Monday, November 03, 2008

Although I can devour 33 1/3 books like so many Kit Kats, I’ll admit they’re not all created equal. I’ve preferred the nuts ‘n’ bolts “behind the scenes” volumes to the ones that attempt to capture an album’s appeal in fictional or personal essay form. The last two 33 1/3 books I’ve read have won me over to the latter approach, though.

First, there was Mountain Goats mainman and Decibel magazine columnist John Darnielle’s novella concerning Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality. Through his narrator, a troubled youth confined to a psych ward (and having had all his tapes confiscated, to boot), Darnielle manages to capture the appeal of Sabbath and their heaviest album, as well as depicting exactly how, for some of us, music functions as a stabilizing, essential constant in our lives. It’s a moving little book.

The last 33 1/3 I read was one I’ve picked up many times in stores, wondering exactly what its deal was. Author Carl Wilson’s choice of subject jumped out at me as surprising, if banal—Céline Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love. Was he kidding? This wasn't exactly up there with The Velvet Underground and Nico or Unknown Pleasures in terms of albums with rock crit credibility. The book’s subtitle helped to clarify the author’s intentions a little bit: “A journey to the end of taste.” Well, that was nearly enough to sell me on it.

Instead I checked it out of the library. It was better than I could have imagined. Wilson picks up and connects many threads in his very personal exploration of Céline Dion’s appeal—notions of kitsch, schmaltz, “lowbrow” art, Quebecois culture, the talent show as genre, and so on—but the question this book really seeks to answer is “Why do we like what we like?” And that’s a big question, comprising personal decisions and impulses both conscious and unconscious.

It’s a small thrill when a writer connects their subject matter to something I enjoy. Wilson, bless him, does it here:
“As her songs rocket to their predestined apexes, she does not resist, she goes along for the ride, leaning on the accelerator and seldom the brake, emphasizing intensity not difference. It reminds me of nothing so much as current ‘underground’ metal, which has thrown out the spare musical parts of past hard rock and pared down to loud guitars, drums and screaming. Today’s metal has no power ballads, no more Nazareth doing ‘Love Hurts,’ no more Kiss doing ‘Beth,’ no more Guns N’ Roses ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine.’ So Céline is singing them instead. It’s been said that ‘pro wrestling is soap opera on steroids,’ so maybe Céline Dion is metal on estrogen.”