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33 1/3: In Praise of Distraction

[Editor's Note: In honor of our 33 1/3 salebuy two new (not used or sale) books from Continuum Books' 33 1/3 series, featuring critical writing on seminal albums, and get a third free — we're pleased to feature blog posts from some of the people behind the 33 1/3 series.]

Being interested in music, I often think, really means being interested in almost everything. The hidden perk of working in music criticism (as opposed to the visible ones, the shows, drink tickets and everything else that ushers us along to our no-doubt-early graves) is that one's research about a singer or a composer or a trombone player always leads to other sorts of questions altogether — about the social dynamics and urban development of the city they come from, or the politicians who campaigned to their songs or tried to get them banned, or the physiology of what happens to the lips of horn players as they age. And then there's the question of who listens to the music, not just where it comes from but where it eventually goes — what kinds of trouble do kids get up to listening to this song, compared to the sort of trouble they got into listening to last year's song? Are they huffing glue or sipping cough syrup? Committing arson or whip-riding on rear fenders?

As a result, the best music writing is often a cascade of branching tangentsthe best music writing is often a cascade of branching tangents. My favorite books in the 33 1/3 series are usually those that seem to be about an album but are really about something else — Erik Davis's book that pretends to be about Led Zeppelin but is really about magic and technology; Douglas Wolk's book that pretends to be about James Brown's Live at the Apollo but is really what it might have been like to live through the Cuban Missile Crisis; Franklin Bruno's book that pretends to be about Elvis Costello but is really about race and soul and Englishness and Americanness and the fact that Franklin is so uncannily able to detect borrowed hooks and chord structures even when they are chopped in half and played backwards that the producers of Name That Tune should be glad their show went before he was old enough to come win all their money. (Then again, lucky for them Elvis Costello was never a contestant, too.)

My own book might the series' dodgiest pretender, as it claims on its cover to be about a Celine Dion album, and then goes on for about 9 of its 12 chapters without saying more than a few words about that album, going on instead about taste and globalization and sentimentality and schmaltz and TV shows about teenage girls. My book is a lab experiment in disguise, in which I was the rat, being exposed to various test conditions or stimuli that might help me understand how millions of people could be fans of Celine Dion while I and nearly everybody I'd ever met couldn't stand her. The test tubes and beakers of the experiment are, of course, tangents. It is a travelogue of sorts, as the subtitle says, "a journey to the end of taste."

It was a weird experience to spend months on end thinking about Celine DionIt was a weird experience to spend months on end thinking about Celine Dion, but much of the time I wasn't thinking about Dion so much as about the chemical components, the relationships and accidents and outside forces, that go into liking or disliking music in the first place. The book was kind of a far-flung exercise in suspension of judgment, about putting off a thumbs-up or thumbs-down for awhile, and one of the advantages of doing that is that in the interim, you might end up somewhere else than where you bargained for. Whatever my conclusions about Celine Dion (you'll have to read for yourself), the relevant point is that I definitely acquired some other new affections along the way: A fondness for Victorian parlor songs, for instance; an enlarged appreciation for Norman Rockwell (who came up often in my readings about sentimental art and the 20th-century preoccupation with dividing culture into "highbrow, lowbrow and middlebrow"); discovering the self-declared kitsch painter, Norway's Odd Nerdrum, who, besides having the geekiest name in history, has declared that while Art-with-a-capital-A seeks Truth-with-a-capital-T, "kitsch serves life and seeks the individual"; he argues that if a picture seems sentimental it is only because it is not sentimental enough; '68-comeback-era Elvis Presley; Shirley Bassey and her improbably funny-sad-strange 1973 lounge hit "Never Never Never"; early Barbra Streisand (but not late Barbra Streisand); the bizarreness of the 19th-century American stage, where freak shows and opera singing and Shakespeare and minstrels would all share the same bills; and other Dion-linked ephemera that otherwise might have forever passed me by. I read a pile of excellent books and bigger piles of amusing (or dull) articles, and had conversations with people and about subjects that would never have happened otherwise.

And isn't that what frequently happens with our cultural interests — that the most significant thing about them, often, is how they mutate into other interests? You start out getting interested in blues through the White Stripes, say, and then a year later you find that what's really sending you is early African-American fiddle records, and within months you're reading books on the history of the minstrel show, realizing uncomfortably that half the campfire songs you ever knew (the half that weren't written by Woody Guthrie) started out being sung by white men with black cork smeared across their faces.

We're so preoccupied by what songs, what books, what art is "good" or "bad."We're so preoccupied by what songs, what books, what art is "good" or "bad." But what if it's really in all these transformations that the action is? What moves us is forever on the move, and perhaps what's really good in culture is its ecology, its unintended consequences, the spider's web spectrally leading us along from one enthusiasm, one love, to the next, out into the wild and back around to face one another.

÷ ÷ ÷

Author of the 33 1/3 volume Celine Dion: Let's Talk about Love, Carl Wilson is a Canadian writer based in Toronto, where he publishes his criticism in The Globe and Mail and on his blog His work has appeared in the New York Times, Blender,,, The Nation, and many other publications. Let's Talk About Love is his first book.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Celine Dion: Let's Talk about Love...
    Used Trade Paper $10.50
  2. Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin IV (33...
    New Trade Paper $14.95
  3. James Brown: Live at the Apollo (33... Used Trade Paper $6.95
  4. Elvis Costello: Armed Forces (33 1/3... Used Trade Paper $6.95

Carl Wilson is the author of Celine Dion: Let's Talk about Love (33 1/3 Series)

One Response to "33 1/3: In Praise of Distraction"

    John Wenzel December 7th, 2007 at 4:18 pm

    Great piece... I'm gearing up to read the "Bee Thousand" 33 1/3, and the Celine Dion one, of course...

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