A while ago I mentioned Carl Wilson’s book on schmaltz, which I had read about but had not yet actually read. I had encountered Wilson’s elegant definition of schmaltz, “an unprivate portrait of how private feeling is currently conceived” (p. 61), which struck a chord and suggested a way of thinking about Liszt’s E-flat concerto, which I was teaching at the time. Anyway, now I have a copy of the book, which is a part of Continuum’s 33 1/3 series, which by the way is a cool idea, being a series of short books (or long essays) each on a different single album and each written by a critic with (presumably) some personal investment in said album. But Wilson’s takes the unusual step of writing about an album (Céline Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love) he loathes, or at least starts out loathing, with the avowed intent on taking (as the book’s subtitle goes) “A Journey to the End of Taste.” And while this might strike you as some cute pomo cult-crit stunt, Mr. Wilson’s way out ahead of you: the book questions its own premises and, by extension, the premises of all attempts at understanding and comparing tastes. One of the things that I really love about this book is that he doesn’t fall into the vulgar-Marxist habit of locking in taste preferences to class position. He doesn’t insist that culture is merely the vague, insubstantial epiphenomenon of some harder political/social/economic substrate, although he’s not discounting politics/society/economy either. Somewhere on Dial M I’ve written about how this kind of thinking has entered the political discourse in the form of David Brooks and still more debased forms of media life. But Carl Wilson’s book really digs into the consequences of thinking about music this way, and you should read it if only for that.
(Although there are many other reasons to read it as well, not least the incongruous pleasure of encountering a reading of Céline Dion that places her in the context of French Canadian pop culture. Growing up in a fairly French part of Ontario, I saw pompadour-haired vedette culture on TV, but never gave it a lot of thought. It strikes me as strange but somehow magnificent that Dion, avatar of French-Canadian variety show entertainment, now rules the world, and that a tiny, cheesy, provincial part of my childhood, the Réne Simard part, has now ballooned into gigantic, world-filling proportions, albeit in a disguised and subterranean way.)
I’d like to write more about Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, but since I’d pretty much end up quoting the entire book (it’s hard to pick out exemplary passages because they’re all exemplary), I’m going to pick a smaller target and write instead about a post Carl’s written about Obama on his blog Zoilus. Now there’s been a tidal wave of bullshit splooshing around Obama the past week dealing with his “elitism,” and I’ve been trying not to think about it at all, because, regardless of who I prefer for the election, these kind of idiotic “process” stories, these infotainment Potemkin villages, these spasms of Outrage Kabuki, are an endless torment to me. They are just so stupid, stupid, stupid, STUPID, and the thought that people might possibly care about them is seriously makes me question the continued validity of the American experiment.* But what this means is, I haven’t really been paying attention, and so it’s nice that someone has braved the TV’s Gorgon stare of idiocy without turning to stone (i.e., without having the moron rigidity of TV news opinion visited upon them, or, switching up metaphors, without becoming a zombie of the cable news cycle, an undead being whose political ideas have been turned into an involuntary reflex by the zombie bite of Chris Matthews or whomever) and can say a few smart things no-one else has thought to say.
Carl gets some necessary things out of the way when he calls out HRC’s opportunism and phoniness in the whole “bitter” fracas: “Obama doesn’t pander and playact the way Wesleyan/Yale girl Hillary Clinton does, insecurely taking on phony accents, dropping her G’s and pretending to be a gun-toting, God-fearing country gal, if that’s the
local atmosphere.” And he nails the in-the-bone stupidly and hypocrisy of the news media:
The faux-populist news anchors go into an orgy of tut-tutting about Obama’s “elitism” that, however justified, still erases and conceals everything he was really saying about prying government from the clutches of corporate interests and making it respond to human needs. It’s grim to see that the pattern Tom Frank points out in his book [What’s The Matter With Kansas?] is being re-enacted in the response to Obama – the media talking as if what really matters is not whether there’s been decades of economic decline in your community but that some latte-drinking, Volvo-driving, fancy Harvard lawyer thinks he’s better than you.
But he points out that Obama’s still got a problem, because his remarks, though foolishly amplified and misconstrued, can’t really be defused the way Jeremiah Wright’s remarks were in Obama’s speech on race. The problem is the pattern of thinking about cultural preference in he aforementioned social-determinist ways — you drink lattes and drive a Volvo because you’re a member of the Ivy-League-educated elite (and probably listen to Sufjan Stevens), while your working guy drives a pickup and . . . you can finish this sentence for yourself, can’t you? We all know the script. And this script, which has been hammered into our skulls with jackhammer force for years (and with mounting intensity in the last eight), is kind of the same one as the record-store hipster who loves Sonny Sharrock and hates, oh, I dunno, Céline Dion maybe, because (he thinks) her fans are dumb lumpenproles who only listen to that stuff because the culture industry feeds it to them. Because it fills their sad dull lives with manufactured dreams. Because the music gives them something to “cling” to, so to speak.
The problem is that everyone, left and right, gets in this bag of seeing those of other tribes as being duped in some way, as being victims of a false consciousness. The record-store hipster only likes Sonny Sharrock because he’s locked in a game of competitive prestige whose rules are set by a complicated calculus of obscurity and sonic challenge. The guy with the pick-up truck only likes Toby Keith because he’s been indoctrinated by the GOP establishment to accept his lot in life and resent outsiders. Social/political/economic position dictates cultural choice, and culture is only a reflex, not a real choice, not a real or autonomous site of experience. But as Carl says, cultural interests are real interests. There’s no “only” here.
Overall, I suspect white working-class voters in deindustrializing areas are skeptical any politician is going to act in their economic interest. (On top of that, they are Americans, and they believe in individualism and capitalism.) However, their cultural interests weren’t just imposed on them – they are long-standing parts of many people’s identities and communities, and if they become more defensive and “cling” to them in hard times, that’s an act of strength rather than simply weakness and “bitterness.” That is to say, cultural interests are real interests, and any way of thinking that doesn’t recognize them as such is a vulgar materialism you’d expect from some naive Marxist-Leninist groupuscule.
Jim Hepokoski once said (in a seminar on critical theory I took in my first semester of graduate school) that the problem with the culture-critical stance is that shorts the emotional meanings that people derive from their experiences. You could imagine a girl kneeling for her first communion, he said, and you could say, she’s kneeling in honor of a nonexistent being, the continuing fable of whose existence only serves to keep her and people like her on their knees metaphorically as well as literally . . . and maybe you’d be right, but you wouldn’t be saying anything meaningful about the actual experience that girl had, what meaning it had for her, and for her family and community. That experience carries its own change, owns its own force, follows its own vector, draws its own consequences.
And the problem is, this habit of mind is now metastasized throughout American society so thoroughly there doesn’t seem to be any outside point of view from which to criticize it, or even understand it. And for as long as it maintains this kind of unchallenged power on our imaginations, we’re going to be stuck reliving bittergate every time the newsies decide they’re bored and want to mess someone up or some reptilian politico wants to score an easy point.
*Yes, cable news broke my tiny heart in twain. I’m delicate.