May 2, 2014 1:26 pm

Has the web killed cultural snobbery?

Where does the democratisation of taste leave Celine Dion?
Singer Céline Dion on stage in China in 2013©Rex Features

Singer Céline Dion on stage in China in 2013

Midway through writing a book based around Céline Dion’s album Let’s Talk About Love, I decided not to try to get an interview with her. I had the sense, from my attempts to extract information from her management, that they would not be receptive, and chasing the long shot could have become a distraction. The heart of the book, subtitled A Journey to the End of Taste, was not about her but the ways people saw her and what that implies about the ways we see ourselves.

Still, after it was published at the end of 2007, the most frequent question I heard (other than, “Really?”) was whether I’d had any response from the woman herself, or from her “people”. There was none. But once I’d spent a few years serving as the unauthorised ambassador of the Democratic Republic of Dion, curiosity began to nag at me: could I somehow get her to read it? Might meeting her not provide some ultimate, otherwise unobtainable, insight or at least some kind of closure?

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So when the plan arose for a new edition, several years later, I dreamt of finishing this book about cultural dialogue with an actual face-to-face back-and-forth. Since the original had been taught in college classrooms, I dared to hope my supplications now would be more warmly received. I wrote a long note to her publicists talking up the book and its credentials and why it might be worthwhile, and possibly even fun, for Dion to sit down with me.

What came back after several weeks was a two-sentence message: “Unfortunately Céline Dion is not available to participate in this project. We thank you for presenting this opportunity.” The idyll slipped away again.

I am left to reflect on what’s changed in these years, for Dion and for popular taste. The new album I was anticipating at the book’s end, Taking Chances, was released in 2007; there were mild stylistic updates, including a song that dealt with domestic violence – there had been topical songs on her French albums before but never in English. The album felt more mature and self-possessed but was not a major left turn. It yielded only modest hits but it was followed with a high-grossing world tour, which took her for the first time to places such as South Africa, Malaysia and Dubai, as documented in a 2010 feature-length film Céline: Through the Eyes of the World ; along with her Las Vegas gambit, it helped make her the top-earning North American pop artist of the decade, ahead of country stalwart Kenny Chesney as well as another act that attracts scads of haters, the Dave Matthews Band.

Yet if Dion remained a mathematical constant, there has been some fluctuation in how she is perceived. In 2012, James Cameron released a 3D version of Titanic for its 15th anniversary and the centenary of the historic shipwreck. That prompted a minor “My Heart Will Go On” revival and, while there was griping (the film’s female star, Kate Winslet, disclosed that it made her “feel like throwing up” when the song got played around her), there were also defences and much gentle looking back, just short of outright critical reclamation.

So why has the abuse abated? Partly, it’s the soft-focus effect of chronology: often the most outré and gawky of a decade’s stars become the commonplace icons of its fond remembrance, because they incarnate something about that time that was soon discarded and never repeated, so they could only be from that era – in this case the 1990s, which has recently rotated into the cycle of nostalgia. In that regard, Dion no longer seems all that dissimilar from Alanis Morissette or, what the hell, from Marilyn Manson; they are fused by a 1990s Caucasian je ne sais quoi.

But also at work, I suspect, are this era’s shifting contours of taste – ones that pose a challenge to my original analysis. I have a theory that often books are published on the verge of the moment their arguments will go out of date. Maybe a cultural trend is easier to track when it slows into decline, or perhaps a book instantiates the moment a once-unthinkable idea becomes almost self-evident, useful only as a stepping stone to the next inarticulable thought. It’s not that the books aren’t valuable or durable but more often it’s for qualities further in the background. With Let’s Talk About Love, what lasts may be a story about the aesthetic side of leaving youth behind, about artistic enthusiasms and antipathies brittling and falling away like October leaves to clear a view of broader horizons.

But even as my book was composed, the particular strain of taste anxiety it outlined was withering away. In the late 2000s and early 2010s, new proposals about taste have been staged mainly in two places: I’m referring to online videos and online shopping. In each case it’s taken for granted that individual, autonomous, magisterial taste is a myth. But from there they follow almost opposite vectors.

In online commerce, it’s a given that your tastes define you and not the other way around – in fact, you, as a person, are mostly a bothersomely fleshy wedge between your demographically predictable predilections and your credit card number. As pioneered by Amazon and then on other merchandising sites and on streaming music and video services, statistical patterns of consumer choice are broken down to extrapolate who you are and what you like and then to urge more of it upon you.

For these marketers, taste is a lever of social capital and subcultural identity; what’s more, its generation can be outsourced to a machine and fed back to you. And this taste regime integrates effortlessly with sites such as Facebook and Twitter, which encourage you to draw tips and even news primarily from your extended circles of acquaintances – social media they may be but not exactly democratic ones.

Yet an empire of taste can function only if it presumes to understand what taste is and how it’s organised. While its algorithms are capable of surprising you with selections you didn’t know you would like, they will not prompt you to question why you mightn’t like the suggestions they are not making. They render it unlikely the next Céline Dion will seem so inescapable (some music industry types opine that there’s now an inherent limit to the “crossover” reach of any future star).

Whatever portion of taste may be more ineffable and elusive becomes statistical noise that gums up the ideal of an unimpeded flow of instantaneously intuitive transactions. And yet the recommendations and the “likes” and the retweets are such a pleasure, aren’t they? I use them all the time; they make me feel good about myself, mostly as mirroring affirmations that I have a self, one that I’m apparently content to rent out for that privilege.

Posted video sites such as YouTube are social media too, with a similar recipe for profit. But, as forums of creativity for their mostly young users, they follow quite a contrary logic. For example, take one of my absolute favourite responses to my book – a YouTube video made by blogger Rich Juzwiak that practically renders the whole text redundant. It’s called “Céline Dion is Amazing”, and it’s a five-minute “supercut” of scenes from the five-hour DVD set that documents her initial Las Vegas run, onstage and back.

Juzwiak brackets the clips into propositions, including “She’s Very Expressive” (shots of Dion barking like a dog and pouring a whole bottle of water over her face), “She Conducts Electricity” (shot of Dion reaching her arms up to spark a bolt of stage lightning) and “Onstage Banter” (she dedicates a song to “all the parents and all the children of the world”, which an intertitle points out adds up to “Fucking Everybody!”) By the end you’d have to be made of kitchen laminate not to love her at least a little. Juzwiak’s video does not explore Dion’s life and career to uncover a coherent viewpoint from which to understand her; instead, following the injunctions of YouTube, it jumps around perspectives to endorse her exactly for defying coherence. It loves her not as an artist but as a phenomenon. And this is the core aesthetic of YouTube, which differs from past sensibilities in many ways but mainly in its speed.

It is about instantaneous appreciation, not assimilation into an existing pattern, nor about aspirations, aside from the drive to keep current. Cultural capital is accrued by going viral, and swiftly all the viral videos are edited into one another so that all the memes connect, like the mythos of a global cyborgian tribe. As Neil Young once said of his own music, “It’s all one song.” The shock of the new becomes the shock of the now, the aesthetic of a continuous present.

It’s not wholly ahistorical, though, since it includes easy and immediate access to just about any song ever recorded, the factor that’s contributed most to the demise of the kind of conventional music snobbery I chronicle in Let’s Talk About Love. Teenagers today who are as interested in music as I was can survey, in an afternoon, the offbeat genres and artists it took me years to hunt down in record stores, fanzines and libraries. Whether that makes them more or less likely to bother is hard to determine but the sheen of knowing what others don’t know surely palls when everybody can know everything.

. . .

Recently I confessed to a friend that I was having trouble finding the patience to listen through whole albums. She replied, “These days I’m impressed when any music lover even makes it through a song.” Internet remix culture spares us the tedium of listening to just one song at a time, and as the permutations proliferate, they also break up and merge the roles of creator, consumer and critic, and recycle commercialism back into folk art and vice versa. Our senses and our sensibilities are being evolved by force into quick-change artists, masters of disguise.

Some of my favourite songs in recent years have been made by the Gregory Brothers, a band that takes news clips and other snatches of media, then processes the spoken words through the pitch-correction software Auto-Tune so they become “involuntary singing”. They can be catchy, funny, poignant, borderline exploitative; in fact, ethical qualms aside, they’re best when they are all of those, simultaneously in good taste, bad taste and no taste at all.

An image from artist Ryan Trecartin’s video ‘K-CoreaINC.K (section a), 2009©Elizabeth Dee

An image from artist Ryan Trecartin’s video ‘K-CoreaINC.K (section a), 2009

If taste does play the kind of role in class and self-image that the French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu argued, an age of multiplicitous tastelessness would imply new species of identity and social relationships, as our media fracture our experiences, and extend the self by tossing it asunder. A new creative generation is exploring that remixed selfhood, including Ryan Trecartin, one of the decade’s biggest art stars.

Trecartin, who makes dazzling, disorienting movies in which characters are constantly melting into other characters, often of a different age, gender or colour (“race” seems like the wrong word in this context), has said that he believes technology is helping nurture a latent ability in people to morph rapidly through what he calls “personality systems”, like chameleons of context. He seems less like he is trying to challenge received ideas of identity than as if he’s simply never felt there was a stable individual identity and doesn’t see the use of one, although his work can also be darkly paranoid about the fixations on branding and commodification that threaten to replace the unified self.

My friend Margaux Williamson, a visual artist and sometime film critic, has pinpointed the situation she thinks Trecartin is describing: “No matter how old or young, we all have this problem/blessing of increased self-awareness, a problem/blessing that increases in intensity for each new year. We don’t just have tall tales about our shameful pasts, we have growing piles of hard evidence. We can’t roam around North America like the burdenless psychopathic families of the 1990s, always in a new city with nearly a blank past. If we want to change, we have to change publicly – in front of our employers, our constructed families and our anonymous publics. The good news is there is no more hiding of change – so we all have a better understanding that it is a thing that humans have to do.”

Between the recommendation engine hegemony of compulsory taste-identity and the self-multiplying disorientations of Trecartin’s YouTube schizo-aesthetics, I’d certainly opt for the expansiveness of the latter: At worst it is bringing us a new golden age of novelty songs.

At best, as Hillel Schwartz writes in his wonderful book The Culture of the Copy (1996), perhaps art in the age of multi-taste-less reproduction can “call us away from the despair of uniqueness into more companionate lives.”

What gives me pause, though, is that most people may not have that much choice. To don and shed identities fluidly in a digital flux, like so many party dresses, sounds like an extravagance that demands both access to and facility with the technologies involved, and enough manoeuvring room that you can spend life in a blurry wobble without ever tumbling down.

One element rumbling among the motives for the original version of this book has now become a scream: the crisis among Céline Dion’s primary audience, the less-than-upper middle class. How affordable are all these interchangeable “Is” to the 99 per cent when they aren’t spry youth any more? Is that high-velocity continuous now just another pressure that destabilises lives?

 

Dion is a peculiar celebrity through whom to contemplate all this – at once the richest of the musical rich and a woman whose humble past is always with her; it’s her foundational contradiction and the wellspring of her emotional magnetism. Yet her staying power in the pop world also may have to do with how lightly, for a diva, she seems to take her own “despair of uniqueness”. In 2014, perhaps we’re struck less by how “naff” she may be than by how game she always is to sing an inappropriate song in an unfamiliar country, sometimes with meaning, sometimes without.

This is an edited extract from ‘Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste’ published on May 8 by Bloomsbury (£10.99) © Carl Wilson, 2014.

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