Flavorwire Interview: Carl Wilson on James Franco, Poptimism, and His New Edition of ‘Let’s Talk About Love’

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In 2007, Carl Wilson released what would go on to become the most infamous entry in Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series of album-focused books. While his peers were writing about players in the popular music canon and critical darling rock bands, Canadian scribe Wilson looked to one of pop’s most bemoaned divas, Céline Dion, as a gateway into a conversation about cultural taste itself. It was an engrossing read, even for those who had hoped the “My Heart Will Go On” singer might face a similar fate as Jack from Titanic.

Now, seven years later, Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste has received a recent reissue. It comes complete with an expanded section that features a series of essays from other critics, ruminating on the state of taste through many lenses, including race, as well as the critical school of thought the book initially rallied among music writers and academics. We spoke with Wilson, now Slate‘s resident music critic, about the new edition of his book, Céline fans’ lack of response to the book, poptimism as the dominant style of music criticism (and why that needs to shift), and working with James Franco.

Flavorwire: [The new essays] mix staple figures in cultural writing and academics (Ann Powers, Daphne Brooks, even High Fidelity author Nick Hornby) with creatives known more for their non-writing endeavors (James Franco, Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic, Arcade Fire associate Owen Pallett). What did the non-critics bring to the table?

Carl Wilson: I hope what the book establishes is that these are considerations that don’t only operate when you’re doing criticism, but they affect all of us as listeners, and to some degree, makers of culture. That last little bit is kind of the most difficult one because you do need to sort of see outside of your prescribed boxes in order to make new things. At the same time there’s that question of how much open-mindedness is healthy and how much is it risky — and how much you need to be sort of stubbornly fixed on your vision. I thought that it would be really crucial to have voices that have dealt with those issues firsthand in the mix.

Let’s talk about James Franco’s contribution, “Acting In and Out of Context.” How did this come about?

James has become part of the story of the book in some ways. A year and a half after the original edition came out, when we were at the end of the usual promotion cycle, James had this moment on the red carpet at the Oscars, where an MTV reporter was button-holing him about what his guilty pleasures were — kind of hoping he was going to say what MTV shows he watched. And he used my book as a way out of that question. He said that he’d just read it, and amazingly gave the title, full subtitle, my name, a brief summary of what the book was, just rapid-fired it off, and said, “This book is about questioning what your tastes are, it made me think about guilty pleasures and that maybe I need to acquire some.”

James had read it in a seminar he was doing at Columbia, and so I met him shortly after that, when I actually visited that class. We talked about the effect that the book had on his ways of looking at his own evaluative categories. Shortly after that, he went and joined the cast of General Hospital. In his essay in the reissue, he talks about how the book was an influence on his decision to do that, a time to put himself in a place that you wouldn’t expect him to be found. So it played a minor part in all of this kind of artistic experimentation that he’s done.

We’ve been in touch on and off since then, so when we were putting together the list of people to write here, we wanted to see if specifically, he would address the way the General Hospital experience either did or didn’t substantiate some of the things he was curious about when he was thinking about the book’s thesis. James is the most creatively productive person in the world. I don’t know when he sleeps. I asked him to do it and he sent me the essay like three days later. He was definitely the first person to file their copy. I think when this stuff comes up, he just sits down and just does it.

I recently asked my book club — they’re not music writers, but some of them substantial Céline fans — to read Let’s Talk About Love; they had wide-ranging responses. What sorts of reactions have you heard from Céline fans through the years?

I think that most of the time the people I’ve gotten to talk to about it one way or another have been people who are in the arts. That’s especially gratifying because as I was writing it, I started more and more to think, “Oh, this is actually a discussion about art in general and about the role of art in the world, not just about how music fandom works.”

When this book initially came out, I tried to reach out to the Céline fan groups online and get them to read it, and that was a really hard sell. People were wary that the book seemed in some way hostile to Céline, less so in the gay Céline fan circles because I think there’s some sort of understanding of camp and irony plays into her appeal. The fans I talked to for the book have, to some degree, tried to share with their friends, but in a lot of ways, the general Céline fan world is one that I haven’t gotten that much direct feedback from. It has been the one thing that I’m sad about with the reception of the book.

No hate mail?

No, no hate mail. But there was some sort of discussion on fan groups online, where you would see people being a little bit hostile to the idea of the book. It’s kind of parallel to the fact that I’ve never been able to get a response from Céline’s own team. They kind of similarly put the walls up if there’s any suggestion of anything other than completely straightforward appreciation.

What do you think Céline would say if you were ever to get a response?

The closest to a response to these questions that she’s ever given was through this Elle Magazine feature that I quote a couple of times in the book, because they really went to her. Coincidentally it was right while I was working on the book, so it was almost like the tension was somehow in the air. They basically asked her, “How do you feel about not being cool?” And her response was more or less, “I don’t care because obviously I’m beloved by all these people and if some critics and some snobs look down on me, I can only say, ‘Look at this audience that comes night after night to my shows in Vegas or all around the world.’” That would be her response.

I’d love to talk to her some about how the more sort of crueler mockery and how it’s affected her emotionally, whether it makes her think about how she does things. In France, particularly, she got that response and she very quickly shifted the people she was using as producers and songwriters on her work in French. I think it was to make a bid for more critical respect in that world. She hasn’t done that in quite the same ways in English, and I’m curious about why in one context that was important to her and in another it wasn’t.

Let’s talk about how the concept of taste has changed in the seven years since you released Let’s Talk About Love. Even in critical circles, the notion of cultural grazing and defining our tastes as little as possible is the status quo. I think it’s at a boiling point right now. What do you think comes next?

It’s kind of a pendulum thing, right? If we look at some point in the ’90s, early 2000s as kind of the crest of like, pop snobbery. That very quickly swung in the past ten years towards pop positivism being a really obligatory and universally acknowledged among critics, even though it’s still not necessarily that way among all listeners. If you look at the comments section of any website where people are writing in that very ecumenical, pop-positive kind of way, you’ll see plenty of listeners who aren’t there with them.

Poptimism has definitely gone really far, and in some ways we’ve done a kind of back-to-roots sort of move, realizing that open-mindedness is part of the function of being popular culture critics. A lot of what we talk about as poptimism is really going back to basics in music criticism. The people that were inventing modern music criticism in the ’60s and ’70s, they were taking something seen as beneath the dignity of examination, and asserting that it has the dignity of examination. If you look at that kind of early criticism, the writers were not as attached to genre camps as critics after them became.

One of the most interesting essays in the reissue is Jason King’s piece where he says, ‘This kind of big broad embrace that doesn’t differentiate has to change at some point.’ Once you’ve taken away the idea that quality has to happen in particular boxes, and have established the fact that it can happen everywhere, at some point the conversation has to get back to, ‘Okay, well what is quality? What’s a better pop single than another pop single?’ Rather than treating them all as kind of celestial phenomenons that we track and watch go by, the argument about what’s more valuable in some ways kind of needs to reassert itself. Jason walks that nice edge between not going back to old rockism values about how to evaluate things, while saying that evaluation is still an important part of the process.

It’s gotten to the point where we’re open-minded about the highbrow and the lowbrow, but the middlebrow is still taboo. Telling someone you like Foster the People earnestly is perceived as questionable. But if you’re praising the songwriting genius of Kesha — well, that’s just typical fodder.

The middlebrow is always what gets panned because something always has to be panned. And that’s why to me Céline was a valuable thing to look at that way because there kind of couldn’t be anything more middlebrow. There’s nothing rough and dirty you can valorize about Céline Dion. I feel that kind of impulse overall about middlebrow culture, that it represents middle class culture at a time when to be middle class is basically to be threatened with being lower than that, and rapidly. One of the great achievements of American culture in the 20th century was that it created this thriving middle class that didn’t really have the education but was reaching outward and finding accessible versions of things that had been considered highbrow. All of that seems like a really kind of noble enterprise to me, and looking down on it seems really to miss what makes a good society in a lot of ways.

In some ways rock music — just like straight-ahead rock music — is now the scorned genre. It shows how solidly we’re sort of out of the rock period, and the charts kind of reflect that.

Look at some of the stuff like Lorde that bubbled up at the end last year in pop music. It’s clear people want something alternative about their pop, but it’s not rock.

Well, rock is kind of associated with a bonehead white male kind of thing. I’m not too upset that we’re in that space. But at the same time, I think if I were a teenage boy right now and wanted something to throw down to, right now would be a weird cultural space to occupy.