"One thing that makes taste taste is a constant process of visceral impact with analysis, which is why when you skip out on the analysis part, the why and the how of an individual object of study, you've kind of negated the interesting part of having taste in the first place."
And, related, here's an observation from Frank Kogan:
...social practices totally defeat the attempt to say that something is either in a mind or it is in matter, since social practices seem to "be" in neither or both. This to me is a very good reason to discard the whole question of mind and matter. An analogy in criticism to "mind" and "matter" (it's not an exact analogy, since it isn't even addressing the question whether pains etc. are states of a body or states of a mind) would be, on the "mind" end, someone saying that "taste" is entirely in the mind of the observer and that therefore one can't argue about it; and on the "matter" end it would be saying that what's good about music can be specified entirely by what's in the music, or what the music does in the world, and that once we point out what's in the music or what it's doing everyone has to assent to this. But these are just maneuvers to bring the conversation to an end, to say, "You can't argue with me here." And overall, they don't work, since value judgments resist being reduced to either "mere taste" or "facts."
Here's a passage in which Carl is getting into what might have caused a visceral dislike reaction (an "allergic" reaction) to Celine:
I'm intuiting that there's no sleight of hand or subtle reinterpretation I can use to fit her music into my store of cultural capital: it can only make me dorkier if I listen to it, so I push it away hard and fast. Conversely, her fans, from another class or standpoint, find something in the music that seems to increase their own cultural capital, the value of her voice or her romanticism or her westernness, so they latch on.
Besides being a bright caution light against calling musicians naff, tacky, or ketaine, this thought is discouraging for our experiment: ...the research suggests I am not going to appreciate her in the same terms her fans do. ...Indeed you could fairly say that my experiment is an attempt to expand my cultural capital among music critics, to gain symbolic status by being the most omnivorous of all.
He goes on to test whether or not "we" (rock critics) are really so different from "them" (Celine fans) and finds, predictably, that there's not some huge economic or educational chasm separating all of us.
But what this passage really illuminates is the general framework in which Carl wants taste to work. It's a thing of surveys, anecdotes, research -- it's a lot of "matter." But "matter" doesn't open up conversation about a piece of music; the reasons given to listen to Celine Dion at all might be "she's popular, these are the kinds of people with whom she's popular, they're socially different from rock critics but not economically or educationally that far off," or "she's a unique minority status that the rest of the world doesn't recognize," or "we should really try to listen to EVERYTHING" (which would be an absurd proposition anyway).
But it doesn't really tell us anything about how taste works. Cultural capital is a buzzword used to stand in for some social "system" that doesn't connect back to life as it's lived -- it doesn't strike me as anything close to the complex goings-on in our heads 'n' bodies when we listen to music. There is no useful music conversation to be had if we aren't specific, don't map out our thought processes on a case by case basis; what we have instead is a conversation about "social practices" in broad strokes that glosses over the very stuff of the practices (i.e., what it is that people are going on about in the first place) and negates the value of talking about it. (Namely, by deluding ourselves into thinking we've finally "learned something.")
But the bigger personal issue I have with the book is that it gestures toward a "poptimist" position that no one holds, identifies an "omnivorous" position that no one SHOULD hold (not because omnivorousness is bad, but because it's not a position), and offers in "compensation" for these self-constructed lacking modes of analysis a half-baked vision of what's already good about good pop criticism in the first place. Thing is, pop criticism isn't good when it sets certain criteria, a loose set of rules, from which we might start to finally understand an artist's work. This is an enterprise doomed to boredom at least and condescension at worst. In fact, it's exactly what I was doing in 2005, which I talk about in my irony column: I kept all of my pernicious social assumptions (specifically about Skye Sweetnam and her audience) intact and, in the "greater good" of being OK with liking something made by "these people," "saved" her from herself (and her audience) so that I could have a good larf without being "ironic."
Note all the scare quotes.
But I've already written about this, so:
[Referring to the 2005 piece] This is bullshit. Skye is being ironic in “Billy S”; it’s a self-professed rebellion-song parody, and also very funny on its own terms, though not as funny as her best and maybe most ironic song, “Hypocrite.” But to know all of that, I would need to understand who Skye Sweetnam is and what her music is doing, and clearly, I didn’t yet. My point at the time, I think, was that I shouldn’t be presuming that my enjoyment of the music was ironic. More accurately, though, I was saying that I shouldn’t have been enjoying it and was doing so in spite of myself or against reason.
What was really happening in my mind basically amounts to a variation on a point I made in a previous column: I was instinctively making a social distinction (between myself and Skye, and between myself and the types of people who might listen to Skye or have feature-length sitcoms geared toward them), conflating it with my natural, intuitive enjoyment, and then building upon this amalgam. I was trying to construct a “reasoned” argument for “unironic appreciation” without examining my thought processes first. Why should a song’s vapidity preclude or obstruct my enjoyment of it? What about “Billy S” indicated a “marketing strategy”? What relationship did my enjoyment have to the ideas I believed Skye was conveying in “Billy S,” and what did cynicism—or irony—have to do with it?
I'm wrong in one respect: I didn't need to know who Skye Sweetnam was or what her music was doing to find "Billy S" funny. I found it funny to begin with. But what I didn't do was embrace it openly without these little hurdles of resistance, mostly coming from bankrupt and presumptuous hypotheses about "what sort of people" were making or digging this stuff, blocking me up. Which is to say, the problem was me.
Key point here, though, is better expressed at the end of the article:
But for me, the deepest laughs and the deepest listening—that which offers the richest personal experiences and sparks the most exciting conversations—came when I finally tried to meet Skye and Ashlee and Aly and AJ on their own terms, when I realized that they were still a step ahead of me. I was so “clever” I missed how funny they were, so “deep” already I didn’t bother to dig.
And this is what ultimately might be most harmful with Carl's approach in this book. The reason to listen to these artists had nothing to do with omnivorousness or some form of "popism" that had me gleefully/anarchically uprooting an orthodoxy of taste (if you want to see me "uprooting taste" like I deserved a cookie for it, read the article I tore to shreds in the column; I set out with a "project" and I wound up sounding, as I said re: my older old self in that essay, "smiley smug"!). The reason to listen to these artists is that they offered me something -- their music moved me, in ways I couldn't yet articulate.
But I get no sense of Carl being moved by Celine, before or after his thought experiment. I get no sense of Carl really caring about Celine as an artist who makes music (though he cares about her as an object of study -- although artists I have no sense of as even human routinely move me more than most Celine Dion -- I think I'd rather write a book on Jojo than a Celine Dion album!), and meanwhile she -- and (personal agita alert) not a more deserving & maligned artist w/in rockcrit circles like Ashlee Simpson -- gets the book treatment, because, to quote myself again, what Carl is looking for, and what is in the interests of this series, is "controlled, distanced enjoyment—justifiable appreciation—to match [his] control and distance from the artists and from the people for whom the music is intended." Even if he ends up "saving" "them" after all.
I'm not saying that control and distance necessarily results in bad social analysis, but it's likely to result in bad music criticism, because it's letting critics off the hook for deeply examining their own makeshift assumptions and justifications by shaking their hands for listening at all, for doing what they should have been doing in the first place. It's like that old Chris Rock routine about trying to take credit for some shit you're supposed to do: "I take care of my kids!" "You're supposed to take care of your kids!" "I grappled with Celine Dion on fairer terms than outright dismissal!"