journey to the middle of taste

That’s the subtitle of a book I just finished, Carl Wilson‘s Let’s Talk About Love: Journey to the End of Taste, which is the 57th in a series of books that center on and spin off of a single album by 33 1/3. This one is on Celene Dion, and was passed along to me last weekend. It is a tour de force, much like the album itself, as it swirls through cultural criticism, global hegemony, individual identification, class, etc. by relying upon Bourdieu, Adorno, Sennett, Duncan Watts, and Richard Peterson. It provides the most sociologists between the covers of a non-academic book outside of Malcolm Gladwell.

United States: Most Wanted Painting (Dishwasher Sized)

In order to explore why Dion can be so successful and yet is so hated, Wilson has a nice moment recounting Komar and Melamid’s ‘Most Wanted’ and ‘Least Wanted’ series, which surveyed the aesthetic likes and dislikes in a variety of countries and painted the results. It turns out that, on balance, Americans–and everyone else–like natural landscapes and the color blue. The look of aesthetic democracy looks likes the image to the left. (The ‘Worst’ and global comparisons are available here.)

Wilson then connects to Watts’ Music Lab 14,000-person study, which asked visitors to listen and rate songs from artists whom they had never heard of. There were two groups: One that saw the titles of the songs and the artists and some saw how many times a song was downloaded, and the other group could see how many people who were in their own ‘taste culture’ (i.e., those who express similar musical preferences). As he explains it in a 2007 New York Times Magazine article:

Duncan Watts, making me question my aesthetic taste when I wonder whether or not this is the coolest picture of a sociologist since Mills on a Motorcycle

This setup let us test the possibility of prediction in two very direct ways. First, if people know what they like regardless of what they think other people like, the most successful songs should draw about the same amount of the total market share in both the independent and social-influence conditions — that is, hits shouldn’t be any bigger just because the people downloading them know what other people downloaded. And second, the very same songs — the “best” ones — should become hits in all social-influence worlds.

What we found, however, was exactly the opposite. In all the social-influence worlds, the most popular songs were much more popular (and the least popular songs were less popular) than in the independent condition. At the same time, however, the particular songs that became hits were different in different worlds, just as cumulative-advantage theory would predict. Introducing social influence into human decision making, in other words, didn’t just make the hits bigger; it also made them more unpredictable.

Watts et al. found that a song that is ranked in the top five in the ‘blind’ market has a 50 percent chance to achieve that rating in the second group.

Wow.

Ok. So markets shape our tastes. To see the scholarly output of this project go to Matthew Salganik’s website.

Short story long, I cannot wait to teach this in a Culture class, as it is not only a great introduction to a diverse span of cultural theory and research, but lively writing that I think students would really engage with, even emulate. The fact that it is Celene Dion makes it all the better.

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3 Responses to “journey to the middle of taste”


  1. 1 Birgitte January 18, 2010 at 10:39 am

    A great book. I read it last year and couldn’t stop laughing. I especially liked the parts about Elliott Smith and Jamaica. Wilson makes it really easy to grasp the academic concepts as well. Oh, and James Franco likes it too:

    • 2 wynnj26 January 18, 2010 at 2:11 pm

      I don’t know what I love more, Birgitte, the fact that James Franco is into this book or that you had a video clip on hand for this occasion!

  2. 3 Birgitte January 18, 2010 at 2:46 pm

    Haha! I’ve followed Carl Wilson’s blog since I read the book, and that’s where I originally saw the video.

    http://www.zoilus.com/documents/general/2009/001323.php

    I have to admit that I have a soft spot for Franco, as Freaks & Geeks is my favorite tv-show, like, ever!


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