A conversation with music critic Carl Wilson | Blogh

Thursday, March 19, 2015

A conversation with music critic Carl Wilson

Posted By on Thu, Mar 19, 2015 at 11:55 AM

Wilson made his name by publicly questioning his own musical preferences when he chose to write about a mega-selling Celine Dion album for the 33 1/3 series.

The author of 2007's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, who now writes for Slate, gives a free talk at 8:30 p.m. this Wednesday night (March 25) at the Frick Fine Arts Auditorium, courtesy of Pitt. (The auditorium is located at 650 Schenley Drive.) He recently spoke with CP by phone.

What are you planning to talk about in Pittsburgh?
It will be a general discussion of ideas in music and the social issues around taste: kind of the central themes of the book

How did the book come about? I read that you had pitched a couple other ideas for the 33 1/3 series before settling on this.
[33 1/3 series editors] originally approached me. I threw out a couple ideas that were about more obscure things — a Randy Newman album and a Pere Ubu album — and the editors were a little skeptical about the audience for both of those things [laughs]. So, after being told that things were too obscure, I kind of went the other way.

I didn’t know what I was going to focus on, but I went to the Recording Association’s website, just looking at what the biggest-selling albums of all time were. And — this isn’t true anymore — but at the time there were three Celine Dion albums in the top 20 best-selling albums of all time. That kind [brought out] this idea that I’d been kicking around in my head for a long time, about doing an investigation of taste. I think that Celine kind of stood — for me, at a certain point in my life — as the ultimate in sort of mainstream, homogenized music.

And so, the question [was about] the contrast between [my] reaction to her, and [her] massive success, which, when you looked at the stats, really kind of blow you away. I thought, ‘How can I feel so differently about this than so many other people?"

How did the editors react when you pitched Let’s Talk About Love?
I almost expected them to say no, and [thought I would] have to talk them into it. But they got the idea right away. That was an encouraging thing, because of the resonance of the idea, but also because the focus of the [33 1/3] series wasn’t as narrow as it seemed. They weren’t just trying to make a canonical list of the accepted great albums of all time. They were interested in exploring the concept of how you could write these short books about music from all kinds of angles. So, their enthusiasm for it really spurred me on.

There was a review in The New Yorker that said reading this book might make you a better person. Do you think that writing it made you a better person?
[Laughs] Yeah, I think that that was what it was about for me. As a critic I’m interested in these concepts of taste and aesthetics, and what it really came down to for me [was] the idea that these kind of taste-boxes that we put ourselves in separate us from other groups of people. And in our society — especially in the last 10 years — if you look at the political scene and if you look at race issues and if you look at sort of general hostility that happens on the Internet, there are all these problems of us putting ourselves in to demographic categories. [We] imagine people in other categories as somehow completely alien to us. I think there’s kind of a deep kind of humanist idea to this, that other people should never be alien to you in any fundamental way. To me [the book] really was about trying to work through that kind of moral problem.

How did it change you as a critic?
I think that the impetus of the project, in many ways, was this question of where critical authority comes from. You know, who am I to make pronouncements and claims [or] to rank or star or give letter-grades to things that other people might see in really different ways? I really strive now to include that sense of subjectivity to my work, and to make sure I’m signaling where I’m coming from.

Yours is one of the most popular books in the 33 1/3 series. Why do you think people feel connected to it?
The sense that I get is that it’s a dilemma that a lot of people can identify with. I think that it’s kind of a mirror for people. And I think that with this particular example, I was lucky that it turned out to be something recognizable. And I think there’s a sense of humor to using [Celine] as that case [study] as well. The book has been out for years now in different forms, and people seem to still respond to that. When I talk to undergraduate college students they still seem to respond.

What led you to reissue the book about a year ago?
The book had kind of developed a life that went beyond the 33 1/3 series, and I felt like I wanted it to exist as a stand-alone book. But the other side of it was that there had been all this rich reaction and conversation in relationship to it over the years, and I wanted to share that side of it with readers. I wanted to incorporate that dialogue itself into the book. And that made it feel like a rounding off of the project. I was really lucky to have some really brilliant writers and great people contributing their ideas to the back half of the book.

James Franco contributed an essay to the reissue, which seems both strange and very appropriate.
James kind of [played] a role in the book’s life because he endorsed it in a very public way [in a red carpet interview], which [allowed it to reach] more people. And from talking to him about it, [I realized] that there were ways that it influenced the kind of interesting, eccentric [direction] that his work has taken since then. So I wanted to invite him to talk about that and make that connection. 

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