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When the wrong song loves you right

Celine Dion, good taste and doing things wrong in the right way

Frank Kogan

The new Celine Dion single, “Taking Chances,” is an eerie experience for me, not because of the song itself but because I know the original recording by Platinum Weird really well, and Celine’s version is weirdly similar and weirdly different. Platinum Weird singer Kara DioGuardi is a warmer, floppier singer than Celine; the lyrics are an invitation to some guy to throw caution to the wind, but it’s as desperate as it is inviting, and Kara makes you feel its heat. As Erika Villani says, Kara’s telling us she’s down and therefore willing to go over the cliff rather than stay where she is. “Kara sounds like she’s trying to stand back up on the strength of her voice alone.” The odd thing is that at the start of the song Celine does an almost exact copy of Kara’s phrasing, but she still feels like Celine. So it’s as if an alien is inhabiting the song.

Celine’s chilly precision highlights the beauty of the melody in a way that Kara doesn’t. But in Celine’s version, going off the edge of the cliff is what you expect, since you know her voice can soar. So it’s a different experience, more like watching Celine fly than feeling Kara jump.

Celine’s an emblem to a lot of people of something they hate, but I couldn’t tell you what she’s an emblem of, and I kind of doubt that most of the haters can, either.

Last May, rock critic Carl Wilson interviewed me online in preparation for his book on Celine’s Let’s Talk About Love (in his words, I was “one of the two or three ‘respectable’ critics in the rock-crit world who have good things to say about Celine”). One of his questions was, “Do you believe that there are such things as genuinely good and bad taste?” (I thought to myself, “How come no one ever asks about taste when I like an indie band like, say, The White Stripes?”)

I responded by saying I’d rephrase the question: “Can anything be better than anything else? Answer: Yes. Question: Is there a permanent neutral matrix we can all agree on by which we determine what’s good and what’s bad? No, but we don’t need one.” (Um, why did I use the word “matrix”? Well, it’s better than “algorithm.”) What I meant was something along these lines: I believe there is such a thing as a good baseball bat, but whether a bat is good depends on who’s using the bat in which setting for what purpose, and as for bats, also for songs (and anything else).

But you notice I sidestepped the term “good taste.” That’s because it’s contaminated: It once seemed to be the property of the people whose taste and ideas a lot of other people were rebelling against. So in rock criticism, for instance, I’ve never seen “tasteful” used as anything but an insult. Usually it means “constrained, conventional, and boring.” I remember once writing—alluding to the Charlie the Tuna commercials—that, while Talking Heads were the tuna with good taste, Teena Marie was the tuna who tasted good. I didn’t mean that as a compliment to Talking Heads. But a broader point is that once a certain taste gets accepted, becomes generally regarded as “good taste,” then it becomes the province of goody-goodies. It becomes the wrong bat in the wrong hands, as it were; a bat that batters.

Why it does so could be a topic for another 10 columns. But I brought up Celine and The White Stripes for a reason. There’s nothing particularly intriguing about my own liking for Celine’s music. It’s music. She’s a singer. When the song is good and the beat is good and she sings it intelligently, she’s good. It’s that simple. Sometimes she lacks sense as a singer, but in general I have no inherent problems with her style, and the sentimentality of her lyrics is mitigated by her piercing voice. Even when the intention is maudlin, the result isn’t. “I Don’t Know” is a blistering ballad. Many of her dance tracks are spectacular—I recommend “When The Wrong One Loves You Right” and “Reveal.” Her sensibility is hardly mine. For instance, several years ago she put out an LP where the concept was that her songs were matched to photos of mothers and babies. In this instance she lacked (my) good taste, in that she didn’t seem to know that such things are clichés. But the result wasn’t horrible or sappy sounding, just rather blah. The basic problem wasn’t so much that baby pics are sentimental clichés but that “babies” doesn’t connote disco stormers or raving rockers, at least not to Celine. So mother-and-child pics weren’t inspiring her to burn the mother down or even to let loose with a searing ballad.

Now my reasons for bringing up The White Stripes: First is that in college in the early ’70s, when I was listening to predecessor bands to The White Stripes—The Velvet Underground, The Stooges, the Dolls, The Modern Lovers—people would say things such as, “Excuse me Frank, but this is utter shit,” and would challenge whether the stuff should even be considered music. So, as far as my peers were concerned, my taste was no good then, either. And second, when I initially heard The White Stripes, I’d been slogging my way through a batch of promo CDs. First up was one by a competent metal-leaning rock three-piece, and I was thinking, “Songs seem okay, the band is playing well enough, they’re doing everything right, but this isn’t working. I wonder why?” Then I put on The White Stripes, whom I’d never heard of, and said to myself, “They’re doing it all wrong, some would call this incompetent, but it’s working, it’s riveting. I wonder why?” I still don’t have a great answer: Something about the duo’s sense of time, by which I don’t mean rhythm but an instinct for where to put a sound for emotional effect.

But “doing it wrong” is a strategy I’m long familiar with, used by many, including me. When Leslie (my ex-wife) and I were playing music together in ’86, she was becoming restless, felt it wasn’t working, that she sounded restrained, dead. Her solution was to have us move our guitar strings out of tune. And we immediately got way better. The bad tuning broke our old patterns, so we had to scramble to come up with “wrong” sounds that were right together; but more important was the simple fact that doing it wrong made us feel free to be creative, and Leslie was able to let loose. But it also helped that we did have skills, even if they weren’t always the standard ones.

Now, a quick analogy: There are times when bad movies can be better than good ones, and the reason is this: You can talk through bad movies. You can make fun of them. There was this great TV show on Comedy Central in the ’90s, Mystery Science Theater 3000. The supposed premise was that a fellow, Joel, had been kidnapped by a couple of mad scientists, sent up to a space station and forced to watch terrible movies until he cracked. So what he did was fashion himself several robots to keep him company, and two of them—Tom Servo and Crow—watched the movies with him, making wisecracks to keep themselves entertained and Joel sane. The result was joyous TV art.

Of course, you can do the same with good movies, too, or any movie, or anything—in college my friend Roni read a letter from her little sister describing how the sister and her parents went to Central Park on a Sunday so that they could sit down on a bench and criticize people who walked by. But usually the jokes at good movies don’t feel right. I always hated watching movies at college campus film societies, because students would snicker at all the emotion in old but good movies, to ward it off.

But the genuine badness of their bad movies gave the MST3K spirit permission to flourish. My analogy is that “doing it wrong” musically is similar to MST3K’s using bad movies to unleash its creativity, and that rock ’n’ roll itself was adept at doing things wrong (not in the sense of bad musical technique, necessarily—the technique was often hidden, but it was usually there—but in the sense of not coming across as proper), and this was one of its strengths from the ’50s through the ’70s. But it does take skill and inspiration to make “doing it wrong” creative, and doing it wrong itself has now become a terrible cliché. The White Stripes may be the last band to “do it wrong” creatively—hard to say, with 15 new CDs being released every hour, but the long post-punk indie trudge from about 1980 to the present seems to produce a lot of bands who mistake mediocrity for integrity and who fetishize a kind of shuffling semicompetence, a win-by-losing strategy that often ends up just losing. But the reasons for such a strategy don’t go away; so when the wrong becomes right it eventually becomes the wrong right, and you need a new wrong.

I’m not suggesting Celine Dion as a model here, because I don’t think she is wrong—I’ll take “When The Wrong One Loves You Right” over “Seven Nation Army” easy, thank you, and I think overall she’s been getting better this decade, and for her this actually means showing more restraint, using her lower register for subtlety and her high laser flares with greater emotional precision. You could say she’s developing White Stripes emotional timing without having to resort to White Stripes “doing it wrong” strategy.

Keep the conversation going at koganbot@gmail.com. Read previous Rules of the Game columns at lasvegasweekly.com.

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