“Let’s Talk” About One Of The Most Interesting Music Books You’ll Read This Year
Many moons ago (i.e. in March), former Idolator Brian Raftery launched a broadside at the snooty/reactionary response Stereogum had to the idea of the 33 1/3 series of books publishing Carl Wilson’s critical journey into the heart (will go on) of darkness that is Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love. The irony, as a few readers noted in the comments section, was that the book was hardly an ass-licking paean to a terrible album, written for a series that should have been focusing its energies on, I dunno, Wowee Zowee.
The always critical and erudite Mr. Wilson actually approached Let’s Talk About Love as a non-fan grappling with questions of “good” and “bad” taste–in fact, the book has since picked up the subtitle “A Journey To The End Of Taste”–and (the double irony, especially for the indie-centric readers of a site like Stereogum) the limits of populism. Having almost literally just finished the book, I’m still digesting, but it’s almost certainly the only installment in the series to discuss French-Canadian race relations, rockism, and Milan Kundera’s thoughts on kitsch. (The book isn’t out until Dec. 15, but you can read the first two chapters now by e-mailing letstalkaboutcelineATyahooDOTcom.) Continuum Books and Mr. Wilson have also kindly allowed us to post an excerpt from the book; here, his complicated relationship with Dion takes root as he watches her on stage with his hero, Elliott Smith, at the 1998 Academy Awards and his bemusement turns to anger:
[Elliot] Smith also dealt frankly, I felt, with one of the ruling paradoxes for partisans of “alternative” culture: It might look like you were asserting superiority over the multitudes, but as a former bullied kid, I always figured it started from rejection. If respect or simple fairness were denied you, you’d build a great life (the best revenge) from what you could scrounge outside their orbit, freed from the thirst for majority approbation. This dynamic is frequently rehearsed in Smith’s songs: In “2:45 a.m.,” a night prowl that begins by “looking for the man who attacked me / while everybody was laughing at me” ends with “walking out on Center Circle / Been pushed away and I’ll never come back.” If laments and disavowals were your lot, you would shine those turds until they gleamed. And you’d spread the word to the rest of the alienated, walking wounded–which, in a late-capitalist consumer society, I thought, ought to include everyone but the rich–that they too could find sustenance and sympathy in a voluntary exile.
So how had Smith ended up in center circle at the Shrine Auditorium, smack up against the “Céline Dion clichés,” a juxtaposition that seemed as improbable as Gummo winning Best Picture? An accident, really. Years before, he’d met independent filmmaker Gus Van Sant hanging out in the Portland bars where Smith’s first band, Heatmiser, played. That friendship led to writing songs for Van Sant’s first “major motion picture,” Good Will Hunting, and so to Oscar night, featuring (as Rolling Stone put it) “one of the strangest billings since Jimi Hendrix opened for the Monkees,” with Smith alongside the pap trio of Trisha Yearwood, Michael Bolton and Céline Dion.
He tried to refuse the invitation, “but then they said that if I didn’t play it, they would get someone else to play the song,” he told Under the Radar magazine. “They’d get someone like Richard Marx to do it. I think when they said that, they had done their homework on me a little bit. Or maybe Richard Marx is a universal scare tactic.”
(Richard Marx, for those who’ve justifiably forgotten, was the balladeer who in 1989 sang, “Wherever you go, whatever you do, I will be right here waiting for you”–threatening enough? But if Dion wasn’t booked, her name might have worked too.)
On Oscar night, Madonna introduced the performers. Smith ended up following Trisha Yearwood’s rendition of Con Air’s “How Do I Live?” (written by Dianne Warren who also penned “Because You Loved Me” and “Love Can Move Mountains” for Dion). He shuffled onstage in a bright white suit loaned by Prada–all he wore of his own was his underwear–and sang “Miss Misery,” Good Will Hunting’s closing love song to depression. The Oscar producers had refused to let Smith sit on a stool, leaving him stranded clutching his guitar on the wide bare stage. The song seemed as small and gorgeous as a sixteenth-century Persian miniature.
And what came next? Céline Dion swooshing out in clouds of fake fog, dressed in an hourglass black gown, on a set where a white-tailed orchestra was arrayed to look like they were on the deck of the Titanic itself. She’d played the Oscars several times, and brought on her full range of gesticulations and grimaces, at one point pounding her chest so robustly it nearly broke the chain on her multimillion-dollar replica of the movie’s “Heart of the Ocean” diamond necklace. Then Dion, Smith and Yearwood joined hands and bowed in what Rolling Stone called a “bizarre Oscar sandwich.”
“It got personal,” Smith said later, “with people saying how fragile I looked on stage in a white suit. There was just all of this focus, and people were saying all this stuff simply because I didn’t come out and command the stage like Céline Dion does.”
And when Madonna opened the envelope to reveal that the Oscar went to “My Heart Would Go On,” she snorted and said, “What a shocker.”
I liked Madonna, who danced on the art/commerce borderline as nimbly as anyone. But right then, I squeezed my fists wishing she’d preserved a more dignified neutrality (“dignified neutrality” being the phrase that springs right to mind when you say “Madonna”). In retrospect, I realize she was making fun of the predictability, not of Elliott Smith; my umbrage only showed how overinvested I was. I wasn’t surprised the Oscars had behaved like the Oscars, that the impossibly good-looking people had spotted each other across the room and as usual run sighing into one another’s arms. But the carnivalesque reversal that wedged Elliott in there with Céline and Trisha was one of those rips in the cultural-space continuum that make you feel anything may happen. I was enough of a populist even then to dream that love might move mountains and heal the great divide.
But when Madonna seemed to chuckle at Elliott Smith, the grudge was back on. And not with Madonna. With Céline Dion.