Dec 07

Let’s Talk About Let’s Talk About Love

FT21 comments • 1,242 views

Good post from Carl Wilson on the 33 1/3 Books blog – his central thought, that what’s “good” about music is “its ecology, its unintended consequences” is obviously one I agree with. I’ll be buying his Celine Dion book too, as will most of the cerebral wing of critland I’d guess!

Thinking about the book gives me a niggling feeling, though, which is odd because it’s a great idea for a book. But reading the blog helped me realise why. The utopian part of me wishes it was coming out as its own thing, not as a 33 1/3 publication. In some senses this is HUGELY unfair since I’ve not read it yet. But whatever the conclusions Wilson himself comes to – and he’s rightly treating them as spoilable material on his own blog, so I don’t know yet – the choice of this book for this series queers the pitch, creates a structural divide between Dion and all other music covered in the series.  These other acts get their albums written about lovingly by fans, Celene’s is written about by a non-fan trying to convert themselves and explore ideas of taste. Celine Dion is a perfect subject for a book like that, and I think it’ll be a terrific book. But it unlevels the 33 1/3 playing field – it makes Celine a special case.

A thought experiment: in a parallel universe, there’s a 33 1/3 which has published a book on Let’s Talk About Love by a fan of Celine Dion, exactly like all the other releases in the series. That universe is doubtless also having resounding and angry conversations about what “good” and “taste” and “classic” means in a pop or rock or publishing context. Maybe less interesting ones than this universe will, maybe more, but starting from a basic assumption of potential common identity between fans of Celine and fans of, say, Neutral Milk Hotel; of, as Frank Kogan (who does enjoy Celine) puts it, “continuity” between Celine and other stuff. Which is what Wilson is talking about in his blog post, of course – so I’m sure his book does share that assumption. It’s just that the publishing context undermines that a little for me.

(I’ll follow up this when I’ve read the book, of course.)


  1. 1
    Lena on 5 Dec 2007 #

    I know what you mean – nice to have the book, but the context makes her seem like the odd one out (the only other pop book being ABBA’s Gold.) I pitched a book earlier this year and I think one of the many reasons it didn’t get through was that I wanted to write about pop and they only do one of those every other year, at best.

    The general hostility towards this book at the 33 1/3 blog, when it was announced, gave me more proof that rockism does exist.

  2. 2
    Marcello Carlin on 5 Dec 2007 #

    Even from speed reading the Abba one I thought: why wasn’t Tom given this assignment since the last thing he would have done would have been to preface it with the irksome “they all laughed at me when I said I was going to do Abba” introductory schtick (which again builds up an instant brick/Playdoh wall)? Reading the book at normal speed did little to dissipate my initial suspicions.

    One of these days I may get around to writing a proper full-length critical appraisal of La Celine – but if I do then I’m going to write it in French.

  3. 3
    koganbot on 5 Dec 2007 #

    Well yeah Tom, I agree with you and Lene and Marcello. I like Carl, he’s a thoughtful guy, I wish I had more time to read and interact with him, but at the same time he may be the epitome of what I was calling “PBS” in my book, embodying PBS virtues as well as flaws. The concept “How do people like us come to terms with someone like Celine Dion?” seems almost guaranteed to render Celine lame in the context of “our” appreciation. There can be good reasons to temporarily suspend judgment at times while listening to music, but “The Is The Album Where We Have To Suspend Judgment” seems awfully condescending, even if the motive is “How do I change or get beyond my personal limitations imposed by my previous judgment.” (That he says in his blog post that his book is one long tangent might be a positive sign, but that still feels special treatment.)

    Also I’m galled that this book is probably going to way outsell my own book – though actually the success of Carl’s book might help books like mine in the long run, and I don’t begrudge Carl the success. But I really raise the issues, in my title, in my preface (where I run Mariah Carey and Courtney Love together).

    The lyrics to Celine Dion’s “Taking Chances” has some of its romanticism in common with Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone.” Both songs are about choosing the unknown and looking for a partner to accompany you into it. (So’s Guns N’ Roses’ “It’s So Easy,” which I’m going to post about tomorrow on my livejournal.) Rather than suspending judgment I’d point out why “Taking Chances” vagues out in abstractions, making its lyrics far worse than Dylan’s. But also I’d point out in favor of “Taking Chances” (which I actually like a lot) that it’s far more accessible: the chance takers don’t have to be be Dylan’s desperate and broken losers in the dark bohemian night, they can be anyone falling in love but not sure of whom or what she’s falling for or where it will take her. Also, Kara DioGuardi, who co-wrote “Taking Chances” with Dave Stewart and whom I assume is responsible 100 percent for the lyrics, was a co-writer on most of Ashlee Simpson’s Autobiography (where I assume Kara is about 25% responsible for the lyrics, but I don’t really know at all) and all of Ashlee’s I Am Me, two albums (esp. the first) that at their good best make Blood On The Tracks and Desire (Dylan’s supposedly deep personal relationships albums) seem like evasive bullshit in comparison.

    If you want to challenge the “our stuff” vs. “their stuff” dichotomy, you’ve got to really challenge it, whereas from Carl’s post I get more the sense of “Look how I can expand my taste range.”

  4. 4
    koganbot on 5 Dec 2007 #

    “The Is The Album Where We Have To Suspend Judgment” should be “This Is The Album Where We Have To Suspend Judgment”

    And Autobiography‘s and I Am Me‘s best is way better than “good” best (the “good” was part of a previous phrase that I’d incompletely deleted).

  5. 5
    koganbot on 5 Dec 2007 #

    “whom I assume is responsible for” should be “who I assume is responsible for.”

    I blame my typist.

  6. 6
    Nick on 12 Dec 2007 #

    The general hostility towards this book at the 33 1/3 blog, when it was announced, gave me more proof that rockism does exist.

    Aren’t you confusing the 33 1/3 blog with, I don’t know, Stereogum or something? There was definitely apprehension at the 33 1/3 blog, but the theme of the comments seemed to be disappointment, not at the prospect of any of the books in particular but that the commenters’ book proposals had not been accepted.

  7. 7
    Lena on 13 Dec 2007 #

    The thread very quickly became people lamenting how their books weren’t accepted and then others calling them whiners who clearly were envious. In the midst of this there were people all excited by all the books, save the Dion one, which got hostile or puzzled reactions, at best.

    It reminds me of the Live 8 concert here in Canada, where everyone got a good reception, more or less, save for Dion, whose appearance was made via video from Las Vegas (which in itself was like Timberlake’s reception, more or less, at Sarstock in Toronto two years earlier). There is definitely an audience out there willing to listen to/read about anything in the ‘rock’ sphere but not the pop.

    A book that compared, oh, say, Dion with PJ Harvey would be interesting, if only because they are both dramatic and are about the same age.

  8. 8
    James Brock on 13 Dec 2007 #

    Have any of you read the 33 1/3 on Guns ‘n’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion 1 & 2? It approaches G’n’R from a similar “non-fan” angle, but unlike Wilson’s book on Celine, the author sets it up, but can’t quite pull off the follow through.

    I don’t think the 33 1/3 people have ever come out and said that their mission is to cover influential or “classic” albums. All I’ve read is that they are looking to publish books by people that write about music interestingly. Which includes fiction, and weird fables and short stories, and other thought experiments that succeed or fail in different degrees–usually depending on what a reader expects.
    Already a pretty queer pitch, if you asked me.

  9. 9
    Tim on 26 Feb 2008 #

    From amazon.co.uk:

    “Customers who bought “Let’s Talk About Love” also bought:

    Heretic Pride – The Mountain Goats
    “If You’re Feeling Sinister – 33 1/3” – Scott P
    “Faking It – the Quest For Authenticity In Popular Music” – Hugh Barker
    “How Fiction Works” – James Wood
    “Loveless 33 1/3” – Mike McGonigal
    “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” – Miranda Lambert”

    Interesting mix, thought I.

  10. 10
    Marcello Carlin on 26 Feb 2008 #

    Damn, rumbled!

  11. 11
    Ed on 22 May 2013 #

    Brought here by ‘Think Twice’ on Popular, I would echo every word of the praise showered on ‘Let’s Talk About Love’, the book. It is fantastic, and if you haven’t read it, you should get hold of it now. I agree, too, that it’s an outlier in the 33 1/3 series.

    For me, though, that entirely works in its favour, and in Celine Dion’s. I have not read anything like all the others: the only other one I own is Erik Davis’s ‘Led Zep 4’, which is reasonably diverting. I have flicked through plenty, though, looking for something to grab me, and I have never been tempted to cough up for any of the others. Lots of people seemed to like Jonathan Lethem’s ‘Fear of Music’ – or liked the idea of him doing it – but it struck me as just another fan’s memoir.

    None of the others that I have seen come close to ‘Let’s Talk About Love’, which is funny, seductive, persuasive, thought-provoking and – for me at any rate – mind-expanding. In its mission to transform the way the reader thinks and feels about Celine Dion, it has had an entirely successful effect on me. I can’t imagine the books on ‘The Queen Is Dead’ or ‘It Takes A Nation Of Millions’ having anything like the same impact.

    But maybe I’m wrong. Question: are there any other 33 1/3 books that are genuinely great?

  12. 12
    Tom on 22 May 2013 #

    Well, TQID et al don’t start from the premise that their readers won’t like the record. Maybe they’d be more interesting books if they did? I doubt it though.

  13. 13
    Ed on 23 May 2013 #

    “TQID et al don’t start from the premise that their readers won’t like the record. Maybe they’d be more interesting books if they did? I doubt it though.”

    Yes. Would break the needle on your straw man detector.

    Maybe better: books demolishing the canon. Did that NPR intern who blasted ITANOM get a book deal?

    Or better than that: book-length ‘Unknown Pleasures’, going beyond the usual suspects.

    Or better than *that*: book-length TPL entries….

  14. 14
    punctum on 23 May 2013 #

    hahah! “Does TPL exist to demolish the canon?” “Not sole purpose of existence” (Wodehouse, paraphrased by me).

    Re: para 2 of my comment above (#2): still stands.

  15. 15

    Being a little bit contrarian here, I think ANY book that doesn’t actually cover literally everything ever is going to be turned into a canon-former by anyone reading it with the primary (anxious) thought “so where do I start with all this?” — which is to say by newcomers. “It doesn’t matter where you start” is a self-destructive line for an anti-canon introduction to take (newcomer might put it down and pick up a pro-canon book). Ditto “first you need to hear everything” obviously — no newcomer wants to be confronted with everything. The items a newcomer is first introduced to/by will inevitably become their ABC and times-table and 101.

    (This conundrum amplified in rock and pop by the — incorrect? — ideological assumption that these are musics of immediacy, in contrast to say serious composed music or jazz or whatever. Since essence is immediacy, surely no need of or indeed possibility of a graded ladder up from ABCs to the good stuff?)

    (There’s also the usual art-historical problem of confusing the actual history of the form with a progression or evolution.)

  16. 16

    (i personally dodge this conundrum by never writing for newcomers, but this option really just cascades the problem down to someone else —which leaves to the slack to be picked up by people everyone reading this has little time for…)

  17. 17
    Ed on 23 May 2013 #

    That’s not really what I meant. Canon *formation* is one of my favourite things ever, if it’s done well.

    The problem with 33 1/3 is that it just receives the canon of Blonde on Blonde, Loveless, Never Mind The Bollocks, TQID, ITANOM, etc, etc ad nauseam.

  18. 18
    Ed on 23 May 2013 #

    And writers can tell me if this is true, but it certainly feels like it: it’s harder to write about a universally revered classic than about an idiosyncratic personal preference.

  19. 19
    punctum on 24 May 2013 #

    Thing about 33 1/3 is unfortunately they have to focus on the titles which they think will attract readers, and in most cases these are the obvious ones.

    The problem with TPL is that people are mostly just looking at their favourite albums and not reading the entries about initially less attractive ones without realising it’s all part of an unfolding story and you have to read it right through, like you’d read chapters in a book. But then perhaps that’s a spur for me to write more interestingly about the less obvious albums, given the unexpected popularity of my entries on Neil Reid, Ray Conniff, Soul Motion and so forth.

  20. 20
    punctum on 24 May 2013 #

    But I would agree that it’s far harder to write about Established Classics and if you’re going to say something new you really have to think it through and listen to the record in question as though you’re hearing it for the first time.

  21. 21
    wichita lineman on 24 May 2013 #

    Ditto. Writing about the Beatles, Bob Dylan, or Marvin Gaye, it takes me more time and needs more concentration. But then if I have to right too often about a personal favourite – say, the Shadows, or Billy Fury – I find it equally difficult.

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