Where Do I Start With Céline Dion?

Slate's Culture Blog
Nov. 8 2013 9:06 AM

Where Do I Start With Céline Dion?

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Celine Dion in Germany last year

Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

To the two primary camps of opinion re: Céline Dion, whose first English-language album in six years came out this week, the title of this article will seem absurd for one of two reasons: To some people, it will read like “Where should I start with The Beatles?”—Dion is one of the most titanic entertainment phenomena of the past several decades (220 million records worldwide, as big in Baghdad and Beijing as she is in Boise) and, this crowd would say, deservedly so. To others, Dion’s large-scale easy-listening is the lowest form of pop, and this question sounds more like, “Where do I start with being waterboarded and electric-shocked by black-ops torture specialists?”

Both premises are flawed: The first because, while her tours and long-term Las Vegas engagements continue to top the international box office, Dion hasn’t had a real hit in the U.S. since the 1990s, when she ruled the pop ballad. Anyone younger than 25 may have only the vaguest impression of her. The second because the dislike is probably based on her biggest, schmaltziest hits—such as movie themes “Beauty and the Beast” and “My Heart Will Go On”—and her outsized, gawky, Oprah-friendly diva persona (enjoyable as that can be). But there is more than that to Dion’s music. They haven’t given it a real chance.

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Yes, sentimentality is the common denominator to her work, so she is unlikely to win over anyone who has staked an identity on cool superiority to the desire for comfort or human attachment. (Lars Von Trier and April Ludgate, you are free to go.) But her five-octave, 600-horsepower larynx is a once-in-a-generation voice that’s made fans out of everyone from Phil Spector and Prince to Timbaland, as well as Loved Me Back to Life producers, songwriters, and duet partners such as Sia, Tricky Stewart, Ne-Yo, and Stevie Wonder.

In the more old-fashioned pop tradition that Dion came from and updated, this kind of race-horse voice—think of Barbara Streisand or Diana Ross—is meant to be taken through its paces, to jump every kind of obstacle, not to stick too closely to an individualistic style. So with each album she brings on a variety of producers to handle the ballads but also the dance-floor numbers, semi-rockers, and riskier exercises in gospel, disco, folkie acoustics, or (believe it or not) light reggae.

What’s more, while Dion long seemed to have a tin ear for lyrics in English, which was her second language and sounded like it, her tastes quickly became more discerning in French as she came of age, and there are surprisingly sophisticated gems among her francophone releases.

To serve both the young and the skeptical, then, here’s a dozen of her 140 singles, including the best of the hits and some under-recognized also-rans, in chronological order. And none of them are “My Heart Will Go On.”

Love Can Move Mountains” (Céline Dion, 1992)
Of the alpine-themed gospel-ish options, some might select Dion’s cover of Ike & Tina’s “River Deep, Mountain High.” But this “early” cut (off her second, self-titled English-language album, though it was her eleventh studio album overall) shows off those pipes in an uncharacteristically loose setting. And the video features a youthful Dion mugging as only she can, beginning with a startling bodice rip at the top.

“Ziggy (Un garçon pas comme les autres)” (Dion chante Plamondon, 1991)
In child-star terms, “Ziggy” was to Dion’s French-language career what “We Can’t Stop” is to Miley Cyrus now—the declaration of maturity, complete with risqué video, although in Dion’s case it didn’t display her in states of undress but rather various buff athletic boys. (Dion came out in defense of Cyrus this week, by the way, saying in her own unique way, “Hannah Montana got tired to be Hannah Montana” and that Miley’d only wanted to show the world her “real skin.”) The subject of “Ziggy”? A girl’s unrequited love for a gay boy—an especially daring choice at the height of the AIDS crisis. Don’t worry, though, it ends happily, as they all go out to the gay bar and dance. Witness the birth of Dion’s career as a camp icon.

Because You Loved Me” (Falling Into You, 1996)
The biggest hit from perhaps Dion’s strongest album, Falling Into You, “Because You Loved Me” was another movie theme song (in the Robert Redford-Michelle Pfeiffer weeper Up Close and Personal), written by Diane Warren and produced by David Foster (her most reliable schmaltz-rendering team) and features all the melodrama for which she’s most condemned. But it just works for me. It’s the ultimate instance of Dion’s tendency to martyr herself in song, in this case itemizing every part—her hands, her eyes, her reach, and even her voice—and subsuming it in her lover, and in the music. Not very feminist, agreed, but romantically, somehow moving in its generosity, and insinuating in its pulse, which carries a hint of Nashville. I’d like to hear it with fiddles and mandolins.

It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” (Falling Into You, 1996)
To my ears Dion’s greatest single, “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” makes a case that her problem is not that she’s so over-the-top but that she’s frequently not over-the-top enough. It was written by Jim Steinman, the schlockmeister behind the best of Meatloaf and Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” with inspiration reportedly from Wuthering Heights. There’s basically nothing this song doesn’t have: booming tympanis, orchestral punctuation, tinkling keys, gusts of wind, crashing cymbals, baby baby’s, electric-guitar slashes, lightning, thunder, ghost motorcyclists, synthetic choirs, “nights of endless pleasure,” “moments of gold,” and, unexpectedly in the end, forgiveness. Yet somehow you feel the story is true, like you’ve been there yourself. Or if you haven’t, my sympathies.

All By Myself” (Falling Into You, 1996)
It was a minor stroke of genius to have Dion cover one of the original power ballads in pop history, Eric Carmen’s 1975 “All By Myself”—her equivalent of doing a “roots” album. But it’s also tugged by a subliminal confession of the isolation that afflicted her at the height of her fame, already a decade-and-a-half into celebrity life—a condition that motherhood later seemed to cure. Plus, I mean, that high note. Phew.

The Reason” (Let’s Talk About Love, 1997)
Co-written by Carole King and produced by Beatles collaborator George Martin, Let’s Talk About Love’s “The Reason” has a standard-issue Dion chorus that may account for its poor chart performance, but every other component sticks: the subdued verses, the unusually convincing guitar solo, the bluesy breakdown, and above all the surprisingly sultry bridge or sub-chorus (that Martin specialty): “In the middle of the night/ I’m going down” (ahem) “ ’cause I adore you!” and then a general Céline Dion statement of purpose: “I. Want. To. Floor. You.” Mission accomplished, or just about. (If this doesn’t do it for you, try out LTAL’s eerie Bee Gees collaboration, “Immortality” instead.)

Treat Her Like a Lady” (Let’s Talk About Love, 1997)
All right, it’s a stretch to call it among Dion’s best, but it’s one of my favorite facts about her that she had the unmitigated gall to cover this Jamaican-dancehall womanist anthem by reggae star (and now the island’s first out lesbian singer) Diana King. King lends cred by appearing on it, and why not? Dion is as popular in Jamaica as she is anywhere. The results are endearingly awkward, but not as bad as people said at the time (the New York Observer said she had “never humiliated herself as comprehensively”)—and it heralded Dion’s dawning interest in less-subservient themes as she came into her own as an adult.

I Drove All Night” (One Heart, 2003)
A mixed bag, but notable as a kind of coda to Dion’s 1990s reign, released after her early-2000s hiatus and a series of mawkish odes to motherhood and before the start of her ongoing Las Vegas stints. Previously sung by Cyndi Lauper and then by Roy Orbison, “I Drove All Night” was a tie-in to Dion’s endorsement contract with Chrysler, as well as her attempt to catch up to the electronica-enhanced mega-success of rival diva Cher, whose “Believe” had dominated the turn of the century. The whole is too stiff but I always enjoy running the chorus in my head, that seductive scenario of driving through the darkness toward a lover.

Et je t’aime encore” (On ne change pas, 2004)
Written by frequent collaborator Jean-Jacques Goldman, who enjoys Bruce Springsteen-like status in France (and, just to pile on the unlikely associations, is the half-brother of an assassinated communist-intellectual bank robber), “Et je t’aime encore” (“And I still love you”) is a folky ballad full of homespun details, a postcard to a lost love at an unknown address, though it builds to a more typically Dionesque climax.

Et s'il n'en restait qu'une (je serais celle-là)” (D’Elles, 2007)
Sparked by the climactic line of a well-known Republican poem of Victor Hugo’s (“If only one man remains [against tyranny], I will be that one”), this is the lead single from Dion’s D’Elles, a heady undertaking in which all the lyrics came from prominent literary women in Quebec and France, where this song went to no. 1. It finds her in relatively low-key chanteuse mode.

Taking Chances” (Taking Chances, 2007)
The title track from Dion’s last effort at an English-language radio comeback made little impact in the U.S., though it did well in Canada and Europe. Applying the lessons of her recent francophone efforts, Dion brought a new subtlety, reinvigorated style and a bit of grit to this tune by Kara DioGuardi (veteran hitmaker and recent American Idol judge) and ex-Eurythmic Dave Stewart (the song quotes the “Here Comes the Rain Again” line, “Talk to me like lovers do”). It deserved better.

Loved Me Back to Life” (Loved Me Back to Life, 2013)
If at first you don’t succeed, try again six years later. Hearing the advance (and title) single from Dion’s latest in September actually made me do a double-take. On this not-so-covertly meta, revival-themed anthem, she (and co-writers/producers Sham & Motes and Sia, who’s worked with David Guetta, Flo Rida and Rihanna) managed to find a genuinely comfortable middle ground between contemporary dance music and Dion’s familiar style, somehow summoning up a bouncier, 2013 version of “Where Does My Heart Beat Now?,” her 1990 first U.S. hit.

Will the people embrace it? Hard to say, but this effort at self-reinvention is less tense and more joyful than any she’s tried in English this millennium.

Carl Wilson’s book about Céline Dion, social class and aesthetics will be reissued in a new, expanded edition as Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste in March, 2014. 

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