Thursday, 3 April 2008

33 1/3: Let's Talk About Love - A Journey To The Edge of Taste

That's it, I've blown my non-existent cool quotient already. Here's me blowing it further - it's one of the most interesting books about music you're likely to come across. But hey, if you stick with it through this you might even come back in future. And it's early days, so I haven't really established any expectations of what I'll blog about, so I might as well use the opportunity to blog about anything and everything. On with the show then...

I love the approach the 33 1/3 series takes. It's fairly simple - the writer takes a 'classic' album and takes an in depth look at it. No restriction on how they talk about the passion, but the editorial team appear to encourage a ' more personal the better' approach, and that's something I'd rather read than a standard band and/or recording history. I don't necessarily enjoy each book (the volume on R.E.M.'s Murmur turned me right off by attempting a clinical dissection of every aspect) but it's more than made up for by relative triumphs such as Bowie's Low or Meat Is Murder by The Smiths, which is far more about how fans related to The Smiths than a flat out review. And then this, for me their finest achievement.

If you're anything like me, you're wondering why a 'classic' album series goes anywhere near the Celine Dion ouevre - yep, in the late Nineties she was pretty bloody ubiquitous with godawful squalling ballads like Think Twice, the Titanic love theme abomination My Heart Will Go On and making a new generation relive the nightmares of previous ones with covers of Jennifer Rush's The Power of Love and All By Myself (those links, incidentally, come with an aural health warning). That's where the genius comes in - for all the column inches expended on cult favourites such as The Smiths or Radiohead, Dion's sales dwarf theirs into insignificance. Readers of Q, NME, Rolling Stone or Spin would rather cut their ears off than willingly subject themselves to her overpowering, turned up beyond 11 voice (one of Wilson's most insightful asides is his take on Dion's music as 'hair metal on oestrogen'). Well, unless irony is involved. So Wilson goes beyond the usual remit of music journalism and, without once breaking into the regulation music journo's sneer at the bovine masses, goes to find out exactly who's buying these albums and why. Oh, and why we Cool Kids can't bloody stand her of course.

It's clearly not for her public persona, which is largely bland bar an outburst about impoverished victims of Hurricane Katarina in New Orleans. She comes across as almost teeth grindingly nice, reassuring Elliott Smith before both performed at the Oscars, donating a cool million to those hurricane victims and, most reassuringly of all, not being sure that My Heart Will Go On was any cop when asked to record it. No, as Wilson concludes, it lies in her being deeply uncool and about as close to emotionally direct as you get in the music industry. Think about it, how few cool acts directly confront emotion but instead rely on the smoke and mirrors of metaphor. Irrelevant here, but importantly to me, it's that emtional directness that Russell T Davies has tapped into to gain Doctor Who a female fanbase and popularity undreamt of since the height of Dalekmania.

Wison also employs some dense cultural theory to good effect, employing studies of whether artistic or popular taste is scientifically quantifiable and proving that Dion hits plenty of the right buttons in popular taste, and follows that up by playing with notions of cool. It's not always comfortable for those of us who automatically equate Dion with uncool either - cool is, of course, one of the adman's favourite weapons to sell product. The Dion devotees are largely untroubled by such notions of cool, which perversely might make them cooler in real terms than the fans who provide the music press with the bulk of their readership. And her fandom's activities are uncomfortably close to those of any other online fans you care to name - there's fanfic and online confessionals reminiscent of fanboy/fangrrrl sites, fans who attend as many gigs as humanly possible and obsess over the minutiae of her back catalogue. They're just like us. And they don't care about what others think of their Celine love. Of course, this gets undercut when you see the ruthless marketing of Dion for various territories, the various strategies employed to ensure every country in the world buys her records (such as her recording in various languages, singing on film soundtracks or singing with local backing bands). Cool or uncool, the marketing execs will find a way to sell you product, which is a tad depressing. Still, it gives you something to admire Celine Dion fans for, we music press readers are the herd animals who don't know we're the herd.

A good friend of mine who died last year had My Heart Will Go On played at her funeral, naturally I thought of it at the time as something to be tuned out, but it left a hell of a lot of people blinking away tears. It's the sort of thing that makes you feel what 40s detective movies used to call a heel, it was as meaningful to her as any of my touchstone tunes are to me. Maybe I've been wrong all along. I can't say I'm ever going to enjoy a Celine Dion tune but I might not dismiss it with the mandatory thoughtless sneer. If this book can get someone like me, violently allergic to Dion as I am, to rethink such ingrained assumptions then it has to be classed as something of a triumph.

No comments: