i have been wanting to read this ever since Nick Hornby reviewed it in McSweeney’s. it’s about Celine Dion and our ideas of taste. i love the book, especially the chapter where he writes about “My Heart Will Go On” in Gilmore Girls and how it made him cry and realise that surface is ok.
“Hell is other people’s music,” wrote the cult musician Momus in a 2006 column for Wired magazine.
A 2006 BBC TV special went two better and named “My Heart Will Go On” the No. 1 most irritating song, and in 2007 England’s Q magazine elected Dion one of the three worst pop singers of all time, accusing her of “grinding out every note as if bearing some kind of grudge against the very notion of economy.”
…when a blog ran a Dion joke contest that produced the riddle, “Q: Why did they take the Céline Dion inflatable sex doll off the market? A: It sucked too hard.”
“Tastes,” wrote the poet Paul Valéry, “are composed of a thousand distastes.”
This was the outcome of many cycles of revisionism: one way a critic often can get noticed is by arguing that some music everyone has trashed is in fact genius, and over the years that process has “reclaimed” genres from metal to disco to lounge exotica and prog rock, and artists from ABBA to Motorhead.
If critics were so wrong about disco in the 1970s, why not about Britney Spears now? Why did pop music have to get old before getting a fair shake? Why did it have to be a “guilty” pleasure?
I realized my easy scorn had betrayed an ignorance of whole communities and ways of life, prejudices I did not want to live with.
Elliott Smith admitted to the music zine Comes with a Smile that he arrived that night “pre- pared to keep a lot of distance from Céline Dion. I thought she’d blow in with her bodyguards and be a weird superstar to everybody,” he said. “But she wasn’t like that at all.” “She was really sweet,” he added in another interview, “which has made it impossible for me to dislike Céline Dion anymore. Even though I can’t stand the music that she makes—with all due respect, I don’t like it much at all—she herself was very, very nice. She asked me if I was nervous and I said, ‘Yeah.’ And she was like, ‘That’s good, because you get your adrenaline going, and it’ll make your song better. It’s a beautiful song.’ Then she gave me a big hug. It was too much. It was too human to be dismissed simply because I find her music trite.”
Becca Costello, Sacramento News & Review, June 30, 2005: A few days after my return from a two-week trip to Northern China, a friend asked me, “What’s the biggest misconception the Chinese had about the West?” . . . As I struggled to answer my friend’s question, I suddenly remembered one misconception I’d encountered often enough to suspect a sort of mass hysteria had settled over the whole country. I lowered my voice and confessed China’s shameful secret: “The Chinese believe Céline Dion makes good music.”
April 21, 2003: The Chicago Tribune reports that the most visible cultural influence in Afghanistan was Titanic, with Céline in tow. Most residents had seen the movie on illegal video when the Taliban regime was still in place, but now: “In [Kabul’s] central market, vendors now sell Titanic Mosquito Killer, Havoc on Titanic Perfume Body Spray, Titanic Making Love Ecstasy Perfume Body Spray. . . . Whatever is big is Titanic. Large cucumbers and potatoes are sold as Titanic vegetables. Popular thick-soled sandals are called Titanic shoes.” And Céline tapes played from boomboxes in many stalls.
The unofficial rule seemed to be, “If you hear Céline Dion then you’re in the wrong place.” That’s not to say that roughnecks (as gangsters are also called in Jamaica) are the only ones who appreciate and publicly show their love for Saccharine Céline. It’s just that, for some reason, they show her more love than just about any other group.
After artist Paul Chan went to Baghdad in 2003 with American activist group Iraqi Peace Team, he told the Omaha World-Herald that there, “Everyone loves Celine Dion. For some reason they see her as the pinnacle of sadness. Her songs speak to the plight of the Iraqi people.”
For a century or more, sentimentality has been the cardinal aesthetic sin. To say a work of art is sentimental is perforce to damn it. To be sentimental is to be kitsch, phony, exaggerated, manipulative, self-indulgent, hypocritical, cheap and clichéd. It is the art of religious dupes, conservative apologists and corporate stooges. As kitsch, it is likened to fascist or Stalinist propaganda by Milan Kundera, Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, Dwight Macdonald and of course Theodor Adorno. The German novelist Hermann Broch wrote, “The producer of kitsch does not produce ‘bad’ art. . . . It is not quite impossible to assess him according to aesthetic crite- ria; rather he should be judged as an ethically base being, a malefactor who profoundly desires evil.”
Consider Zen scholar R. H. Blyth’s elegant definition, “We are being sentimental when we give to a thing more tenderness than God gives to it.”
(Milan Kundera): “Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succes- sion. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.”
… Saul Bellow wrote, “Everybody knows there is no fineness or accuracy of suppression; if you hold down one thing, you hold down the adjoining.”
Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin once said, “I think that melodrama isn’t just life exaggerated, but life uninhibited.” It’s a provocative thought: that the melodramatic, the sentimental, might be a repressed truth of human feeling, inhibited by the modern imperatives of reason and ambiguity.
When this album was first released I assumed that it was shallow, that it was beneath me. A decade later I don’t see the advantage in holding yourself above things; down on the surface is where the action is, the first layer of the unfathomable depths. Down there is where your heart gets beaten up, but keeps on beating. It does go on and on. The story is true. It’s a big thing, it’s big Time, and then it’s gone with the wind. There’s a Magnetic Fields song about “The Book of Love,” the place, songwriter Stephin Merritt sings, “where music comes from.” To sum up this new edition of Céline Dion’s album, I can’t improve on his conclusion: Let’s Talk About Love “is long and boring / and written very long ago. / It’s full of flowers and heart-shaped boxes / and things we’re all too young to know.”
I cringe when I think what a subcultural snob I was five or ten years ago, and worse in my teens and twenties, how vigilant I was against being taken in—unaware that I was also refusing an invitation out.
As critic Ann Powers argued in her essay “Bread and Butter Songs,” you might even love a song, like “Living on a Prayer” or “My Heart Will Go On,” for its “meaningful unoriginality,” for stirring up feelings in an everyday, readily absorbed way, rather than in a shock wave. Bread-and-butter songs are good for group yell-alongs.
Sonic Youth, for instance, is not great music to dance to, but it’s a terrific soundtrack for making aesthetic judgments. (Part of the reason for the recent backlash against indie rock, I suspect, is a weariness with how much of it seems to be mainly music to judge music by.) Céline Dion, on the other hand, is lousy music to make aesthetic judgments to, but might be excellent for having a first kiss, or burying your grandma, or breaking down in tears.