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Author Archive: "Carl Wilson"

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 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."

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