LUKE BURBANK, host:
There's this really interesting series of books known as "Thirty Three and a Third." And what they do is they spend an entire booklet reviewing one album. And they talk about how it came to be and its cultural importance. And the records they review tend to be by the Beatles or the Velvet Underground, you know, like really influential, important bands. And then there's the edition that Carl Wilson has just put out.
(Soundbite of song, "My Heart Will Go On")
Ms. CELINE DION (Singer): (Singing) Every night in my dreams, I see you, I feel you. That is how I know you go on.
ALISON STEWART, host:
STEWART: I'm slightly stunned. Actually, the book is called "Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste." It is probably the most comprehensive, well thought out, surprising review of a Celine Dion record.
BURBANK: Carl Wilson joins us now - oh, and he's not writing about Celine. He's the music editor of The Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper. Hi, Carl.
Mr. CARL WILSON (Music Editor, The Globe and Mail): Hi.
BURBANK: Where were you the exact moment this idea came to you to do this super thorough study of Celine?
Mr. WILSON: Well, I was at my desk, I suppose. I was - I have been talking with the editors of 33 1/3 about a few ideas for things that I might do in the series, and a lot of the music writings that I do has tended to be about sort of more experimental kind of art rock and jazz and those kind of thing, so I had a couple of ideas which they thought were a little too obscure and…
BURBANK: So you said let's really take it the other direction?
Mr. WILSON: Yeah, exactly. So I actually went to the Web site of the Recording Industry Association of America and looked at the list of the most - the best selling albums of all time and saw that there were several Celine albums on the list. And it suddenly recalled to me an idea I'd had years before which was to write a book about taste and about where taste comes from and why people have the disagreements about taste that they do. And it suddenly occurred to me that the series was kind of a perfect forum to talk about that and that Celine, for me, because of being Canadian and having had a sort of particularly personal antagonistic relationship with her music over the years, was kind of a perfect case study in that.
STEWART: I love that you said it was personal. It's not just your professional antagonism; it was a personal antagonism.
Mr. WILSON: Yeah. Well, you know, I mean I think that, you know, any - for Canadians, I think they're always feeling this kind of second-class citizenry in North America. Anything that lends itself easily to the Canadian jokes made by Americans is - can foster a bit of particular irritation. And, you know, there's things like there's the "South Park" "Blame Canada" song that includes the couplet when Canada is dead and gone, there'll be no more Celine Dion. There are frequently things like that so - and also, she's been famous in Canada for quite a bit longer than she's been famous in the States, so we've also just sort of had to endure that.
BURBANK: Yeah. When you write about - I mean one of the things that's so great about this book, I think, is that when you write about Celine, it's like her history is really kind of the history of Quebec as well - they're kind of tied.
Mr. WILSON: Yeah. There is particularly for Quebec, you know, she became famous in Quebec and, to some degree, in French-speaking countries around the world when she was just sort of 12 and 13 years old. And that was the time when the Quebec music industry in particular was undergoing a kind of shakeup and kind of the whole thing was up in the air. And so her career helped to kind of determine the course of the Quebec music industry after that. But it's also wrapped up with the whole sort of history of Quebec trying to sort of find its voice, so to speak, as a French-speaking minority culture in North America. And her career kind of coincided with the shift from a more radical kind of leftist nationalism to a more kind of economic nationalism. And she ended up kind of serving as a role model for Quebec in how you can create an - a business that successfully exports Quebec culture but also Quebec products exporting them around the world.
BURBANK: You write how she was, like, a really homely kid and would get made fun of all the time in France about her teeth and her just - she was kind of, you know, sort of low class she was seen as, you know, she was from this family who didn't make a lot of money.
Mr. WILSON: Yeah. Well, she was from, you know, the rural suburbs basically and, you know, classic, old, Quebec, Catholic family of, you know, a dozen kids, and so in a lot of ways for Quebecers, in her - the early part of her career, she really represented kind of the old church-dominated stereotype of Quebec that they were trying to free themselves from.
STEWART: I just feel badly for some - I feel bad for her and, in the course of reading the book, she had to have her teeth capped and she had to learn to speak English and it just seemed like there was a lot of pressure on her when she first got in the business because she was a child star.
Mr. WILSON: Yeah. You know, and was sort of somebody with her whole family's future riding on her and all of the things that…
Mr. WILSON: And so I think that if, you know, when you look at her and you kind of see her as this slightly awkward presence for a celebrity, you know, realizing all of that history kind of gives you a bit more of a sympathy and an understanding of where she's coming from.
BURBANK: Yeah. Because I think for a lot of Americans, you just see her as the insane lady who sings the "Titanic" song and you - it is hard to sort of think about the human being kind of behind that. Another thing that probably didn't help, at least from the minds of a lot of hipsters, people like our own Alison Stewart who when we mentioned Celine one time or actually it was Elliott Smith we were mentioning…
BURBANK: …a different time on this show, and she immediately brought up this event which was the Oscars and I think it was in 1997. And this was when Elliott Smith, who's kind of the anti-Celine Dion if you could have one, was nominated for an Oscar for his song from "Good Will Hunting" and Celine was up for the "Titanic" song and anyway.
(Soundbite of song, "Miss Misery")
Mr. ELLIOTT SMITH (Singer; Songwriter; Musician): (Singing) I'll fake it through the day with some help from Johnnie Walker red.
BURBANK: And, of course, here is in the minds of people like me everything good in the world - Elliott Smith - and everything bad in the world - Celine Dion -and Celine wins.
Mr. WILSON: Yeah. And I had that experience really directly as well and I sort of start off the book talking about that because, you know, my mild irritation with Celine a little bit turned into a more intense irritation over that, you know, because I think, you know, it's one of those rare moments where you're kind of alternative culture - underground culture gets kind of a chance for mass exposure and you think, oh, everybody is going to love this and then, you know, and you have that brief hope that somehow your little subculture will get that kind of endorsement. And the sort of crushing predictability of him being beaten by Celine Dion at the time seemed like a kind of cultural crime to me. In retrospect, it's kind of like, well, you know, that was the most popular song in the world at the time and it actually would have been pretty strange…
BURBANK: Right. Right.
Mr. WILSON: …for her not to win that award, but, you know, hope burns eternal in the…
Mr. WILSON: …subculturist's mind.
BURBANK: …and I think, you know, what you're saying here, I think, is a view into sort of your personal change - I don't know if I want to say change, I don't want to overstate it - but, I mean, you were doing a lot of self-examination as you were writing this book - it's as much about you as it's about Celine's music. Did you sort of find out that you were a snob or that you've, you know, what did you find about yourself in listening to "Let's Talk About Love" literally hundreds of times?
Mr. WILSON: I think that it was kind of, for me, a final stage in reckoning with the kind of music snob that I had been. And in various ways, both for me and I think for kind of the music critical profession overall, there's been a lot of reexamination of the kind of reflexive dismissal of the mainstream that used to be more common in the past five years or so.
I think that, you know, particularly with a particularly exciting period going on in R&B and hip-hop and all that kind of thing that there's been a little bit of a reconciliation between critics in the mainstream on that level, but it doesn't extend to the likes of Celine Dion. And so kind of trying to figure out why the line gets drawn, where the line gets drawn, and coming to feel like it probably has a lot to do with who Celine's audience is understood to be and what kind of social associations all of that has made me so that I was sort of thinking about this category which I call the guilty displeasure where, you know, you'd listen to things and kind of instinctively reject them but never stop to wonder what that rejection is really about.
BURBANK: Did you actually get to the point where you can listen to that music and it doesn't make you want to go climb the walls? Or is it actually like your dad caught you smoking a cigarette, made you smoke the entire carton, and now you can never even look at that music again?
Mr. WILSON: No. I did come to like some of it. I think I've found that her work with, like, particular producers and that kind of thing was more palatable to me than her work with other people. And I kind of came to see her in a really sort of traditional pop performer-sense if you sort of think of, like, pre-1960s, you know, variety show performers and interpreters. And if you kind of think of her in that box and think, oh, you know, it's like there's different plays that she's cast in, and some of those might be things that you could take and some of them might not be, but she's kind of equally gamely playing these different roles and so, you know, I ended up feeling like sort of maybe half the "Let's Talk About Love" album that I could sort of see the point of a lot more clearly after I had listened to it, and there's certainly things gathered through her career that I enjoy.
BURBANK: Let's hear a little bit of one of those songs, "Love is on the Way"; you think this is some of her better stuff?
Mr. WILSON: Mm-hmm.
(Soundbite of song, "Love is on the Way")
Ms. DION: (Singing) Waking up alone in a room that still reminds me. My heart has got to learn to forget. Starting on my own with every breath…
BURBANK: You know, Carl, one of the things that you write about in your book, which for those who may be just joining us, it's called "Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste." It's from the 33 1/3 music criticism books. You sort of say, you know, it's easy to kind of think that that one kind of music is good and the other kind of music is bad because you don't like it or like… But Celine Dion's music - it's doing something else and maybe it's not accomplishing the stuff that, like, say an Elliott Smith does, but it's accomplishing its own thing. Maybe it's hard to be Celine Dion just as hard as it is to be Elliott Smith. And there's a story that really got to me which is that she was actually really nice to Elliott Smith backstage.
Mr. WILSON: Yeah. This was something, you know, I had actually been writing this whole sort of recounting of the Oscar story and that kind of thing when I stumbled across this story that I'd never heard before where a friend of Elliott Smith, after his suicide, was telling about how forever after the Oscar ceremonies, you know, people would kind of come up to Elliott Smith and sort of go, you know, that Celine Dion, you were robbed and immediately start tearing her up. But she had come up to him and been extremely nice backstage at the Oscars when he had been expecting her to be a big diva and complimented him on his song and gave him a big hug and he was kind of overwhelmed by the whole thing. And so whenever that happened, he would start defending her and, you know, not necessarily defending the music but defending her as a person to the people involved with the kind of savagery that always took them aback. And so it was kind of nice when, you know, I had sort of had this idea of sharing this grudge against Celine Dion with Elliott Smith and then reexamining it to know that he was kind of on my side and - in thinking - trying to think a little more kindly about her.
BURBANK: It's nice to think of him up in heaven somewhere re-imagining, probably doing the most awesome version of "My Heart Will Go On" ever on acoustic guitar…
Mr. WILSON: That's true.
BURBANK: …making it truly listenable maybe.
BURBANK: Carl Wilson, author of "Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste," our hat is off to you.
Mr. WILSON: Thank you.
BURBANK: Good work.
STEWART: Impressive work.
BURBANK: Thank you so much for joining us.
Mr. WILSON: Thanks a lot.
(Soundbite of song, "Let's Talk About Love")
Ms. DION: (Singing) Everywhere I go, all the places that I've been. Every smile is a new horizon on a land I've never seen. There are people around the world…
STEWART: I can only imagine the runners-up for that Whitney Houston song, the one from "The Bodyguard" - think of the things he could have had to listen to.
BURBANK: Rule number three, Alison, never fall in love.
STEWART: That does it for this edition of THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT.
BURBANK: It's Wednesday, December 12th, 2007.
Our staff includes MJ Davis, Dan Pashman, Angela Ellis, Win Rosenfeld. And we welcome to the BPP fold Katelyn Kenny(ph).
STEWART: We are ably assisted by Manoli Wetherell, Josh Rogosin and Monu Zuba(ph).
BURBANK: Jacob Ganz directs our show.
STEWART: Trisha McKinney is our editor; Laura Conaway edits our Web site and blog.
BURBANK: Matt Martinez is the supervising senior producer; Sharon Hoffman is the executive producer.
STEWART: Korva Coleman is our newscaster this week filling in for Rachel Martin.
I'm Alison Stewart.
BURBANK: And I'm Luke Burbank. Thanks for listening.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.