Monday, September 8, 2014

Q&A: CARL WILSON


Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste was released in 2007, the 52nd book in the 33 1/3 Series. Up to that point, the series had produced in-depth, fairly straightforward biographies of classic albums. With its funny, thoughtful, wonderfully unironic look at Céline Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love, as well as the people who loved and loathed the album, Wilson's slim exploration made a great guide for anyone seriously interested in navigating a popular culture rife with cynicism and hyperbole. This spring, Wilson’s book was reissued in a new and expanded edition (resubtitled Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste), flushed out with another book’s worth of essays penned by contributors from all walks of culture.

Along with Sean Michaels, author of Us Conductors, and musicians Scott Merritt, Sandro Perri, and Jeff Bird, Carl will kick of this year’s Eden Mills Writers’ Festival with “Taste and Transmission.” Bookseller Brad de Roo will help out with the night’s conclusive Golden Throats Karaoke and chatted some with Carl in advance of the whole deal.

BRAD: There has been some recent talk of Céline Dion retiring indefinitely to focus on some family issues. Despite the sad circumstances, this undoubtedly comes as good news to some people. What do you feel about it?

CARL: I think that what's really going on is her husband René's illness - given their age difference this moment was always going to come. But I have no doubt she'll come back and be back for a good long time to come, and I wouldn't wish anything else. Not to be morbid, but if he does pass away, there is a part of me that wonders how that will effect her work. He's been such a Svengali-like, near-father-figure, and I can't help wonder what she might explore absent his influence. But of course I don't wish that on her and her children. You can't spend such a long time thinking about someone without developing an attachment and fondness, so I want only the best for Céline, personally and musically. 

If you wrote the book today would you choose a different musician to defend from virulent criticism? Are there currently popular artists unfairly loathed to the extent that Céline was then, and maybe, still is?

Things are a little more fractured in pop culture now than they were in the 90s, so there are fewer figures capable of drawing widespread scorn. People who don't like certain kinds of pop can more easily avoid them. That said, a few years ago I might have answered Nickelback. But those jokes have died down, and a book about Nickelback would be more about the death of rock than about the kinds of taste questions that preoccupy Let’s Talk About Love. One could also choose some teen-pop diva, à la Katy Perry, and talk about the history of disrespect for those figures, even though they've always been part of the driving force of pop music. But actually that's so true right now that I think it's more widely recognized, and they are in less need of defense than usual.

I guess part of the point is that there is no such thing as a "right" assessment in pop culture, or even in culture generally - that our diversity of perceptions is a good thing, and that respecting each other's affections is more productive than attacking them. 

How important is a direct dialogue of disagreement between critics in a healthy critical climate? In your book, you write a lot about the lack of balance with which critics often assess popular music. Historically, critics of the arts have been quite caustic in their assessments of each other.

Today there is a bit of that echo-chamber effect, where critics - because there are more of us than ever, if you count non-pro's and semi-pro's - tend to follow and dialogue more with the like-minded. But there are also huge pile-ons, such as the two recent ones against Ted Gioia for his columns on poptimism and critics' supposedly deficient musical knowledge. I agreed with everyone that he was wrong, but also thought the reaction ran to excess, as Internet reactions tend to do. 

So I don't think there's much danger that the conversation is at an end. I don't think disagreement needs to be artificially stimulated. 

I included the response essays in the new edition because there has been a lot of dialogue sparked by the book, positive and negative, but a lot of it has happened in kind of specialized forums where a general audience wouldn't see. So I wanted to share that part of the book's life and my experience with readers, particularly where I thought there were reactions and extensions that filled out gaps in my own original argument - which, after all, ended with a call for more democratic conversation and respectful disagreement.  

Those supplemental essays collect a wide-range of authors, academics, musicians and other artists including Nick Hornby, Krist Novoselic, Owen Pallett, James Franco, and Sheila Heti. How conscious was the decision to include a combination of critics and artists? Have you been especially tempted to respond to any of the essays, whether to counter or extend certain arguments?

Partly I wanted to include artists' reactions as an indirect response to people who've told me that my whole argument, and really by extension criticism in general, is neurotic over-worrying, that no real people and certainly no musicians ever bother with these ridiculous questions. Experience has told me otherwise, that critics and artists are in many ways often thinking about the same issues. I also think criticism can be an art - and traditionally many people have done both. The hyper-separation of the two is a kind of recent fetish. 

Initially I thought that I might respond to some of the essayists' points in my afterword, but in the end I didn't feel the need to. I was happy to let them stand. There was no shortage of "my say" in the book already. There are extensions of some of their points in that concluding essay, though, whether directly or by implication.

Do you think there could ever be a time when music releases are packaged with critical assessments in this nearly phenomenological manner, or would this be a conflict of interest that breaks a critical code of disinterest (financially or aesthetically speaking)?

Some music releases are packaged with critical commentary - reissues, box sets, etc. And even new albums have press releases that are frequently written by critics commissioned by artists or labels. In the vinyl days this was even more common - look at sixties jazz and folk records in particular, with back-cover essays that are far beyond blurbs, but often mini-biographies and interpretations. But generally I think it's better for people to form their own initial reactions and then turn to the critics for context and consideration. No matter how good they were, those back-cover essays (like today's press releases) end up being part of marketing instead of criticism - and they also pre-empt spontaneous reactions from listeners, and thus overdetermine the framework for subsequent discussion. (So much bad criticism paraphrases the press release.) Criticism is instantaneous enough now online, but at least there it's multivarious.  

Daphne A. Brooks’ essay “Let’s Talk About Diana Ross,” which discussed the concept of ‘American Schmaltz’ in the genealogy of African-American pop music sent me on an investigative Diana Ross playlist-assembling kick to see how the author’s observations were embodied in sound. I was left with two outwardly pressing questions: a) Does ‘schmaltz’ (perhaps you could give a small definition?) look markedly different in the unique cultural diversity of Canada?; b) Someone following Brooks’ field of inquiry could write an amazing book about Prince, no?

Daphne's is one of my favourite contributions to the book. To correct you a little bit, she talks about "African-American schmaltz" in particular - most of the schmaltz I discuss is American too. (Quick definition: Schmaltz is music of a particularly over-the-top, lush, heart-tugging sentimentality, often calling back to music of the past, whether for mass or niche-audience appeal. Arguably a subset of cheese, or perhaps just its own greasy-foodstuff family.) But she is counterbalancing my claim that schmaltz tends to be an ethnic-immigrant product in the Americas, pointing out to me that this is true only if you're looking for particular flavours - i.e. there are WASP schmaltzes and black schmaltzes, too, but they differ from the Euro-schmaltz (Irish, Italian, French, Jewish, Polish etc.) that I focus on - which probably does have to do with my Canadian biases. 

Prince? Maybe, sure, yes. He has his romantic power ballads just as white metal bands do. I'd love someone to write a whole book on African-American schmaltz. Especially if it were Daphne. 

Speaking of amazing books, real and hypothetical, what would you suggest as essential reading for music-minded customers of the Bookshelf? Noting the fact that you will be sharing the stage at the e-Bar with recent novelist Sean Michaels, can you suggest any favourite musical fictions? Does fiction offer a timbre of critical musical exploration different from more traditional essayistic criticism?

The books question is a little too broad for me to manage right now, but I'll combine it with the fiction question, because yes, I think fiction is a great way of showing how music fits into lives, characters, histories in a way that a lot of criticism doesn't (though I would not say it can't): Along with Sean's book, for example, I'd recommend Geoff Dyer's book about jazz, But Beautiful; Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man; Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad; John Darnielle's novella in the 33 1/3 series, Master of Reality; several of Jonathan Lethem's recent books (Fortress of Solitude and Dissident Gardens), and Nick Hornby's High Fidelity and Juliet, Naked of course; the 2011 novel Charles Jessold,Considered as a Murderer by Wesley Stacie (aka the singer-songwriter John Wesley Harding); Nathaniel Mackey's "Bedouin Hornbook" series of books of poems; Dana Spiotta's Stone Arabia ... There are so many others I'm sure I'll think of in ten minutes. 

Guelph often describes itself as a music town. Do you have any distinct musical impressions of the city?

Guelph has a great musical sensibility, rooted a bit in the local folk-songwriting scene whose children and their friends went on to make rock bands - a communal, bohemian, exuberant, but poetic, handmade and patient aesthetic that really influenced everything that happened in Toronto in the early 2000s. And I am a very frequent visitor to the Guelph Jazz Festival, that surprising cauldron for a daring open listening you don't expect to find in a small town.

“Taste and Transmission” will involve some Golden Throats Karaoke presented by local musician Jenny Mitchell. What are your thoughts on karaoke? Do you have some patented power-ballads? I have co-hosted with Jenny a number of times, and have been consistently surprised by the number of moving performances I have witnessed, whether I like the song being interpreted or not. There can be something very charming about someone finding her voice for the first time in front of a supportive audience.

Karaoke is fantastic participatory music culture. I am a hesitant and only-after-five-drinks karaoke singer. There's a lot more to be said about it, but for that you might want to check out the fine music memoirist Rob Sheffield's Turn Around Bright Eyes: The Rituals of Love and Karaoke. (Although his earlier Love is a Mixtape would be my first recommendation.)

Tickets for "Taste and Transmission" are for sale in the bookstore. Scoop up all the event details and participant info HERE.


 

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