Carl Wilson sets out to get to the bottom of the mystery of Celine Dion's appeal in Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste. It's part of the enterprising 33 ⅓ series of book-length essays that delve into the meaning and minutiae of seminal rock 'n' roll albums such as Forever Changes (Love), Pet Sounds (Beach Boys), Court and Spark (Joni Mitchell), Trout Mask Replica (Captain Beefheart) and Music from Big Pink (the Band).
If the schmaltz of Dion seems out of place among these artists, that is precisely the point being made by Wilson, a writer and editor with the Globe and Mail in Toronto and no fan of the French-Canadian pop diva. In fact, he can't stand her. "Why . . . do each of us hate some songs, or the entire output of some musicians, that millions upon millions of other people adore?'' asks Wilson, whose musical leanings run toward art rock, free jazz and hip-hop. "This book is an experiment in taste, in stepping deliberately outside one's own aesthetics.''
It's a great idea for an extended riff on pop culture that could just as well be applied to groups like ABBA or the Monkees or Top 40 fluff like Afternoon Delight, all of which have been reclaimed by critics for heretofore unrecognized significance. Wilson focuses on Dion's 1997 bestselling album Let's Talk About Love, which includes the Titanic hit My Heart Will Go On, ranked the No. 1 most irritating song ever in a BBC TV special. His review has one of the best lead sentences I've read: "If pop music were a Tarot deck, Celine Dion would be the Three of Swords — triple blades thrust through a bulging red heart, the sky raining down tears.''
You almost want to run out and buy the record to hear how Love Is on the Way or The Reason jibe with Wilson's generous assessment that "people need sentimental songs to marry, mourn and break up to. . . . In fact, when one of those weepy widescreen ballads lands just so, it can wise you up that you're just one more dumb dog that has to do its best to make things right until one day it dies. And that's sad. Sad enough to make you cry. Even to cry along with Celine Dion.''
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.