Learning to love bad taste

Published in Aftenposten, 4th April 2015

Isn´t it time we come clean and let go of the class wars, or at least allow ourselves to admire what we regard as bad taste.

A book described as ”the most important piece of music criticism of the last two decades” has just rolled purposefully off the press in a fine, shiny and expanded edition. By Canadian Carl Wilson, it examines not 21st century classical giants, but the writer´s own admitted prejudice. He hates Celine Dion. Wow, a brave admission. He says ”Her music strikes me as a bland monotony raised to a pitch of obnoxious bombast”. He rages about her song hit from Titanic winning an Academy Award, chosen above elegant, more fragrant, more downright well-crafted alternatives, saying ”As far as I knew… I have never even met anyone who liked Dion.”

Courageous words indeed – even if Dion´s local Quebec newspaper once described her as ’Miss Tupperware’. But Wilson is a decent man. He goes on to explore the singer´s all-consuming emotionalism, defines its fundamental schmaltz, and lends considerable generosity to his conclusion that Dion ”incarnates the woman who takes care of everybody but herself”. The cynic might add that this is all very well if you make millions doing so. Dion herself said, when interviewed ”My work is to enter people´s lives with my music. Do you think I want to disturb them when they bake? Do you think I want to disturb them when they make love? I want to be part of it”.

Dion goes for the heart

And so she is. At her stage shows, despite the awesome lustre of her delivery and the polished machinery of the event, she is perceived to sing directly to the tender spot in every heart; to the tiny hurt place we all nurse from childhood; to the brave person with the guts to love again. Go home, buy the CD. It´s not the same, but she´s still part of your baking.

To comment adversely on all of this is, of course, to risk noisy accusations of snobbery. It may sound patronising – distressingly so – but its still reasonable to claim that our taste in music has always been linked to class. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, after hefty research into everything from theatre and food to lipstick choices, reported that what we choose relates directly to our sense of social status; that we adopt the tastes of others to whose lifestyle we aspire is certainly old news.

The definitive Celine Dion fans, apparently, are isolated white middle-American, middle-aged women. So no surprise that Wilson says that Dion’s core fan group adore exactly the opposite of what he and his classical music critic cronies most fervently support. For sure no hard-core writer on Schoenberg really wants to be aligned with a daytime movie-watching widow from Nebraska.

We are all at it, obsessed with splitting music into narrow genres. Those obsessed with the aging rockers, the Micks and the Rods– and the wrinkled rockers themselves – endlessly disparage the latest wannabe Robbie Williams. Talk to supercool Scandi fans of Sigur Rós about Arctic Monkeys and risk withering disdain. The jazz world is closed to any but the fearless, and split into tiny arrogant factions. Classical music lovers (note ’lovers’ not ’fans’) divide, sneering, into all kinds of groups: to say that you love Shostakovich – unless you want to discuss minutely the polemics of his politics in the light of Putin´s present relationship with the Bolshoi – shows you to be rather naive. An interest in French Baroque excludes you totally from the Puccini ’canary-fanciers’ (the term was used only last week by a snotty bass-baritone). The Wagner aficionados bore everybody and we all know that the contemporary music lot are nerdy.

Time to ease up

Do we really? Isn´t it time we come clean and let go of the class wars, or at least allow ourselves to admire what we regard as bad taste. I loathe that Andrew Lloyd Webber´s easy melodies slide over me like bath foam, but I greatly admire his skill, his orchestration and the fastidiousness of his creative process. If you love late Beethoven quartets, must you feel guilty about a sneaky craving for Metallica? Should we examine that guilt, and ask what it is really about? Inherited parental attitudes? Something about soppy music/sloppy habits? A fear of raw emotion expressed too explicitly in tight trousers?

Let´s ease up, take the rock and classical labels away, and allow ourselves just to call it music. Art and entertainment may be very different but they can still be friends. Now excuse me while I slip off to listen to Schubert. After a stiff drink, I may even get to Celine.

Published in Aftenposten, 4th April 2015

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