The 33 1/3 Odyssey: The Long and Winding Road of Macho Rationalism

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33 1/3 is a series of pocket-sized books, each book focusing on a single album. This is the fifth installment of one reader’s quest to read all 55 (and counting) of these things, and to scribble some impressions of each. As always, please keep in mind that it’s just one opinion, often skewed, and somewhat ill-informed. Accuracy is ensured as time permits. For the full introduction, check out the first installment and read the others here. On to the demi-tomes!

Part 8 of 55: Let’s Talk About Love (Celine Dion) by Carl Wilson (#52 in the series)

The 33 1/3 series would seem to be pretty much bulletproof in terms of hipster cred. In the Aeroplane Over The Sea, OK Computer, Pink Moon, Rid of Me, Paul’s Boutique, Loveless, Meat is Murder… even if your own choices for an “essential/seminal albums” list are different, these titles all have a lot going for them. Older albums covered — Music From Big Pink, Forever Changes, Court and Spark, Dusty in Memphis — have for years been hailed by the new kids on the indie block as favorites. If Conor Oberst loves The Band and Calexico is covering Love, consider them vetted – and safe for display on your shelf. Even the 33 1/3 titles that would seem plum targets for the irony game — ABBA Gold, for one — have passed through the karaoke vortex and been certified cool. Stephin Merritt loves ABBA, so it’s okay. No need to call it a guilty pleasure anymore — that reflexive defense can be retired and you can just call it pleasure.

But Celine Dion? And, more specifically, Let’s Talk About Love, her plutonium-selling mega release that has “that Titanic song” on it, the one that clobbered Elliott Smith at the Oscars? I can’t recall anyone name-checking Celine as an influence, likely because there isn’t anything to be influenced by in her music. It’s melodrama to the nth power, delivered by a voice so powerful it’s almost a freak of nature; the songs are without a shred of subtlety and slickly produced by a large committee of hitmakers. “Music critics” ignore her; with nothing to disassemble and examine, and nothing inventive to shed light on, she’s simply of no use to them.

But here she is selling scads of CDs; her fans are devoted and there sure are a lot of them. Obviousness? The experience for her fans is much simpler, and they don’t worry such things; they just love the music. If you took an exit poll outside Dion’s recently wrapped four-year residency in Vegas (four years of sold out shows, by the way), it’s a fair guess not many of them know who Robert Christgau is, or why he might recommend they listen to a Pavement/Ornette Coleman/Daniel Johnston mixtape instead.

Whether you do or don’t like Celine Dion’s music, Carl Wilson’s book is a terrific read; the subtitle on the cover (a nice pun on that “other” Celine), A Journey to the End of Taste, pretty much sums it up. Why do we like what we like? We all want to believe we have good taste, and to have our pals recognize that. “Taste,” writes Wilson, “is a means of distinguishing ourselves from others, the pursuit of distinction. In early twenty-first-century terms, for most people under fifty, distinction boils down to cool.” He’s drawing from a lot of sources here — Pierre Bourdieu, Immanuel Kant, Walt Whitman and Naomi Klein are just a few of the high profile eggheads he brings into the mix.

To Wilson’s credit, he’s much more interested in the people who love Celine Dion’s music than the people who hate it, and that’s what drives the book. He’s not calling anyone wrong, just trying to get a bead on why we like what we like. What social factors reinforce it? Studies show that males keep sentimentalism at bay, we’re told, which is one reason why Dion’s bombastic heartstring-tuggers appeal to a predominantly female audience; she also has a large gay following.

When Wilson attends a Celine Dion concert himself as part of his research, he admits the power and beauty of the music made him a bit misty eyed (“What was the point again of all that nasty, life-negating crap I like?” he wonders), and the fans he talks to aren’t nearly as culturally “limited” as he might have supposed. They just like what they like, and they don’t sweat the details. Come to think of it, that sounds pretty nice.

Quasi-related footnote: Wilson makes passing reference to an article by Seattle musician/lawyer Jake London: “Sucking in the Seventies: Paul Westerberg, the Replacements, and the Onset of the Ironic Cover Aesthetic in Rock and Roll”. It’s archived on Jake’s MySpace site and is a great read. Check it out.

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4 Comments

  1. todd
    Posted March 18, 2008 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    this is the best book in the series imho. since the artist isn’t one kexp would ever play, nice surprise to see the book here.

  2. Posted March 18, 2008 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    I would put a vote in for it as the best 33 1/3 as well … maybe one of the very best books ever written about music fandom and why we like what we like at all. It’s made me a huge Carl Wilson fan.

    I didn’t catch the Louis-Ferdinand pun! Ha!

    Thanks for the Jake link, too, Spike!

  3. Anthony Lombardi
    Posted March 20, 2008 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    I think the concept is solid, but completely out of place in this series. These books are about records, and I can tell you first hand from my mother in law and her cronies, the fans of Celine Dion don’t give a crap about which album of hers stands out above the others.

    I applaud the writing of the book, but I wish it had been done as a series of essays in a mgazine or something like that. This series has better records for people who understand and love the experience of actually listening to albums and delighting in the understanding of what an album means to the artist and their fans.

  4. solidstate
    Posted April 12, 2008 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

    Nice piece on the Wilson book. As a Christgau fan, howver, I am duty- bound to note that he is no fan of Daniel Johnston. Pavement and Ornette? Hell yeah, as should we all be. But not Mr. J. That is all.

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