You Like Potato – Matters of taste from Woody Allen to Céline Dion

by Steve

In Woody Allen’s Manhattan the protagonist Issac Davis talks into a tape recorder, listing what he believes makes life worth living. It is a key scene and a clever device. The list gives us an insight into Davis’ personality, his motivations, his desires:

“Why is life worth living? It’s a very good question. There are certain things I guess that make it worthwhile. Like what…okay…For me, I would say… what, Groucho Marx, to name one thing…and Willie Mays…and the second movement of the Jupiter Symphony…and Louis Armstrong, recording of Potato Head Blues…Swedish movies, naturally… Sentimental Education by Flaubert…Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra…those incredible Apples and Pears by Cezanne…the crabs at Sam Wo’s…Tracy’s face…”

Obviously “Tracy’s face” is the sort-of punchline. The character’s moment of realisation. But is also notable that he doesn’t mention his son. And his cultural choices are just as interesting. We get a mix of the highbrow and lowbrow, he covers music, comedy, sport, food. He goes a little obscure in places, choosing the less popular Flaubert for instance, but is deliberately populist in others, with Marx and Sinatra. We get a window into the mind of Issac Davis. We know exactly who is, or who he wants to be.

Which brings me to Let’s Talk About Love by Carl Wilson, from the 33 1/3 series of books where various writers respond to a particular album. Let’s Talk About Love is an unusual book in the series, as rather than tackle a classic or cult album, Carl Wilson decided to spend time on an artist he really didn’t like, Céline Dion, and focus on the home of her mega-hit My Heart Will Go On.

Wilson explores the popularity of Dion – who exactly are these people who like her? And why? My favourite anecdote involved the popularity of Céline Dion amongst gangsters in Jamaica. Essentially, if you’re in a strange part of town and hear her music, get out of there while you still can. He covers the eccentricities of the Quebec music scene she sprang from, and explores how across the world she is an aspirational symbol of Western Hope and Plenty, yet is also decidedly UnAmerican – a potent mix.

He also explores why he (and probably us, the readers) don’t like Céline Dion, and why we might be the arseholes for taking such a view, or at least for looking down our noses at the people who do listen to her. He takes to task the journalist who referred to Dion’s fans as “grannies, tux-wearers, overweight children, mobile-phone salesmen and shopping-centre devotees.” Criticism is one thing. Character assassination of that sort is quite another. The quotation perhaps says more about the critic and their (our?) prejudices than it says about Céline Dion and her fans.

What we don’t like, and how we go about saying that, says as much about us as what we do like. While the book doesn’t advocate the If You’ve Got Nothing Nice To Say, Say Nothing At All school of criticism, it does question the laziness and snobbery inherent in a lot of cultural and popular criticism. Isn’t there something to be said for properly engaging with things we don’t like, to find out why?

And then the matter of taste – a complex and thorny issue. He touches on ideas around cultural capital, that what we like reflects where we sit in society and where we aspire to sit in society. This is made more complicated now as many of us will pride ourselves on having a broad range of tastes from the lowest lowbrow to the highest highbrow. It is no longer a case of highbrow for the upper classes and lowbrow for the working classes. While there are still guilty (generally ‘lowbrow’) pleasures, there aren’t many, as eventually most ‘uncool’ cultural artefacts get rehabilitated, become acceptable. Céline Dion is so interesting as she is still unrehabilitated culturally, is not yet an acceptable name to drop in the right circles.

Dion is perhaps still ‘uncool’ as her work is so sentimental, melodramatic, yet Wilson suggests that these features “might be a repressed truth of human feeling, inhabited by the modern imperatives of reason and ambiguity.” Maybe those of us who are wary of the sentimental or melodramatic are the emotionally stunted ones?

The book certainly gave me a lot to think about.

It is quite difficult to acknowledge the various motivations we have for choosing what we like and what we consume, let alone decipher them. Is it ever really just as straightforward as liking a song, or a TV show, or a fast food joint? Our cultural tastes may shape us and our personalities – I know that particular bands I liked as a teenager (The Smiths, Manic Street Preachers, the usual bookish indie types) led me to books and films and politics, and gave me a worldview that hasn’t changed that much in the years that followed. The culture around me, and the culture I’ve hunted out, have to at least some extent made me the person I am today.

But our personalities also shape our cultural tastes too, obviously – we’re more susceptible to things that reflect us as individuals. Where we sit in society plays it part – social habits, expectations and norms will lead us in a certain direction. If the water cooler moment in our place of work covers the latest reality show, we’ll probably end up watching it. If we’re brought up in a family that loves, and can afford, the opera, the chance of us becoming an opera buff ourselves increases. What I choose to consume culturally is guided by my environment – if a friend recommends a new TV show I’ll probably watch it, but I might avoid whatever TV show that is dominating discussion in the office as I’m a bit contrary like that – so I’m also guided by my personality.

And how about our aspirations, ambitions. This might be as simple as listening to Radio 4 and reading the broadsheets because we see that as part of climbing the social and class ladder. People who say “Oh, I don’t watch television…” are always saying a whole lot more than just they don’t own a TV. Our tastes might to help project an image (maybe to the world, but even just to ourselves) of who we would like to be. I’ve certainly listened to bands because I liked the idea of them more than the actual sound of them. We might enjoy trashy gossip mags alongside serious literary fiction in order to seem well-rounded, catholic in taste, a devourer and decoder of all forms of culture. We might consume lots of things just because we enjoy lots of different forms of culture, but there is probably something more going on.

Maybe there is fun to be had in coming up with our own lists of things that make life worth living (I’m thinking cultural artefacts rather than family, friends, the kinds of things we’d all say – although I imagine they would be just as illuminating in another way), and trying to figure out why we like them  – not only why they make life worth living, but perhaps more interestingly, why we say they make life worth living – what are we actually trying to communicate to the world with our list?

I guess it takes a near-unhealthy level of self-awareness to do this successfully. It could pull apart what we understand about the world, or at least sour our favourite tastes. But it seems like an interesting exercise. Do the things that we say bring us joy do so in a pure and unadulterated way? Or is there something more complex going on in what we choose, and even in what we leave out? Is such a list just there to articulate what we love, or is the list a means of communicating to the world who we are, or who we want to be?

Maybe I should try such a list myself. If I dare.

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