Flavorwire Interview: Carl Wilson on James Franco, Poptimism, and His New Edition of ‘Let’s Talk About Love’

In 2007, Carl Wilson released what would go on to become the most infamous entry in Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series of album-focused books. While his peers were writing about players in the popular music canon and critical darling rock bands, Canadian scribe Wilson looked to one of pop’s most bemoaned divas, Céline Dion, as a gateway into a conversation about cultural taste itself. It was an engrossing read, even for those who had hoped the “My Heart Will Go On” singer might face a similar fate as Jack from Titanic.

Now, seven years later, Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste has received a recent reissue. It comes complete with an expanded section that features a series of essays from other critics, ruminating on the state of taste through many lenses, including race, as well as the critical school of thought the book initially rallied among music writers and academics. We spoke with Wilson, now Slate‘s resident music critic, about the new edition of his book, Céline fans’ lack of response to the book, poptimism as the dominant style of music criticism (and why that needs to shift), and working with James Franco.

Flavorwire: [The new essays] mix staple figures in cultural writing and academics (Ann Powers, Daphne Brooks, even High Fidelity author Nick Hornby) with creatives known more for their non-writing endeavors (James Franco, Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic, Arcade Fire associate Owen Pallett). What did the non-critics bring to the table?

Carl Wilson: I hope what the book establishes is that these are considerations that don’t only operate when you’re doing criticism, but they affect all of us as listeners, and to some degree, makers of culture. That last little bit is kind of the most difficult one because you do need to sort of see outside of your prescribed boxes in order to make new things. At the same time there’s that question of how much open-mindedness is healthy and how much is it risky — and how much you need to be sort of stubbornly fixed on your vision. I thought that it would be really crucial to have voices that have dealt with those issues firsthand in the mix.

Let’s talk about James Franco’s contribution, “Acting In and Out of Context.” How did this come about?

James has become part of the story of the book in some ways. A year and a half after the original edition came out, when we were at the end of the usual promotion cycle, James had this moment on the red carpet at the Oscars, where an MTV reporter was button-holing him about what his guilty pleasures were — kind of hoping he was going to say what MTV shows he watched. And he used my book as a way out of that question. He said that he’d just read it, and amazingly gave the title, full subtitle, my name, a brief summary of what the book was, just rapid-fired it off, and said, “This book is about questioning what your tastes are, it made me think about guilty pleasures and that maybe I need to acquire some.”

James had read it in a seminar he was doing at Columbia, and so I met him shortly after that, when I actually visited that class. We talked about the effect that the book had on his ways of looking at his own evaluative categories. Shortly after that, he went and joined the cast of General Hospital. In his essay in the reissue, he talks about how the book was an influence on his decision to do that, a time to put himself in a place that you wouldn’t expect him to be found. So it played a minor part in all of this kind of artistic experimentation that he’s done.

We’ve been in touch on and off since then, so when we were putting together the list of people to write here, we wanted to see if specifically, he would address the way the General Hospital experience either did or didn’t substantiate some of the things he was curious about when he was thinking about the book’s thesis. James is the most creatively productive person in the world. I don’t know when he sleeps. I asked him to do it and he sent me the essay like three days later. He was definitely the first person to file their copy. I think when this stuff comes up, he just sits down and just does it.