First off, let me begin by explaining why I bought this book. Drew Daniel of Matmos published a book on Throbbing Gristle's 20 Jazz Funk Greats a couple of months back, which is how I found out about the 33 1/3 series of books. If you don't know about these books, well, they're small paperbacks, each devoted to a single album. Some are OK, some are fairly lame (seriously, the one on In Utero was about as interesting as reading an Elektra press release), and two of them are exceptionally good (at least of the ones I've read so far). Drew's book is fascinating, but Carl's book goes right to the heart of many things that have concerned me since, oh, way back when.
I was at a wedding a couple of weeks back. It was traditionally beautiful: California sunshine, an exceedingly handsome couple, delicious food (and cake!), a ceremony obviously infused with love and devotion to each other, and... Céline Dion. I didn't notice it - it's been a long time since I saw Titanic, and I often joke that the first rule of me liking music is "no women singing," so I just didn't hear the music. All I heard was something soft and background-y and pleasant. However, one of the other guests - someone I hadn't met before - decided that I had a look of the Ancient Hipster about me (probably because I was wearing sunglasses, who knows), and decided to confidentially whisper to me that "oh God, they're playing Céline Dion." I laughed at first - I mean, come on, it's schmaltzy diva music, right? - and then caught myself. My second impulse whenever I hear someone complaining about popular music is almost always "but isn't there something there that demands our respect and attention? Surely if millions of people around the world admire and enjoy this music it's worthy of close reading, critical Auseinandersetzung, or whatever you call it?"
Back in college - I studied English and German at Berkeley from 1987 to 1992 - I repeatedly found myself torn between two seemingly opposite poles of craft (artistry?): Arno Schmidt and Karl May on one hand, Harry Mathews and Stephen King on the other hand. Arno Schmidt is notorious for having written crazy-large books (his Zettel's Traum is fun to have a look at if your library has a copy) that are virtually unintelligible (he was trying to out-Joyce Joyce), and Karl May is the best selling author in the German language (and you've probably never heard of him either).
One thing that seemed clear to me early on in my so-called academic career was that reading difficult or obscure books is far more prestigious than reading popular literature. If you say you're in the middle of Gravity's Rainbow, you automatically seem far more legitimate than if you're reading, say, How to Save Your Own Life. Even in high school this bothered me quite a bit: why, remind me again, do we spend so much time fussing over books that very few people read (are capable of reading? want to read? something else?) and so little time paying attention to things that people actually read? Surely it's more interesting to understand why millions of people loved Jonathan Livingston Seagull than to swoon over Joyce's use of Volapük in Finnegans Wake? Don't we read and teach stuff like Robbe-Grillet simply to prove that we're clever and well-educated? And on a not very related tangent, if I, a reasonably well educated person, can't make a lick of sense out of Gramsci, Lacan, Foucault, Marx, and the like, what is the average worker supposed to do with this stuff? [I remember watching Brecht's Kuhle Wampe in a class at Berkeley and wondering how the hell the so-called working class was supposed to understand, much less enjoy, a movie that struck me as theoretically constructed to the extent that all joy and directness was mediated right the fuck outta there, but I digress].
Anyhow: back to Céline. Right. So, we shared that moment of "oh God, Céline fucking Dion" and then I immediately switched back to "wait, everybody loves her actually, so is this really so bad?" Then, I remembered seeing Carl's book online: the title stuck with me. A Journey to the End of Taste, indeed. After all, taste is important. Hell, just this morning I saw a classic example on my friends list: bearringsd came over for dinner earlier this week, he posted about it, and the first comment on his post was from someone who said "Hey, you have great taste in chocolate. I bought the same brand, so you're obviously a good person!" Taste is a complicated matter; what we consume does in fact say quite about who we are (or, rather, the personae we've constructed to represent ourselves). I won't go on at any length here - I stayed up too late last night reading Carl's book, and I don't have it here at the moment to refer to it - but he talks about all kinds of interesting things, such as "difficult listening" (hello Brian!), being "culturally omnivorous" as a social status marker, defining what we like by what we don't like (country, hip-hop, Christian music?)... it's awesome.
Oh, and he also delves into interesting things such as the status of Quebec culture in the Francophone world, the Kylie-equivalent "notre Céline" that you find in Montréal, the dialectic of compression (white male folk singers are supposed to sound direct, unmediated; "diva" music on the other hand is supposed to have lots of compression to sound bigger, more luxurious, more plush), Hurricane Katrina and 1960s Quebecker terrorists, and so on and so forth.
Really: you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy if you're at all interested in aesthetics, culture, taste, or music. This is the best book I've read in months.