I’m reading the 33 1/3 book about Céline Dion by Carl Wilson (who is not to be confused with Carl Wilson), which is less about Dion than it is a sociology of pop culture taste. It appeals to me because it dispenses with the obfuscating fictions that taste is autonomous (i.e. intrinsic to one’s inner being and the music itself), or that taste can be “right”, and looks instead at what social functions taste plays, which class boundaries it helps regulate in a society that pretends to be without them.
The book is framed by the ongoing debate over what the function of pop-music criticism should be, or whether there should be any pop criticism at all. I waver on that question. Wilson mentions the rockist/popist debate, which seems like a red herring; at their worst both approaches are condescending, only in different ways. Embedded in most pop criticism is the idea that listeners need their preferences justified or vindicated by a better-informed outsider. Generally, I get impatient with will-to-power would-be tastemakers, and my experience in the magazine business has confirmed for me without question that pop music critics don’t have any special listening expertise—their ears aren’t refined like a wine connoisseur’s palette. They aren’t doing the sonic equivalent of philology. Perhaps their class habitus affords them the instinct of authority. Usually, though, they are compromised by their own supposed qualifications, the concessions they make to be published for pay. At best, reviewers are clever writers who can startle with a turn of phrase; their work should be appreciated on a formal level, not for anything they might say about a particular record. What reviewers and their editors seem good for is establishing the horizons of relevance—picking out the dozen records worth hearing and talking about in various genres every year. I like reading what other people have to say about a record I already know pretty well; then I can pretends I am part of a conversation, internally agreeing or disagreeing, coming up with objections. I don’t read reviews of records I haven’t heard already; since it is so easy to sample music or yourself rather than rely on recommendations, I imagine I am not alone in this.