As a bit of a change of pace the following does not examine “big issues” or scrutinize any current political controversies. No moral issues arise below. This site is one where the editor chooses his own topics, and such things will invariably happen. The online world is like that. One quite influential web voice puts it nicely –
I’m a dinosaur in many ways, still plugging along on my own, writing on a random daily schedule and basically following my bliss. It’s not necessarily the smart move, but it’s the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done and I’m loathe to change it. Perhaps, for a while, there’s still a place for the (almost) lone blogger like me to keep doing this the old fashioned way.
Let’s hope there is a place. Following one’s bliss is cool – as there is certainly no money in this at all, and only fleeting fame. Bliss will have to do, and that sixty or seventy readers a day from Paris to Portland read these columns is a comfort, of sorts. You seldom know what they really think. But then you never know what anyone really thinks – you only have what they say, and a bit a of body language and some hint in their tone of voice. We all guess.
This problem of not knowing becomes troublesome at Christmas. It’s a practical issue. You have to buy presents for the family, and the children of your nephews and nieces – and when you’ve turned sixty what to buy for the ten and under crowd is a real mystery. You don’t watch the kids’ shows on television so you haven’t see the advertizing – you don’t know what’s hot, and even if you did you have no clue what they already have at hand, or ear, or eye. You’re flying blind. And there’s no point in thinking back to when you were a kid, if you even can. A Lionel Train set would be absurd. And where would you find one anyway?
The adults are no better. You think you know what they’d like. Do you? What people like, and what they detest and accept with a grim smile, has always been a puzzle. You know – you read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry in Values back in the seventies. You remember – all that inquiry into the inherent nature of beauty and the good resolved into nothing more that “I like it” statements, although the advice on how to fabricate a bearing shim from an old beer can was pretty cool.
So that’s the issue. Why do people like what they like? Knowing that has always been a core philosophic problem. Your older sister loves Barry Manilow albums and you find them irritating – and mildly offensive after a time. But do they have an intrinsic quality of being “good” – or bad? The fellow is a first-rate musician, a Julliard man. His performances are flawless. Does that count for something? That doesn’t seem to be the case here.
Something else is at issue, something outside the thing in and of itself. It’s that pesky matter of taste.
You are supposed to know that old Latin aphorism – De gustibus non est disputandum. Well, it is right there in The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, so you really should know it. There’s no disputing about taste. There’s no accounting for taste. It’s really a warning – don’t get into an argument about whether Barry is good or bad. That would be pointless. You wouldn’t be arguing the issue at all, really. There is no good or bad at all in “the object” – good and bad are meaningless terms here. You’re only saying what you like and trying to transfer that preference to the object as an inherent quality of the object. That’s foolish. It makes no sense.
Of course the best escape is to give in and say the guy really is good, and just not mention you think he is good because he provides first-rate kitsch and high camp. Yeah, that’s cheating, but the argument was pointless anyway.
It’s not just him. He’s faded. There’s another performer that presents the same problem, for more people.
With hot black coffee at hand in the hour before sunrise, the Los Angeles Times spread out on the table on December 17, there it was – another mystery. It was a feature article with lots of pictures – Celine Dion Bids Adieu to Vegas Gig.
She’s still around? People actually care? It seems they do –
Celine Dion said it over and over as the moments unfurled onstage Saturday night at Caesars Palace: “Today is a beginning. It is not an end.” But the singer grabbed hold of her final performance of “A New Day,” the show that’s made her a Vegas staple for the past half-decade, as if it were a last communiqué before her exile.
In reality, she’s taking a couple of months off, then embarking on a world tour. Dion will likely return to Vegas too; she’s keeping her home near the city.
But with her gale-force voice and unflagging faith in big emotions, Dion is the queen of going over whatever top presents itself. This finale was a Matterhorn.
Fans who can’t stand having missed this milestone can see a film version in 200 theaters nationwide tonight.
Now that’s odd. Millions of people think she’s good? How can this be?
But the evidence is clear. Caesars’ Celine Dion Gamble Paid Off –
Dion’s show grossed over $400 million in a run that stretched for nearly five years, and it was a regular sellout. “As a business model we could have kept this going for years,” said a wistful John Meglen, president and co-chief executive of AEG Live/Concerts West, promoter for the show.
Who knew? And who in their right mind goes to Vegas? It’s beyond surreal.
But it’s not just Las Vegas.
It’s Iraq – “Everyone loves Céline Dion,” an artist told the Omaha World-Herald. “They see her as the pinnacle of sadness. Her songs speak to the plight of the Iraqi people.” The U.S. has broadcast her songs “to show the West’s softer side.”
It’s Quebec – In her home province, Céline has passed from “shameful hick” (once mocked in the press as “Canine Dion”) to “emblem of national self-realization,” a model for Quebec businesses.
It’s China – When Canada’s culture minister visited China in 1998 to talk about maintaining diversity in the face of globalization, the Chinese government officially requested that Céline tour their country.
It’s Ghana – Céline is played by every taxi driver and credited with popularizing Valentine’s Day in a country “where public displays of affection among unmarried couples are traditionally taboo.”
It’s Jamaica (sort of) – If you hear Céline in Jamaica, run: Her music, blasted at high volume, has become sonic wallpaper in bad neighborhoods, according to music critic Garnette Codogan: “It became a cue to me to walk faster if I was ever in a neighborhood I didn’t know and heard Céline Dion.”
Those are from Taster’s Choice – Sam Anderson in New York Magazine reviewing Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, the just-published book from Carl Wilson, a writer and editor at Canada’s national paper, The Globe and Mail. It’s part of the Continuum series, nominally about indie and obscure rock. But this is about Céline Dion.
Anderson is surprised –
Dion is the Antichrist of the indie sensibility, an overemoting schmaltz-bot who has somehow managed to convert the ethos of Wal-Mart into sine waves and broadcast them, at kidney-rupturingly high volume, directly into our internal soulPods. A book pondering the aesthetics of Céline risks going wrong in about 3,000 different ways. Most obviously, it could degenerate into one of those irritating hipster projects of strategic kitsch-retrieval, an ironic exercise in taste as anti-taste in which an uncool phenomenon is hoisted onto a pedestal of cool simply as a display of contrarian muscle power.
But it doesn’t go there. Carl Wilson say he has always reflexively detested Céline Dion – “From the start her music struck me as bland monotony raised to a pitch of obnoxious bombast – R&B with the sex and slyness surgically removed, French chanson severed from its wit and soul … Oprah Winfrey–approved chicken soup for the consumerist soul, a never-ending crescendo of personal affirmation deaf to social conflict and context.”
But Anderson says Wilson has heeded the De gustibus warning -
Pop criticism’s sacred duty, after all, has always been to articulate the secret genius of the underappreciated – an approach that’s given us our cherished canons of rap, rock, and manga. (Not to mention films and novels.) So what about Céline? In a critical climate that venerates slick, hyperproduced Top 40 pop, why is she immune to praise? Is her ululatory arm-flinging really so unforgivable? To find out, Wilson embarked on what he calls “an experiment in taste,” undergoing solid months of Céline immersion in an effort to get to the bottom of his “guilty displeasure.”
And what did he find? The Céline Dion Céline phenomenon is quite curious –
It was forged in the weird pop-cultural fires of seventies Quebec, a provincial bubble in which news anchors and earnest troubadours were venerated as mainstream heroes, while variety-pop stars were shunned. Céline emerged as a white-trash child star frequently mocked in the press for her “bushy hair and snaggle teeth.” She was also possessed, of course, with that Voice, an inhumanly powerful blast that annihilated the competition at cheesy global talent contests (the 1982 Yamaha World Popular Song Festival in Tokyo, the 1988 Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin) and made her manager cry, mortgage his house, and eventually marry her.
Wilson is very good on the uncanny disjunction at the heart of Dion’s talent – that goofy, gawky frame, whipping its arms around like a t’ai chi instructor on a badly scratched DVD, unleashing crescendo after sublime crescendo. “She is at once doing tricks with her voice and is herself overwhelmed by its natural force,” Wilson writes.
He also argues that Céline’s music is essentially aspirational, like rap: “Her voice itself is nouveau riche” – it’s “a luxury item, and Céline wants to share its abundance with her audience.”
All that? Yes, and it’s global –
Her French work is allegedly nuanced, understated, and literary; she’s beloved by the cabdrivers of Ghana and the ruffians of Jamaica; and she unknowingly endorses questionable products in the market stalls of Afghanistan (“Titanic Making Love Ecstasy Perfume Body Spray”).
And down here Phil Spector loves her stuff, and Prince saw her Vegas show three times.
Obviously Wilson has to turn to the philosophical problem. What is the nature of taste itself? What motivates aesthetic judgment? Anderson says it is complicated – “Is our love or hatred of ‘My Heart Will Go On’ the result of a universal, disinterested instinct for beauty-assessment, as Kant would argue? Or is it something less exalted?”
It seems Wilson lines up with the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, the fellow who argues that taste is never disinterested. You see, taste is a form of social currency – it is “cultural capital” that we use to stockpile prestige, or something like that.
But the implications are clear –
Hating Céline is therefore not just an aesthetic choice, but an ethical one, a way to elevate yourself above her fans – who, according to market research, tend to be disproportionately poor adult women living in flyover states and shopping at big-box stores. (As Wilson puts it, “It’s hard to imagine an audience that could confer less cool on a musician.”)
Ah! “Taste” is a cultural weapon to assert dominance in the tribe. That makes sense. And it makes Wilson uncomfortable. After all, the woman’s music isn’t THAT bad – “It deals with problems that don’t require leaps of imagination but require other efforts, like patience, or compromise.” On the other hand it is “lousy music to make aesthetic judgments to” although it “might be excellent for having a first kiss, or burying your grandma, or breaking down in tears.”
So Wilson ends up calling for a new species of “democratic” criticism – “not a limp open-mindedness” but a refusal to indulge in our baser cultural-capitalist instincts. So don’t rag on that skinny, odd woman; instead, “relish the plenitude of tastes, to admire a well-put-together taste set that’s alien to our own.” That’ll help with the Christmas shopping.
Then Wilson just gets odd, as in his concise history of schmaltz, defined as “an un-private portrait of how private feeling is currently conceived.” You have to think about that. You probably shouldn’t, as you have to consider this – “You could say that punk rock is anger’s schmaltz.” That’ll make your head hurt.
There is no accounting for people’s taste. As for Christmas shopping, do your best. Whatever you select will be wrong.
The Oregon Convention Center hall had the artificial lighting and concrete walls of a nuclear fallout shelter and not a very cozy one. It was a space used to accommodating big shows for attendees making big decisions about college, holiday gifts, or RVs, but this weekend it was exhibiting three equally grand concepts: the body, the mind, and the spirit. According to the program for the Body, Mind, and Spirit Expo, the $10 entry fee entitled entrants to “Free Aura Photos!” and the chance to go to lectures, one put on by a pet psychic called “Listen to your Animals Talking!”
Now there’s a place to do Christmas shopping – a booth selling cat socks, cat emery boards, cat mugs, and brightly colored sparkly hats.
I walked through the vendor section, passing up displays of crystals and books like The Idiot’s Guide to Past Life Regression. I heard one vendor say, “You’re right, the AMA is trying to get a corner on the Fairy Crystal market in Arizona.” I walked through the reader section where clairvoyants were selling past-life clearings and palm readings from card tables.
… I wandered around overwhelmed by the booths, wanting to eat the candy out of the candy dishes, but not wanting to start a conversation with anyone about Reiki or magnetized water. Then a woman in a voice that sounded like a really good kindergarten teacher, or an undereducated therapist, asked, “Would you like to take a stress test?”
I took a seat in a foldout chair across from her in a booth. She gave me some metal cylinders to hold, which were attached to a meter, and she told me to think about something that stressed me out. I thought about spending the entire weekend at the mind, body, and spirit expo and tried not to change my grip. She pointed to the meter and acted surprised at how far it rose.
“What were you thinking about?” she asked. “It looks like you were feeling a lot of stress.” But then when I didn’t answer, because I didn’t want to say “This expo,” she said, “You don’t have to tell me.” I thought her delivery was better than the aura booth man’s judgment, and that I would rather be in her New Age religion than his.
Then she said, “Have you ever heard of Dyanetics?”
And there’s this –
Sunday night I decided to return to the expo floor and go out with a bang. I talked to a woman selling magnetized or demagnetized water so long that she offered me a job. I received an informal aura cleansing, I got my pulse read and my tongue examined, and then I got my spine screened. I talked to a guy in a Transmission Meditation booth who believed that the handprint of Maitreya, the Coming Buddha, appeared on a public bathroom mirror in Spain, and that if you looked at a photocopy of the handprint you could receive healing power. The group was socially conscious and concerned about poor people around the world, and I decided that if for some reason I was trapped in the expo center until 2012, or until a nuclear holocaust occurred, or until Maitraya did return, I would probably end up hanging out with this guy and joining his cult.
I listened to some Franciscan Nuns explain that they came from the same order as Franciscan Priests as I ate their homemade mustard on pretzels. Then I drank a juice from a southeast Asian fruit said to cure cystic fibrosis. I washed the taste away with a hard candy labeled Energy, and one labeled Relaxation, and before I knew what I was doing I heard myself say, “1,400 cherries. That’s a lot of cherries,” and downing a half a paper cup full of cherry extract. Then for 10 minutes I stood on a vibration machine that was invented for astronauts, but is now affordable to the average consumer. After that I felt sick and thought I might throw up on the expo floor.
I canceled my reservation to try the Biomat, a high-tech negative ion and infrared ray treatment system that looked like a nap mat. The man who ran the Biomat booth, his breath smelling like garlic said, “I hope you had a nice Expo.”
Not likely, but everything is a matter of taste. And Maloney notes that the whole expo “felt like a bad shopping trip where shoppers and sellers were all piecing together a mix and match vision of reality.” Hey, that’s Christmas shopping for everyone. She says she found listening to people “who were capable of distorting their cognition in such whimsical ways” nearly impossible to understand. Well, just stand in any large store at Christmastime.
But, like the Canadian music critic on Dion, she forgives them all –
With some distance, now that I am a few days away from the expo, it seems clear that some people just want to be forgiven for backing over their cats in the driveway, or else they want to hear they were Joan of Arc in a past life, if only because in this life they are speech therapists for the school district who seriously value their summers off. Their basements flood in the winter. Their little brother can’t stop going to jail. They are allergic to wheat gluten, and no matter how hard they try not to be, they are apple-shaped.
So it goes. And we never know what anyone really thinks – we only have what they say, and a bit a body language and some hint in their tone of voice. We all guess. De gustibus non est disputandum.