Taste is a tricky thing. There is a shifting hierarchy of preferences for each player in pursuit of taste, which ideally develops as a process of greater and greater pleasure. But then again, sometimes the things we take pleasure in are in poor taste. In Let’s Talk About Love, Carl Wilson succinctly boils down part of the problem with taste: if ‘good’ taste is an elevated ideal (especially one reached dialectically), then very few people can have it, because good taste would have to be practiced and developed. Good taste requires a specific means of access, the structural and personal resources needed to educate oneself about the markers of aesthetic quality, and the opportunity to try a little bit of everything in order to create an evaluative schema. This is, plainly, not fair. Also, it’s inaccurate. Especially this late in the game of culture, and of cultural studies. But let me back track a bit: what the fuck is taste? And, in development of Wilson’s project, is there an end to it?
Taste is a means of experiencing the world. The word is sensory in nature, but even in it’s etymological origin story the word confers critical evaluation: based on the Old French taster, the Middle English verb tasten means to touch, taste, or test. To develop a sense of taste is to test the quality of whatever it is you are tasting. Wilson is quick to point out that we all have our own subjective “taste biographies” and throughout Let’s Talk About Love, he gives the reader a clue into his own; as a 14 year old living in a mostly white industrial town he hated disco, and later learned to rock his adult body to the glittering beats in Montreal. Our abilities to test for preference are shaped by our social environments, sure. That personal taste is subjective is not exactly a novel idea. We like what we like for myriad reasons, but mostly, I would hope, because what we like is an avenue for pleasure.
However, because what we like is shaped by our experiences, it’s easy to mistake a basic familiarity with a person’s ‘taste biography’ for knowing about the kind of experiences they may have had, and then that for the person they themselves may be. Taste, then, provides a handy metric for measuring other people’s compatibility with ourselves, and each other. But it also works the other way around too. I, for one, have learned to like things, first in the posture of enjoyment, then sometimes the real thing, to negotiate access to a group or person. Don’t tell me you’ve never once been overgenerous in your estimation of some cultural artifact if it meant getting laid, or getting the job. Sometimes, the degree to which you like the person makes you like the thing they like, even if it doesn’t rate well according to your taste rubric; sometimes love or infatuation can obliterate that rubric all together. Taste is an identity marker, and we use it to gauge and manipulate ourselves and others.
But Let’s Talk About Love is not a ‘taste biography’, an index of identity culled from the matrix of pop culture; Wilson’s project is much more subtle, and for my money, much more interesting. Two important things to note: 1.Wilson is a professional music critic. 2. While taste may be social, criticism, taste’s highfalutin’ cousin, is historical.
To the extent that critics can engage in the validation of taste, they are bound in their abilities to shape the future by the time in which they work. Some songs, some albums, are released and go unappreciated until the right critic, attuned to the temperament of culture, can revive them, or restore them, to relevance. Wilson gives the example of disco and metal, as genres, and their rebirth as legitimate markers of cultured taste after their hey day had come and gone. With the passage of enough time, the cannon can be reevaluated, so “The Monkees are now as critically respectable as Jimi Hendrix.”
After giving a brief overview of rockism’s critically anti-pop orientation, and citing a few examples of reflexive, reclaimatory turns in the history of western music, Wilson ends up with some ponderous questions about the effect of this ‘second thought’ criticism: “If critics were wrong about disco in the 1970s, why not about Brittany Spears now?”
Let’s Talk About Love is an exercise in a new form of music criticism, one that evaluates the place of an album in the larger cultural sphere but also situates those songs within the critics’ own taste biography. Wilson includes one chapter that reads as a straight up review, a longer piece that functions to critically engage the tone and texture of an important, though critically unsatisfying album. His review is standard, well written, relatively nuanced, and evocative of the sound a listener might expect. But the rest of Wilson’s work with this project evinces that this is not enough. This late in the game, you can hear a sample of any album on iTunes, you can read read your friends yea/nay response to any song on Face Book, or you can read a blog post to get the jist. Wilson recognizes the democratization of criticism, and rather than rail against the tide, he posits a potential path for the future: one where the professional critic may look beyond the canonization of their own taste biography. This book is a celebration of taste’s peculiarities, of the democratic forest of love and pleasure: “Democracy, that dangerous, paradoxical and mostly unattempted ideal, sees that the self is insufficient, dependent for definition on otherness, and chooses not only to accept that but celebrate it, to stake everything on it. Through democracy, which demands we meet strangers as equals, we perhaps become less strangers to ourselves.” Wilson, in the end, is afforded an opportunity to connect to something outside of his taste, and so also outside of himself. This work of new criticism tells us about more than just an album, more than just a song… It invites us to acknowledge that our tastes, personally and culturally, go beyond the qualities you can test for. They run deep enough to tell us a little more about ourselves, and about the other side too.