On Musical Taste: Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love

by Thomas Brett

Musical taste is a funny thing in that we usually know what we like, but we can’t always say why. Instead, we often delineate the boundaries of our tastes by knowing what we don’t like. So, for instance, we might insist that we never listen to country songs, or that Romantic classical music is an instant turn off. Whatever our tastes, though, what we like we also tend to hold dear and defend because music has an uncanny ability to seem to reinforce our identity: how we see ourselves in the world, and even how we see the world itself. Music can be that powerful as both a mirror and lens of self-understanding. It can get to the point where if someone insults your favorite music you take it personally!

But what would it be like if we stopped listening for a moment to the musics we hold dear and turned instead to musics that we believe to lie outside our circle of taste? Could we learn anything from this exercise? Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love (Continuum 2007), a concise and quite masterful exploration of musical taste, does exactly this. Wilson takes the pop icon Celine Dion as his case study, precisely because Dion’s music was never something that appealed to him and he wants to figure out the source of its appeal for millions of listeners. In the course of dissecting Celine’s musical history, image, music, and fan base, Wilson explores the mechanics of taste and what our tastes in culture reveal about ourselves.

Much of the book’s analytical apparatus is in Chapter 7, “Let’s Talk About Taste.” Here, Wilson draws on the work of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu to make the case that our musical tastes are always social things. Bourdieu’s classic work on this subject is Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1979). For Bourdieu, our tastes are strategic tools that we use in an ongoing quest for what he calls “symbolic power” and the pursuit of (class) “distinction” or, put more simply, coolness. And here’s how it works: our particular tastes in the products of culture (e.g. music, art, fashion, literature, etc.) allow us to acquire what Bourdieu famously calls “cultural capital” and “social capital.” Cultural capital includes knowledge of culture, ideas, and cultural references, while social capital encompasses personal connections and influence (89).  Whether we we’re aware of it or not, we’re all trying to expand our reservoirs of cultural and social capital by continually extending our tastes for the products of culture and then telling others about it. And as we expand our reservoirs we accrue two kinds of power: the analytical power of being able to make ever-finer distinctions of style, and also a kind of sociopolitical power that rests on our acuity for making such distinctions.

One aspect of the book I was quite taken by is Wilson’s discussion of a kind of postmodern (or is it post-postmodern?) taste virtuosity that involves “manipulating signs and symbols”—the kind of thing that brings to mind ironic, acoustic cover versions of the current pop hit of the day, or the feverish work of remixers and DJs who play with huge databases of far-flung musics to make composite works that reference many (often conflicting) cultural artifacts simultaneously in a witty kind of way. As Wilson notes, work like this is entirely a bravura performance of taste, [but] it disavows having a taste, which would be boring, pathetic, embarrassing (149).

And this brings us to a key point: we all have musical tastes. Moreover, we would all benefit from getting to know these tastes intimately–unpack them, figure out their origins and dynamics, and map their connections to other parts of our lives. Once we do this, we’ll be much more prepared for meaningful encounters with musics that we believe lie somewhere outside of our taste circle. Indeed, the ultimate aim of Let’s Talk About Love is to encourage a cultural relativism that urges us to be sympathetic to all music—not just to the music we like. We can move towards a sympathetic stance by asking of any music we encounter: What is its usefulness?  That is to say, in what contexts might it have deep meaning for a community of listeners? This sympathetic stance also informs what Wilson calls a “pluralistic” music criticism that will “put less stock in defending its choices and more in depicting its enjoyment, with all its messiness and private soul tremors—to show what it is like for me to like it, and invite you to compare . . .here is my story, what is yours?” (157).