The Easiest Thing to Forget

Why we judge other people for being uncool.

Celine Dion
Céline Dion performs in 2011 in Las Vegas.

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Slate music critic Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love was first published at the end of 2007 as part of the 33⅓ series of books on albums. Where most of the books in the series were tributes in one way or another to records generally agreed to be important to pop and rock history, this one was a look at the contrast between the mass global popularity of Céline Dion and the equally massive critical hostility toward her music—a case study in why people argue so much about taste. It quickly became one of the best-selling books in the series and certainly the most widely discussed.

Now, Wilson and Bloomsbury Publishing have brought out a fresh, expanded edition of the book, outside the confines of the series, with a new afterword by Wilson and 13 essays on its themes by writers, musicians, critics, and academics, including Sheila Heti, Owen Pallett, Krist Novoselic of Nirvana, Ann Powers, Nick Hornby, James Franco, and more. As Wilson explains in his intro to the new material, while the book had generated a lot of talk, “most of this chatter took place in relatively small circles. I’d like to open it up to everyone. After all, it’s a book about the inherent sociability of taste, the way we can’t in isolation understand our own aesthetics and therefore our own humanity, but can only make them our own when we share and compare.” So the round-robin is a means to stimulate more of that conversation. (See also Wilson and Powers debating the recent “poptimism” controversy on NPR Music.)

One of the contributors is the novelist Mary Gaitskill, who is well-known for narratives that touch on ostracism and taboo, often from the points of view of “bad” women whose voices go unheard—including, for instance, the story that was adapted to the Maggie Gyllenhaal–James Spader movie Secretary. Wilson writes, “I was curious what she would think about the public perception of Céline Dion, a performer who in many ways presents herself as the ultimate ‘good girl’ and yet suffers other kinds of rejection. Mary responded with characteristically close, unflinching attention.”

Slate is pleased to present Gaitskill’s essay from Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste.

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When I first picked up the book Let’s Talk About Love, I didn’t know what Céline Dion sounded like—and I did not live, during 1996–97, in a “Unabomber-like retreat from audible civilization,” which Carl Wilson claims is the only circumstance under which one could lack this apparently awful knowledge. I started reading anyway, because I wondered why someone would write a whole book exploring and trying to reconcile with a singer whose music he hated. I kept reading because I liked Wilson’s supple and subtle voice, and because I was increasingly fascinated to see just how much emotion and energy he and apparently hordes of others have expended in hating and despising this singer who I had never even noticed.

It’s not that I don’t know from weird singer-hate: Billy Joel, Boy George, and Mark McGrath of Sugar Ray all have voices that used to make me inwardly spasm with misanthropic disgust for seconds at least. But apparently Céline-haters don’t spasm in silence or for seconds—they scream and froth at the mouth at length: “ … the most wholly repellent woman ever to sing songs of love,” spewed Cintra Wilson, “I think most people would rather be processed through the digestive tract of an anaconda than be Céline Dion for a day.” Bitch, excuse me? We’re not talking about Bernie Madoff or the Abu Ghraib torture team—this is a pop singer who annoys Your Excellency. In response to the relentless snideness described by Carl Wilson about Dion’s teeth, her Québécois accent, her kooky arm-movements, or her clueless fans (which some asshole in the U.K. sneeringly imagined as “over-weight children” and “Grannies”), by midway through the second chapter I was solidly in Dion’s corner without hearing a note; I figured that anyone who got so many pricks so agitated had to be doing something right.

Then came the pages on which Wilson informs the reader that the most “widely mocked minutes of Celine Dion’s career” occurred when she had the vulgarity to get all emotional about the victims of Hurricane Katrina on Larry King, crying even, and doing that arm-movement thing like some kind of spaz. For me, anyway, that’s when the book became about something more than Céline Dion, pop music, or tastes. Wilson uses the Larry King incident to segue into a description of Dion’s Québécois cultural roots, which, he says, explain why she “fails most non-fans authenticity tests” and why “her personal touchstones are off the map,” because Quebec’s idiosyncratic pop culture and Francophone sense of oppression are “a null set in the popular imagination.” Wilson can “prove” why Dion’s passionate defense of poor New Orleanians who “looted” busted-up stores was as “culturally sound” as Kanye West’s speech the following week, and Dion’s personal and cultural background makes a good read. But. While there have always been and always will be stunted creatures who make fun of people for showing emotion that said creatures are uncomfortable with, why does a plainly sophisticated, generous, and intelligent critic need to marshal lengthy cultural analysis to explain to his equally sophisticated cohort why a person might get emotional and even cry at the sight of her fellows wretchedly suffering day after day after day? Really, you have to explain why that is “culturally sound”?

I didn’t ask these questions the first time I read the book because I got so involved in Wilson’s parsing of the “signifiers,” “referents,” and “touchstones” that make up the horrible baroque language of modern criticism, a layering upon layering of poses, assumptions, interpretations, and second-guesses trip-wired to catch the uncool. The importance of cool in this culture is something that Wilson spends a great deal of time on and is depressingly convincing about. What he’s describing is a world of illusory shared experiences, ready-made identities, manipulation, and masks so dense and omnipresent that in this world, an actual human face is ludicrous or “crazy”; a world in which authenticity is jealously held sacrosanct and yet is often unwelcome or simply unrecognizable when it appears.

Wilson eventually seeks out and gets to know some Céline Dion fans, one of whom is Sophoan, a young Christian Cambodian-American who spent his first five years in a refugee camp on the border of Cambodia and Thailand. Wilson maintains his equilibrium as Sophoan describes his love for Céline Dion but loses it when Sophoan reveals that, as a toddler interned in a camp with a dirt floor, he really loved Phil Collins, especially the song “Groovy Kind of Love”: “What on earth,” muses Wilson, “does [Collins’] goopiest tune … sound like to a displaced Cambodian five-year-old? (I suppose not knowing the word ‘groovy’ would help.)”

I think the parenthetical is meant to be funny, but still I almost answered out loud: Gentle, Carl. To any toddler the song would sound comforting and gentle. To a toddler surrounded by anxiety, fear, sadness, and loss, that sound would be especially nurturing, especially the sound “groovy,” with its delicious “ooo” and fun “eee.” (These same sounds are also nurturing to adults forced to live with chronic fear, sadness, and loss, which is probably why Dion and singers like her are, according to Wilson, popular in Iraq and Afghanistan.) At this point in the book, 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. Still, I wanted to say, “Good grief, man, music is about sound; that social-meaning shit is … basically shit. Fun, interesting shit maybe, but … ”

Speaking of sound, either midbook or on finishing, I finally listened to Céline Dion on YouTube. I heard three songs, including the Titanic one, and I realized why she’d never registered for me. I thought her voice was pretty, even beautiful at moments, but her overall sound made little impression; I’d probably heard her and forgotten it. Her appearance on Larry King, however, did make an impression; it struck me as absolutely sincere and sane. That thousands would actually spend time watching this interview so they could jeer at it, jeering especially that Dion (a singer!) had the nerve to sing a song after her speech, seemed not merely cynical but neurotically detached from reality: Dion’s response wasn’t only moral, it showed a sort of biologically based empathy that understands the physical vulnerability of humans in the world. Newsflash: Real humans are connected with one another whether they like it or not. They are awkward and dumb and wave their arms around if they get upset enough; real humans all have personal touchstones that are “off the map” because there is no map. We are so maplessly, ridiculously uncool that whole cultures and subcultures, whole personalities even, have been built to hide our ridiculousness from ourselves. These structures are sometimes very elegant and a lot of fun, and fun to talk about, too. But our ridiculous vulnerability is perhaps the most authentic thing about us, and we scorn it at our peril—yet scorn it we do.

At the end of Let’s Talk About Love, Wilson concludes that Céline Dion will remain “securely uncool” and that this gives him “the heart to go on.” In other words, he’s realized that someone he had despised for reasons having nothing to do with her is just a person making art that he can like or dislike, but that his likes or dislikes don’t reflect on the fundamental quality of her humanity or his, a quality that independently exists and will “go on” outside of any systematized set of social/artistic judgments.

It seems the most obvious thing in the world. But in the middle of writing this reaction to Carl Wilson’s reaction to Céline Dion, something funny happened: I went to see a reading by a writer who had been described to me as great, and I not only failed to find him great, I found him bad, obnoxiously bad, bad to the point that I was a-boil in my chair as I listened to him hold forth. When he was done I turned to the person next to me and said, “What a fucking idiot.” That night I called someone and expanded on that thought, using words like buffoon, jerkoff, and conceited pig. I don’t know how long I went on about it, but it was much longer than seconds. It wasn’t until I hung up and was pacing around mumbling that I heard my own words in my head: Bitch, excuse me?

This seems to me the real substance of Wilson’s book and why it is more than an intelligent discourse on a small, specialized segment of society: The most obvious thing in the world is the easiest thing to forget, especially regarding any subject that you care about, especially when that subject is an art form full of costumed personalities making their most private experiences into publicly projected stories, where real and unreal are fantastically or oafishly mixed. In this nonstop torrent of personae—audience and performers both—Wilson has slowly and patiently found and come to respect one human soul, regardless of his cherished “likes”; it’s a beautiful reminder to see someone do that, in any context.