The latest installment in 331/3, the book series that celebrates significant pop records, is unlike any of its predecessors in that its subject, the titular 1997 Céline Dion album, is abhorred by its author. Carl Wilson, a music critic and an editor at The Globe and Mail, isn’t a Dion fan, but he earnestly wants to be one, partly out of solidarity with her millions of middlebrow admirers and partly to challenge the “blind spots” of his own musical preferences.
Wilson’s gonzo take on aesthetics is a kind of sentimental education, too, peppered with confessional moments in which he laments the affected postures of youth – that “constant vigil against looking or feeling ridiculous” – as well as the breakup of his marriage.
It could be lots of fun, but Let’s Talk About Love never really rises above its counterintuitive premise. Though it has strong elements, including a positive magazine-style review of the Dion album toward the end of the book, many of its digressions seem unnecessary. Also, Wilson’s defence of Dion’s schmaltzy aesthetic is too often embedded with qualifier clauses (“in that light”; “one might ask if”; “isn’t it equally plausible that,” etc.). He implies that not liking Dion – or, at least, not even trying to like her – is elitist and undemocratic, but he himself seems only half-willing to go along with his own ethical imperative.
Not that Wilson has to genuinely like Dion for the book to work, but his main preoccupation seems to be the quirky originality and daring of his approach, rather than producing a coherent and satisfying read.
When Wilson travels to Las Vegas to catch Dion’s extravagant stage show, he finds the city’s showy commercialism depressing; it makes him feel “insignificant and micro-penised,” and unwilling to approach actual Dion fans to interview for the book. Self-emasculation aside, Wilson’s palpable distaste is a telling contradiction, and the exact opposite of Dion’s egoless populism, which he ends up admiring.