I’ve now read and can report back on “Let’s Talk About Love”, Carl Wilson’s Celine book for the 33 1/3 series. I’m not really able to pull my thoughts together into anything coherent, hence this post is a bit listy. But overall I think you should read the book – it’s a good, easy read and brings up a lot of interesting ideas and questions. It’ll also be – I think deservedly – one of the more talked-about current music books and so fore-read is fore-armed.

Here are some things that occurred to me on a read-through, organised in roughly chronological order (as in, comments on chapter 1 before comments on chapter 10)

– I still think the book shouldn’t have been a 33 1/3 piece. I think this because i. it’s not about an album (duh) and there’s the risk of it acting as a ‘token’ mainstream or pop entry in the series and pushing possible books on pop albums aside. ii. I think it could have been longer than the 33 1/3 format allows – the sections on schmalz, on Celine’s global impact and globalised music, on her fans all could and perhaps should have been longer. iii. It wouldn’t need the series to make an impact – as a high concept it’s totally strong enough to stand alone.

– The description of “popism” as a late 90s/early 00s critical sea change in the first chapter doesn’t quite ring true – not that it isn’t common practise to big up or defend pop or commercial tracks, but I don’t remember the 1990s as being nearly as opposed to them as Wilson suggests. The Spice Girls, for instance, had plenty of critics onside. Basically there’s never been a time when there hasn’t been at least a significant chunk of critics praising pop, and if there’s more now it doesn’t feel like there’s much more – only that there’s a (faulty) language to describe it. If there is a movement, I think it’s one that’s left a good deal of the readership of criticism behind, but that’s another discussion.

– Probably my favourite bit in the book is the discussion of Celine’s Quebec roots and the presentation of her Quebecois-ness as an explanatory factor in her aesthetic, her choices, and her popularity. The question I took away from this section, a question I think is hugely important for a lot of other music, is roughly – “What happens if you code as minority in your head but not to most of the public?”. Obviously, one reason I think it’s an important question is that it feels like a central one for indie fans and music.

– Another fine section was the one on Celine’s global appeal. But here I wish Carl had had the time and space to dig into some of her global fandom a bit – after this acknowledgement the book concentrates on what Celine means to an independent-minded US audience (people like Carl) and to the rest of her US fanbase. Wilson’s reading of her appeal as schmaltz, and schmaltz as an essentially immigrant response, discarded during the acculturation process, simply can’t work for her hardcore Jamaican fans or the Middle Eastern kids who rate her their favourite Western singer. He doesn’t claim schmaltz IS the key to their liking her, but he doesn’t offer an alternative explanation either. What does it say about the other music they make, listen to, love or hate that Celine fits into their ‘habitus’ or taste-world?

– Speaking of habitus, I found the chapters on taste and the summary of Bourdieu interesting, and I understand from someone who has read Distinction that Wilson offers a pretty fair summary. Mostly though it seemed familiar to me because the idea of taste and social category linking intimately (and that further attitudinal and behavioural sub-segments modify this) has been a bedrock one for market research for decades. That’s not to say the industry’s got all the answers – it barely has any, other than a general agreement that the specific systems of categorisation it uses are inadequate, though of course this doesn’t mean ALL systems of categorisation are. (The inadequacy mainly lies in the systems’ lack of predictive value.) One bit of the book I will be quoting at work, though, is Celine’s successful deployment of a highly localised marketing plan – singing in Japanese and so on.

– The interviews with fans – more pen-portraits of fans really – were fine as far as they went but underline the immense difficulty of getting people to talk about music and why they like it with any kind of explanatory depth. Interestingly the first Celine fan we meet isn’t any of these people but Simon Frith, claimed as one in the first couple of chapters. Why Frith likes Celine is left unexplored: I guess a division between “fan” and “critic” was in effect.

– I don’t think I buy Carl’s concluding thought about indie music being good music to make musical judgements by, but I did like the bit where he goes to see Celine live and finds himself affected in a way the CDs can’t manage. One of the contradictions in ‘anti-rockist’ attitudes as expressed on ILM used to be that privileging live performance was bad, but also it was important to judge music ‘on its own terms’ (i.e. not within the frame of rock): Carl’s Celine experience suggests that in her case at least, live performance is where her “own terms” come into fullest effect, and the overwheming intensity of live Celine produces the reaction she presumably wants.

– The weakest part of the book, perhaps ironically, is the review of the album the book is actually about. This is partly because Wilson spends a lot of time talking about Celine’s producers, their aesthetics, their treatment of existing aesthetics, but seems to dance around the question of Celine’s voice and how she uses it. Since this is surely part of the reason she’s so enormously successful it should probably get more review and discussion time. The impression I get is that he doesn’t really know how to write about the singing techniques Celine uses – when they work, when they don’t, what the intended effects are at different points of the song. This isn’t surprising – I find it really hard to write about too, so do most “lyrics guys” and in fact most critics: ‘melisma’ and ‘oversinging’ and suchlike get treated with either contempt or awe because people generally don’t know how to talk about them. I wish he had rung the great Dan Perry as part of his research, who always has some informed stuff to say about technically good singing and who does it.

– Finally, inasmuch as the book has a central argument, it seemed to me to be an extended gloss on the Adam Phillips quote snuggled away somewhere near the end – the one about mockery concealing the terror of democracy. That was a great quote and I can sympathise with Carl’s wish for a more ‘democratic’ or ‘generous’ criticism: I think it’s close to what I’ve been promoting on here and my various community sites since I started (certainly the criticism as travelogue idea is a long-buzzing bee in my bonnet too). Because I think I’ve been in that game a while I would also feel able to consider the practical pitfalls and difficulties of more generous criticism – it contains a lot of bet-hedging, your writing drowns in caveats, it becomes harder to fit in gags, let along zings, people routinely read faint praise as damning or damnable. Maybe that’s just me and my writing shortcomings: good luck to anyone reading Carl’s book who’s inspired to mend their own ways in response!

For Carl Wilson’s own resource of links, reviews etc. about the book, go here. And for a more critical take, Dave Moore and Frank Kogan are arguing about the book here.