June 21, 2011

The Lighter Side: Tina Fey's Bossypants and Carl Wilson's Let's Talk About Love

I wouldn't still be in academia if I didn't find some pleasure in it, but during the school semester there's usually something else at stake beyond personal enjoyment. Summer is a bit different. I've finally had the chance to get through two books I've been dying to read. The first, Tina Fey's new "memoir" Bossypants, is pretty much what you'd expect from the former Saturday Night Live writer (and 30 Rock star/writer/creator/etc.). In other words, it's full of smart, funny, sarcastic, and occasionally sentimental stories/observations from her experiences as a suburban improv nerd, Second City starlet, SNL writer, and reluctant Sarah Palin impersonator. The cover image gets the tone of the book just right: Fey is full of self-deprecation, and rarely makes a joke without including herself as the punchline; but she's equally eager to take up the feminist mantle, especially when it comes to equality in the workplace. Even though it's crammed with humour, Bossypants has a semi-serious subtheme: it's not a man's world anymore (well, in a lot of cases it still is, but Fey and her SNL buddy, Amy Poehler, aren't gonna let that dictate the terms of their comedy).

Second, and even more enjoyable: Carl Wilson's 2007 book for the 33 1/3 series, devoted to the 1997 album by Celine Dion, Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste. I've known about this book for a while and have had friends/roommates read it right in front of me. Why couldn't I take the hint and read it back then? I probably could have saved my self some embarrassment.

It's a strange little book, even within the context of Continuum's series on seminal or classic albums. Every other book in the series finds its writer enamoured with its subject, but Wilson chooses to write on the music critics favourite scapegoat, Celine Dion. Wilson took on this project because he's curious about her global popularity and because he wants to understand his own deep-seated bias toward her music. Some of the content is confessional (like myself, Wilson grew up listening to alternative rock music and made a constant effort distance himself from the "shmaltz" of contemporary pop), but the book seamlessly weaves together interviews with fans; cultural, economic, political and sociological analysis (including the Francophone tumult that gave rise to Celine Dion's career, the way this tension appears throughout her albums and career, and the apex of her popularity at the Oscars in 1997) ; as well as several brief accounts of aesthetic theory, from Kant's theory of "disinterestedness" to Pierre Bourdieu's sociological analysis of "cultural capital." The largest success of Wilson's book, in my reading, is in forcing me to locate my own cultural biases, and see the ways my taste for or appreciation of more "difficult" music is often more shallow than the mainstream offerings of ubiquitous artists like Celine Dion.

The "lesson" is well-represented in the dialectical pairing of Dion with another artist who performed at the 1997 Oscars. As Wilson recounts in an interview, "Elliott Smith serves as Celine Dion's foil in the early part of the book, partly because they met upon the field of not-much-honor at the Oscars in 1998 and Dion roundly trounced my own little indie-songwriting hero. . . . The irony is that when Dion and Smith met at the Oscars, she was so unexpectedly sweet to him that he ended up defending her to friends who criticized her, for the rest of his all-too-brief, burnt life."

Another related success of the book, for me anyway, is that it points out the hypocrisy of most anti-sentimentalist positions. Wilson is talking about music (we antisentimentalists are often prone to celebrating Noise/Industrial music, as well as the authentic sounds of lo-fi indie rock), but I think he also meant it to apply more broadly, to other cultural experiences. Especially in the more serious realms of literature and critical theory, sentiment (often characterized as the flip-side of cold rationalism) is often the scapegoat. Such critical posturing shows how much our culture still celebrates the strong and the stoic without questioning its presuppositions. Hating Celine Dion isn't just an aesthetic choice, it also has ethical implications: it's a way of elevating oneself above her fans, who tend to be poor adult women living in flyover states and shopping at big-box stores. Celine Dion's music, writes Wilson, "deals with problems that don’t require leaps of imagination but require other efforts, like patience, or compromise”; although it is “lousy music to make aesthetic judgments to,” it “might be excellent for having a first kiss, or burying your grandma, or breaking down in tears.” And he ends the book with a Celine-inspired plea for “democratic” criticism: “not a limp open-mindedness” but a refusal to let ourselves (and our own "conspicuous consumption") off the hook and pigeon-hole others. Celine, he says, “stinks of democracy,” and his effort to understand her has taught him to “relish the plenitude of tastes, to admire a well-put-together taste set that’s alien to our own.”

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