Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste

That's the subhead of Carl Wilson's book Let's Talk About Love, about one Celine Dion hater's journey to an intellectual if not artistic reconciliation with her and her music. Ian Crouch discusses the book in The New Yorker.

At first, Wilson suspects that some of the differences between active niche listeners and middlebrow pop fans have to do with economics. He describes the work of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who, in the nineteen-sixties, surveyed thousands of people regarding their various cultural preferences. He found, broadly, that “poorer people were pragmatic about their tastes, describing them as entertaining, useful and accessible.” Wealthier people, meanwhile, “spoke in elaborate detail about how their tastes reflected their values and personalities.” But Céline’s fans aren’t necessarily poorer than other pop fans; Wilson cites a demographic study, commissioned by Céline’s label in the mid aughts, that showed a wide income distribution among her fans. The market of taste, then, may be determined not by money but by who puts greater value on another currency: so-called “cultural capital.” To illustrate this, Wilson asks us to think back to high school, when what kind of music we listened to seemed to be a matter of extreme importance. He writes:

Artistic taste is most competitive among people whose main asset is cultural capital.… In adult life, it’s only in culture-centered fields (the arts, academia) that musical or other culture-centered taste matters the way it does in high school.

Critics and other avid and exacting pop fans, Wilson suggests, may be living out an extended version of anxious adolescence, in which social capital remains of principle importance, and managing one’s taste continues to be closely related to one’s identity.

For Marie's last birthday I got her and three of her girlfriends tickets to see Celine Dion in Las Vegas. Afterwards, they all said it was one of the most amazing things they'd ever experienced. Two of them said they cried.

I was intrigued. Not enough to want to drop that much money to see the show myself, but I was happy they could enjoy the performance with other fans without any sense of cool lurking over their shoulders.

Social media and the connected nature of the world has made many things easier, including finding those who share your tastes. Whereas in times past the uneven distribution of fandom meant you might be the only kid into Celine Dion in your neighborhood, now millions of like-minded people are a mouse-click away.

At the same time, it's become harder to use one's awareness of obscure artists or phenomena as a signifier of cultural exclusivity. Cultural capital is less scarce than it's ever been.

It's easier than ever to be a geek. That's a good thing.