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By Ben Kessler

“I don’t care what any of these snobs say!” said my freshman-year Postmodern Lit instructor, not bothering to identify the snobs. “Titanic is a damn good movie, and ‘My Heart Will Go On’ makes me cry!” His line of thought, though tangential to the class discussion that day, didn’t come from out of nowhere, as it was early 1998, well within the James Cameron blockbuster’s imperial moment in global pop culture. Apparently, enough backlash had built up by then to provoke my instructor’s gratuitous but highly revealing outburst.

You could think of it as an issue of what we would now call work/life balance: As a dutiful Ph.D.-seeking PoMo theorist-in-the-making (and in all seriousness, a very good teacher to boot), he was defending his right to relax his intellect in his off-hours, just like the less expensively educated. A young academic outside campus, we can extrapolate, being no more or less than another species of tired businessman seeking distraction. It takes more than a master’s degree to dispel the particularly American sentimentality that hangs around the word “entertainment.”

Even as contemporary cultural criticism (particularly on the internet) grows more superficially political–forever holding this or that popcult phenomenon up to the light and peering at it from different angles to determine which side of history to place it on–the reign of “entertainment” remains unthreatened. All this political clickbait crit has about it a sense of neurotic yearning, a desire to give into “entertainment”’s apolitical thrall, if only one could be sure it was real this time–that the taint of sexism, elitism, racism–well, history, really–had been scrubbed away for good. Then finally, like the rest of America, one could gorge on good clean fun.

So cultural criticism, rather than an art form, has become a repository for an elite class’s motley hang-ups. Snobbery, jealousy, and a genuine, endearing desire for democratic communion manage to just barely co-exist, but cannot acknowledge one another. If they did have to account for one another’s presence, the social persona would disintegrate.


Not completely unlike my NYU instructor in ’98, pop critic Carl Wilson wants to make us think twice about Celine Dion. His book Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste –originally published in 2007 and recently re-released in an expanded edition including response essays from the likes of former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic and movie star James Franco–investigates Dion’s formidable appeal and why music critics have historically been so stubbornly, snipingly immune to it.

I don’t want to waste too much time praising Wilson’s accomplishment. The strengths of this book have been detailed elsewhere, perhaps best in novelist Mary Gaitskill’s response in the new edition:

I had come to like and admire Wilson for his empathic and imaginative willingness to pick his way through the dark maze of signifiers and referents in order to see past his own received ideas...Wilson has slowly and patiently found and come to respect one human soul, regardless of his cherished “likes”...

Suffice it to say, the book’s not a total time-suck. At bottom, Let’s Talk About Love is less about Dion than Wilson’s attempts to find a new approach to pop criticism, an aesthetic brave enough to flirt with the uncool in order to unearth something “too human to be dismissed” in pop culture. He’s also smart enough to know that in this book he hasn’t gotten all the way there but only taken a few intrepid steps–yet that still puts him way ahead of most of his contemporaries.

“Too human to be dismissed” is Wilson quoting the late singer-songwriter Elliott Smith’s takeaway from a pre-performance backstage encounter with Dion at the 1998 Oscars, where the megastar helped steady stage-shy Smith with a warm hug. This close encounter, Wilson reports, flipped Smith’s attitude toward Dion from disdain to chivalrous defense; afterwards, he never let anyone dis her in his presence. Wilson uses this story as a jumping-off point for his analysis, and in a recent WNYC interview he expanded on what the anecdote means to him: “The humanity of these people [i.e., popstars] does defeat the roles we cast them in symbolically in culture.”

Don’t roll your eyes just yet. Let’s Talk About Love wouldn’t be much good if the author believed pop’s contradictions could be resolved so simply. Even after the 160 pages that constitute LTAL’s original version, the triumph of humanity is not a fait accompli in Wilson’s book; his thought experiments are a style of grasping towards it. Even so, however, he believes in it as a perpetual possibility. And here, I posit, is where we brush against the next barrier that needs to fall.

In my view, in order to be considered truly democratic, an aesthetic must assimilate the failure of democracy. This is, perhaps, the final test of its seriousness. If you’ll permit a quantum leap into a tragic example from today’s headlines: Santa Barbara shooter Elliot Rodger, obsessed with his “symbolic cultural roles” to the point of misogyny, fascism, and finally murder exemplifies the reverse of Wilson’s test case. Dehumanization wins by a (body) count of seven (including the perp, courtesy of a self-inflicted gunshot wound) to zip. On YouTube, you can see Rodger’s pathology drawing energy from our culture’s. Guiding his psychosis down a culturally approved channel, he more or less knowingly styled himself a modish anti-hero. His monologues are punctuated by dribs of Joker-like “evil laughter” he considered appropriate to the occasion. It’s not the attempts at laughter that chill in retrospect but the mirthless theatricality behind them: Unlike money-grubbing Hollywood, Rodger’s dead serious.

Now, what can critics find to say about, and to, the culture that gave Rodger his cues?

Let’s Talk About Love is weakest when Wilson tries to analyze how people draw on symbols and signs in pop culture. He pores over market-research stats and informs us Dion fans are “less likely to live on the coasts than in the ‘red’ or ‘fly-over’ states.” But when he interviews a cross-section of her fan base–among them a drag queen, a Cambodian émigré, and a young intellectual whose fandom is semi-ironic–politics never come into it. This can’t be a mere slip; Wilson’s too smart for that. He probably thought introducing political differences (Canadian-born Wilson makes his leftist leanings clear throughout the book) would uncover too many potential points of polarization, which would compromise his search for understanding. Fair enough, except this circumspection renders his interviews insubstantial. They are conducted under a weight of what’s not said. Wilson accepts on its own terms pop’s escapist ideology–“escapism” being nearly as beloved a word as “entertainment” (if a little too close to the bone to be used ubiquitously)—which prizes the apolitical “happy ending” as compensation, purgation, and panacea. But that’s a pop critic’s undoing. Escapism cannot apprehend escapism.

Am I being unfair? Consider this well-known (for all the wrong reasons) Pauline Kael quote from 1972: “I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them.” To this day, reactionaries repeat these words, divorced from context and often disfigured beyond recognition, as proof of leftist insularity, but Kael meant the exact opposite. Her “I can feel them” is democracy extended all the way to the nerve endings. Without self-abnegation or fear of contamination, she gave soul-access to the American Other. Does Wilson “feel” the Celine Dion fans he interviewed? There’s no evidence either way, but he clearly wants to, tries to.

It is perhaps telling that the years Wilson wrote and researched the original version of Let’s Talk About Love roughly coincided with the mayfly heyday of mumblecore, the indie-film subgenre best known for launching Greta Gerwig’s career and providing inspiration for the TV show Girls. Mumblecore thrilled the critics of the time as perhaps no film movement had before. If, as I argue above, critics despair of ever finding mainstream culture clean enough to love, here was a proudly marginal movement that everywhere bore the scars of the scouring brush. For critics, its aesthetic deficiencies (e.g., sound that would on another set be considered unusable, hence ‘mumblecore’) dovetailed in some obscure but intensely pleasing way with the diminished view of life it presented. Mumblecore’s “awkward” 20-something introverts didn’t fit in anywhere (ANYWHERE!), thus could not be viewed as either social types or political beings. Despite emerging at Bush-bashing’s peak moment of virulence, mumblecore was mum on how the Gen-Y hipsters it depicted intended to participate politically. Despite frequently featuring full nudity and sex scenes, mumblecore movies were never disreputable. This was porno for Puritans.

Just as mumblecore’s choicest bits were promptly swallowed up by Hollywood, today’s “political” pop critics are mostly striking poses, not posing the threats they intend. If not on the same page, they and corporate America are tweeting the same hashtags. Carl Wilson obviously sensed it was time for something different, and he’s to be commended for writing a good book in consequence. If more of his colleagues would follow his example and surpass it by taking inspiration from the cultural air at its most foreign and strange-smelling—as even an emotional cripple like Elliot Rodger knew how to do—critics might be artists again.

Contact Ben Kessler at Kessler_b@yahoo.com. His Twitter handle is @koolfresh.

From June, 2014

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