moments before the wind.

April 29, 2006

EMP Pop Conference #3

Filed under: authenticity, music, reviews, writing — alimarcus @ 4:52 pm

Carl Wilson is one of my favorite music writers.  I got to know him from his blog,, and you should too.  His talk yesterday was about Celine Dion.  He is writing a book for Continuoum's 33&1/3 series on her, and spoke, basically of the "guilty displeasure" that many people take in her music.  Going through all the obvious descriptions, including viciously hilarious excerpts from reviews, the basic question is, since Celine clearly has an incredible amount of vocal skill (Wilson described her voice as having "many octaves like the wings of a mansion"), and celebrity as well, what exactly is it that prevents people from truly respecting her work?

A central culprit, in Wilson's view, rests in psychoanalysis.  Treating taste from a Freudian perspective, he supposes that since you can judge essential things about a person from their greatest fears, it follows that you can do the same based on their greatest hatreds.  (Strong negative reactions somehow elicit something that is deeply instinctual within us.)  In a musical sense then, contrary to popular belief (and top ten lists), people's admiring reactons are not nearly as central to their essence as are their deeply disgusted ones.

This is an interesting idea.  I think it has a lot of value to it, but I don't think that it's necessarily true.  Its value comes from the attention that it draws to conflict and the necessary tension of opposites that illuminate a conceptual notion of definition.  I would bet, from this discussion, that Wilson is a person who, when asked if human nature is basically good or basically bad, would choose the latter. 

I am not this kind of person.  To believe that a primal, innate, subconscious force within us is there because of repression and therefore is fundamentally negative, is not something I am capable of.  I say capable because I don't have the foundation in me that could believe in this Heart of Darkness kind of mythology.  Instincts and primitive connections certainly bind, but the interaction of biology and mental process doesn't have a qualitative aspect to it. 

Wilson asserted that people who deeply hate Celine Dion are distancing themselves from their conception of the people who love her.  The gut-level reaction is not a conscious thought: "Joe loves Celine and I think Joe is a loser, so I have to hate Celine in order to separate myself from his loser-ness."  This is where the subconscious Freudian analysis comes into play.  It's also basic playground antics, and also a weighty social or political force that drives much interaction (see Stalin, WWII).

And what about the bands that you hate?  Or the bands that I hate?  What does this say about us?  Is it an inability to take criticism that suddenly becomes self-imposed projection, or is it truly irrelevant?  I am interested to find out what Wilson ends up celebrating about Celine Dion in his forthcoming book. 

 4.30.06 UPDATE: See Wilson's own blog for a different but related discussion of Celine and "otherness,":

5.3.06 UPDATE: More from Wilson here:


  1. Hi Ali – thanks so much for your thoughts. I’ve responded on the blog, but wanted to add that I think it’s important to the model that the person who likes Celine in the Celine hater’s mind is not usually a real Joe, but an imaginary “Joe”: It’s social separation, I think, that enables us to imagine audiences we’re opposed to. If you have a real friend who loves Celine, you probably don’t have such black and white thoughts about it. (Although these projections can happen on people as little removed as, say, co-workers or fellow students who you see but don’t really get to know.)

    Comment by zoilus — May 3, 2006 @ 12:02 am

  2. If you haven’t already, you might want to read “Owning Your Own Shadow” by Robert Johnson. It’s a short engaging read about Jung’s notion of the Shadow. For Jung, the Shadow isn’t just about repressing negative things. There’s a lot of positive (or gold) down there too. Often when we react strongly to something in someone else, it probably does relate to some anxiety we have about ourselves. But this can also be a fear of something good we see in them; it need not be bad.

    What if your persona is that of the self-styled cynic who doesn’t fall for cheap sentimentality? You may react negatively to a Celene fan, because she seems to traffic in that sort of thing. But maybe the ability to experience those emotions is actually a really positive quality, and your reaction actually speaks more to your fear of acknowledging that part of yourself and the goodness there, rather than repressing some negative quality (like your own will to power and success).

    Comment by j-lon — May 3, 2006 @ 12:19 am

  3. If the Celine-hater doesn’t know any real Celine Dion fans, then he or she doesn’t hang out with any “normal” people – i.e. people other than artists and “bohemian” types. A great number of the people who serve you at the bank, the grocery store and so on are big Celine fans. Social separation is most definitely a factor, and the Celine-hater may or may not be “opposed to” these people, but they’re not imaginary.

    Personally, whether someone likes or dislikes Celine, or anything else, doesn’t bother me. What does is when people say things like: “Oh, you may not like Celine, but you have to admit she has a great voice.” Just like what certain music-geek types say about prog-rock or fusion musicians. Why do I have an obligation to admit that these artists are “great”? Because Celine has the ability to hit and sustain high notes? Because Neil Peart can play more notes per second than other drummer? It’s a conception of talent as athleticism.

    A lot of interesting discussion you’re provoking… looking forward to the book…

    Comment by malstain — May 3, 2006 @ 7:45 am

  4. Athletecism, huh? Isn’t athletecism itself a celebration of something else though, some kind of physical transcendence? I think it’s more than just a war between the jocks and the artists.

    Comment by alimarcus — May 3, 2006 @ 9:08 am

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