Chatting with Carl Wilson About Criticism and Celiné Dion
We spoke to the Canadian author about penning a book on Celiné, getting James Franco to write for him, and obviously, poptimism.
Let’s talk about Carl Wilson. In 2007, Continuum published the Canadian music critic’s Let’s Talk About Love, the 52nd volume in the critically acclaimed 33 ⅓ series. While previous editions focused on albums favourited by the authors, Wilson’s book was unique because it looked at the career of none other than Celiné Dion, who was loathed and mocked by writers yet beloved by millions in her home province of Quebec and around the world. Beginning with March 23, 1998, the night the singer performed and won the Best Song Oscar for her ubiquitous Titantic theme song “My Heart Will Go On”, he traces Dion’s career from growing up the youngest of fourteen children to becoming a household name and having residencies in Las Vegas, while looking at the bigger picture of taste. The book became one of the most praised entries in the series and even landed the author on an episode of The Colbert Report.
Today Wilson’s the music critic at Slate and contributes to a number of other publications including The New York Times, The Atlantic, Hazlitt, The Globe & Mail, and others, writing about everything from cross-dressing circus performers to a scathing (but fair) takedown of everybody’s favourite dad rockers The National.
Recently a new edition of Let’s Talk About Love was published, featuring an update from the author and essays related to the book from others including NPR Music’s Ann Powers, James Franco, Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic, and Canadian musician Owen Pallett. The day of his Toronto book launch — some what appropriately the day after a Quebec election — Wilson sat down to talk about the province’s most famous cultural export, why Justin Bieber might be more like Paul Anka than you think, and the dreaded p-word.
Noisey: Take me back to when you first decided to write this book.
Carl Wilson: There were two generations of this book. One was a long, long time ago, the idea of writing a book about taste, the theme of where taste comes from and how does it work. At the time it just seemed like that would be too academic and I didn't want to write something like that, I wanted to something that would be for a more general readership, so I put it aside. I was talking to the editors of Continuum, who publish the 33⅓ series (which has since been bought out by Bloomsbury) and they got in touch a couple of years before the book came out asking if I wanted to do something. At the time I had a full time job at The Globe & Mail so I felt like I couldn't see doing a full-length thing so I asked them if I'd they'd be interested in me doing something for the series, kind of fantasizing that one could toss off one of those books rather quickly.
I talked about maybe writing about Randy Newman's Good Old Boys or one of the first Pere Ubu albums, and they were like "well, we're not sure there's a enough of a readership for those things" and I was a little annoyed. So I went to the Recording Industry of America's website where they have a chart of the best-selling albums of all time and wondering if I should write about some big Eagles album or something. When I got to this site I was surprised that there were three Celiné Dion albums in the top twenty best-selling albums at the time. This was in 2005. Then I suddenly had this "AHA!" moment where I was like, "I feel like I could write something about Celiné Dion" and that's when that old idea about the taste book came back to mind. I wrote a few paragraphs outlining it to the people at 33⅓ and to my surprise — I thought they'd say "no, that's not the kind of thing that we do" — but they were immediately enthusiastic.
Let's Talk About Love is considered one of the most successful entries in the series and has been used as a text in many university classes. Did you expect the response to be as positive as it was?
I really didn't. It was my first book, so when you start you hope people are going to read it and it's going to do well, I sort of knew that there was an audience at least among the people that I'd been talking to as a music blogger, so at least all the people interested in criticism who read those sites, there's at least some people interested that I already know. At the time I got to the end of this slightly cockananny process, when I was finishing the manuscript, I was like "I really don't know any more, is this book that has stuff about philosophy and Celiné Dion and pop culture and talent shows in Asia and all of these things, is there anybody but me at this point who wants to read about these things?" Most of it was just a relief when reactions started coming in, like "oh I'm not crazy, it does kind of make sense."
The academic stuff was a real surprise, it didn't even occur to me that's something the book would be used for. And that's been a lot of what it's been used for. I think the first person who told me they were going to use it to teach with was a couple of people I knew, but then I started getting emails from universities all over the place wondering if I'd be able to come talk to the class or Skype with the class because they were teaching the book. At first it was like a funny novelty, like "oh, I guess you could use this in your course" and then it was "oh, a lot of people are using this in their course".
There's a section in the book where you discuss how one of the biggest criticisms levelled against her music is that it's overly sentimental and you write "it's hard to imagine a male performer today having a hit by singing about his mother". What do you make of vulnerability being embraced in popular music by artists like Kanye West, Drake, etc. and mainstream audiences today?
There are pendulum swings, and in the mid-2000s, the meme of hardness and maleness was kind of getting played out. Kanye has definitely been an interesting figure in the past ten years of bringing a different persona than what a top rapper would previously have been permitted to do. 808s & Heartbreak was not his most popular work but it was kind of a radical step with this very vulnerable, computerized singing about topics including, yes, his mother. It's hard because of his persona to sort out how game changing of a figure he's been because he throws so much static around, and Drake kind of follows in those footsteps. I think you could also see it in someone like Justin Bieber as well, he's kind of this throwback pop figure and less like the boy band guys of the previous generation and more like Paul Anka or somebody. He had this very soft, sentimental, puppy dog kind of persona until his recent…troubles.
I still think these are the exceptions rather than the rule, because I think most of pop culture is still not completely in that sentimental place. I don't want to ascribe everything to technology — I'm sure there's other ways to consider it — it was already happening at the time the book was being written, but it certainly intensified after that. With YouTube more than anything, the gates have been blown up and it's kind of an anything goes kind of period so people are trying all kinds of things, you get everything from novelty songs from all over the world like "Gangnam Style" to more sentimental, tender stuff. People are letting themselves enjoy the variety of things in a really intense way and I think you can look at cycles in pop history where that's happened for periods of time, I think the closest thing we have to the kind of musical range of today is the early 60s, when novelty songs were a really big part of the culture and you also had doo-wop, crooning, girl groups and none of these things became central because there was no centre, there was just all of these things. That kind of proceeded the shift with Motown music and The Beatles and 60s music as we know it, but there was this period between the 50s and 60s were it was kind of a wild grab bag. I don't feel there's one dominant trend or style or one defining voice that we have right now and it's a protracted transitional period and that's the effect of the different distribution methods.
Another conversation that’s intensified as a result of the internet is how pop music is covered by critics and “poptimism”. I recently read a blog post by a writer who attended a Miley Cyrus concert. She mentions how she was approached by one of Miley’s fans, who seemed surprised that she’d be attending the show for enjoyment, and points out there’s a large audience out there that’s often ignored by music writers. What are your thoughts on the divide between critics and fans?
That was part of the exercise of writing the book for me, the chapter in which I talked to the fans, part of the realization you don't remember what it's like to be in that stage of one's fandom and those people don't get to talk most of the time. There was something I assumed in the way in which they would be fans of Celiné Dion that would be more fundamentally different than the way people I know are fans of the things that they're fans of. That's just bullshit. Being a fan of something is being a fan of something, no matter what it is, it's pretty similar even if the things you're valuing the thing for are different, it's still the experience of identifying with something and embracing it.
That's something for all the sort of poptimism stuff, that hasn't been as much part of the conversation outside of some academic studies of fan culture is those peoples' voices rather than just the critics voices trying to treat pop music with fairness. There's also the anthropological side of pop-friendly criticism where you want to describe what's happening and try to read the culture through it and that's one of the big values of pop music that more obscure music can't to towards the end of the book, because it's not serving as a barometer of what the zeitgeist is at the time. Then there's the straightforward part of appreciating the craft and the hooks and the catchiness of stuff, but it's something that I sort of nod is the question of once we've taken the blinders off and embraced those things dodo you want to try and figure out how to differentiate one level of successful pop music from another? And make quality calls. To me that is a secondary thing, it doesn't feel like the most interesting thing to do with music overall to judge and rank it, but I think people regularly can say "yeah, but you're not saying everything is as good as everything else" and I don't agree with that either.
How did you get James Franco to write an essay for this new edition of the book?
He was taking a course at Columbia University, a non-fiction writing course that Jonathan Lethem was teaching and Jonathan put my book on the curriculum. He was on the red carpet of the Oscars a few weeks later and some MTV reporter was button-holing him basically, saying "Oh we know you're an artist and you do all this academic stuff, but what do you do for fun, what are your guilty pleasures?" As they were asking the question it became clearer and clearer that what they were trying to say was "do you watch any MTV reality shows?" So James was like, "no, I'm doing a lot of school and not watching a lot of TV so I don't know what to tell you" and then he said "well you mention guilty pleasures, I was just reading this book" and then very quickly he gave the title of the book, my name and a brief summary. It was the best little promo of all-time. So he did that and it ended up being on the red carpet coverage and that's what lead to doing The Colbert Report.
So when I came to New York to do Colbert's show, I went to Columbia and visited Jonathan's class and James came in — late in the class — and we chatted a bit and have kept in touch. He's mentioned the book here and there as an influence for some of the experimental stuff he's done in his career, specifically the General Hospital role, so when it came time to put this together I wondered if James would write something explaining that relationship.
While you express your dislike towards Celiné’s music, you also write about how she’s a cultural ambassador, incredibly family-oriented, a hard worker, etc. to present a balanced argument. Do you think a lot of negative music criticism today is negative just for the sake of being negative?
I don't think it's ultimately negative and I think the balance comes out in Celiné's favour. Negativity is not a recent thing, it has always been a portion of music criticism, there's always been well-crafted snark. Sometimes things need a good attack and sometimes things merit it but not most of the time. I think it's a chance for writers to show off, use some good adjectives, images and that thing is tempting. And that's a way I think this book has become a bit more relevant in the age of internet snark culture it's a plea for civil discourse on that level. I was asked a few times when the book came out by people in interviews, "Do you think you're just being a polite Canadian about this? and I was a little thrown off. Now I kind of want to own that, like "yeah maybe is one of the things that Canadian culture writers and thinkers can bring to the table”. There is a Canadian value of fairness, possibly at the expense of winning. That's something that we do have as a society that may be dying, these are Canadian values and maybe one of the reasons that I've made this argument this way.
Have you kept up-to-date on her career in recent years? What did you think of [Dion’s 2013 album] Loved Me Back To Life?
It's an interesting album. There are some interesting production efforts throughout, some of which are kind of successful, but on the other hand do I need to hear Celiné Dion with up-to-date beats? I was writing this piece for Slate recently about this tribute album to Bob Dyan in the 80s and I feel like Celiné's in this awkward phase right now. She's in her 40s and that's an awkward time for pop figures because whatever was fashionable for you when you were younger is no longer fashionable, but you're not an old career artist or a nostalgia act. I don't know if she'll be performing in her 80s, but if she weren't still performing for the next twenty years I'd be surprised, because I think more and more the people who grew up with her when she was an adolescent figure will be of the age where they can spend money on her concert tour or afford a trip to Vegas.
Her audience is pretty solid and I think she'll carry off the older artist persona very well because she's had this old fashioned thing about her so she'll seem less goofy. She's going to be looked back on as somebody who really represents a period of time in pop culture history.
Max Mertens once owned a copy of the Titantic soundtrack on cassette which he would like to formally apologize for. Follow him on Twitter - @Max_Mertens
Read about that time we spoke to Owen Pallett about insanity
Sorry Mrs. Dion, but if I don't get another Shania Twain album, I'll die.
Don't forget the NYT doesn't know shit about poptimism