Celine as culture – who knew?

When they call it “This is Not a Reading Series” – they really mean it. Wednesday evening’s gathering inspired by Carl Wilson’s book, Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, was not a reading at all. It was an Event, complete with author, philosopher, and four musical acts.


The setting was perfect for featuring a new book by a well-known music critic. As we waited in the Gladstone Hotel ballroom for the evening to begin, loud electronic music thumped over and around and into us, hot and heavy. The crowd filled the room to capacity, spilling into the bar behind, and even into the hallway outside.


All to honour a book featuring Celine Dion’s music. Who knew?


Each of the four acts – Laura Landauer, Laura Barrett, The Blankett, and Final Fantasy – would be covering one of Celine’s songs and doing another that was a response to her. This would not be your typical setup for a book reading, by any stretch!


In fact I was surprised, after the four acts had done their thing to wild acclaim, that half the audience didn’t leave, having seen the entertainment they’d really come for. This crowd was seriously into music – not just the performance, but the theory and cultural implications too.


Carl Wilson, an editor and critic for The Globe and Mail, and a freelance writer for art magazines and newspapers all over North America, began researching his book with certain expectations. Primarily, he expected confirmation of the most obvious meaning of his title: that the idea of “Celine Dion” is at the far end of the spectrum of taste, as distant as possible from “tasteful” cultural phenomena like opera or jazz.


But Wilson’s explorations quickly encompassed two other projects: questioning whether “the end of taste” means we should abolish the idea altogether; and getting to the bottom of his own personal taste.


Rather than just reading from the book (this is Not a Reading Series, after all), Wilson was interviewed by Mark Kingwell, philosophy professor at the University of Toronto. This wasn’t such an odd a choice; Kingwell takes a quirky approach to culture, having published books like Catch and Release: Trout Fishing and the Meaning of Life. (I myself enjoyed his regular appearances on CBC radio late in 1999, talking about cultural manifestations of Y2K mania.)


Kingwell remarked that the mere fact of mentioning Kant, Hume, and Celine Dion in the same chapter made Wilson’s book an experience never likely to be repeated. Why Kant and Hume in particular? Wilson discussed them because of their ideas that there’s a “cultivated taste” that people develop, while everyone else remains some kind of peasant. Yet parts of the “continent of taste,” some universal thing that moves in all people, remain unexplored. Most critics deliberately ignore the huge segment of society that finds Celine’s music moving and meaningful, willingly blinding themselves to an understanding of the wider culture because of their assumptions about “taste.”


Owen Pallett of Final Fantasy, no mainstream, traditional artist himself, confessed during the evening that he rather admires Celine Dion. His song was in fact a slow, powerful tribute to her “The Power of Love.” This alone may be a sign that some rethinking is necessary.


Wilson admitted that the way we look at taste is changing. Twenty years ago, “taste” meant something narrow and elite, like being nothing but an opera fan (maybe I should say aficionado?). Today, you have “taste” if you enjoy a wider variety – opera one night, jazz the next, world music the day after, and so on. But then the question resurfaces about whether “taste” means anything at all, if there are no real distinctions and it encompasses everything.


 Wilson recognized that making artificial distinctions can create horrible divisions in society, yet distinctions also make the world go round. You really can’t get away from making at least a few. “I just couldn’t find a way not to say Ray Charles is better than Celine Dion,” he confessed. But as he attended one of Celine’s Vegas concerts, with the woman in the seat next to him wiping her eyes during an emotional song, he understood and empathized with Celine’s impact on a large segment of the culture. He, at least, is one critic who is no longer ignoring this.


After this hectic, jam-packed evening of music, analysis, and talk, do I want to read Wilson’s book? Yes, a thousand times yes. 


(Update: and here is Carl Wilson himself, posting a YouTube video of Owen Pallett’s performance of his chosen Celine song, and also linking back to this blog. Note his correction to what I said above, where he actually referred to Louis Armstrong and not Ray Charles.)

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