter I was solidly in Dion's corner without hearing a note; I figured that anyone who got so many pricks so agitated had to be doing something right.
Then came the pages on which Wilson informs the reader that the most “widely mocked minutes of Celine Dion's career” occurred when she had the vulgarity to get all emotional about the victims of Hurricane Katrina on Larry King, crying even, and doing that arm-movement thing like some kind of spaz. For me, anyway, that's when the book became about something more than Céline Dion, pop music, or tastes. Wilson uses the Larry King incident to segue into a description of Dion's Québécois cultural roots, which, he says, explain why she “fails most non-fans authenticity tests” and why “her personal touchstones are off the map,” because Quebec's idiosyncratic pop culture and Francophone sense of oppression are “a null set in the popular imagination.” Wilson can “prove” why Dion's passionate defense of poor New Orleanians who “looted” busted-up stores was as “culturally sound” as Kanye West's speech the following week, and Dion's personal and cultural background makes a good read. But. While there have always been and always will be stunted creatures who make fun of people for showing emotion that said creatures are uncomfortable with, why does a plainly sophisticated, generous, and intelligent critic need to marshal lengthy cultural analysis to explain to his equally sophisticated cohort why a person might get emotional and even cry at the sight of her fellows wretchedly suffering day after day after day? Really, you have to explain why that is “culturally sound”?