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Apr 14

CELINE DION – “My Heart Will Go On”

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#784, 21st February 1998

celine heart Virtually everything I said about Aqua’s success and Europop also applies to Celine Dion, except at gargantuan scale. Longing is as universal as dancing, after all, and on “My Heart Will Go On” Dion produces the most straight-line expression of yearning she can, a record whose emotional aim is unmistakeable whatever your language, national or musical heritage. It was huge everywhere, but in Europe especially its conquests would make Napoleon blush.

This targeted globalism might account for Dion’s heavier accent and phrasing – “Luff wass when I lufft you” and so on. The trace inflections on “Think Twice” have become full-blown exaggerations, emphasising how she’s not a native English speaker but far harder to specifically place. Sound like you belong nowhere, and maybe you belong everywhere. In his landmark book Let’s Talk About Love, which has become an inevitable companion to any chat about Celine, Carl Wilson raises the idea of schmaltz as a key to Dion’s appeal. Wilson identifies in schmaltzy songs a tradition of “ethnic outsiders who expressed emotions too outsized for most white American performers but in non African-American codes”.

Translated to Britain, where the “color line” operated differently, we’re back to the heaving, sobbing, light opera sentimentality of David Whitfield and Al Martino, the very dawn of the charts. But even here schmaltz is still, as Wilson posits, an immigrant emotion: ‘hot-blooded’ foreign music expressing things too large and florid for the sophisticated (or repressed) English culture to handle. Emphasis English, not British: England treats the rest of the United Kingdom as a source of on-tap emotion, wildness, mysticism, and so on. That goes double for Ireland, where “My Heart Will Go On” is drawing much of its musical schmaltz from, and England at the end of the 90s is fascinated by Ireland: its comedians, its boybands, its economy, its bonhomie, and, yes, its sentiment.

So a reading of “My Heart Will Go On” as schmaltz in an English context absolutely works. But you don’t need that explanation for its specific hugeness, here or anywhere, since it had the happy circumstance of being bolted on to the end credits of the highest-grossing film of all time. With audiences sniffling already, the simplicity and directness of “My Heart Will Go On” – not to mention it’s third-chorus wham of a crescendo – is as foolproof a purchase trigger as you could imagine. It sold 15 million worldwide – if iTunes had been around back then, ready just as you left the theatre, it might have sold twice that.

The interesting thing, though, is how so many people involved with the song thought it was a bad idea. James Cameron had to be talked into using it, and Celine Dion didn’t want to record it and laid her vocals down as a one-take demo. Did they feel it was too gross, too manipulative? It’s possible. Their hunches, in any case, were commercially completely wrong – but aesthetically a lot more defensible. “My Heart Will Go On” is not, by my lights, a good record.

But where does it go wrong? Not in hugeness – world-cracking balladry is nothing to be ashamed of. Not the performance, either – it’s a stirring tune, and Dion’s singing before the song peaks is an interesting study in how someone with a powerful voice projects hurt and weakness, with a fluttery, restrained thinness until she’s able to roar on the climax. My problem is its lack of imagination and ambition. Which seems an odd charge to level at such an epic record, but for me “My Heart Will Go On” is too universal – there’s no twists of language or sentiment here, no musical surprises, nothing to make this feel like an individual human experience to relate to. “Think Twice”, “Total Eclipse”, “The Power Of Love”, and many of the other megaballads felt like ordinary feelings exploded to epic size, their vulnerabilities intact: “My Heart Will Go On” feels like an epic hunting around for a feeling wide enough to fill it. But it’s also too specific – because obviously it is about individuals, Jack and Rose, Kate and Leo. It’s as parasitic a record as “Men In Black”: you have a ready-made story to fill the epic up. But if you haven’t seen Titanic – and I haven’t – the song is an empty vessel.

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Comments

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  1. 61
    Utter Dreck on 26 Apr 2014 #

    I think it’s a lousy song, and that Celine sings it like she knows that, but it did lead to my all-time favourite Oscar Song Nominee line-up: CD, Aaliyah, Trisha Yearwood, Michael Bolton, and Elliot Smith. All the other songs are miles better than MHWGO (yes, even the Bolton), but you can imagine how the inclusion of Smith fired up faux-outrage among music snobs (like, at the time, myself) who usually would consider themselves above something as ridiculous as the eternally out of date Best Song award. I seem to recall from Carl Wilson’s book that when the award was announced, Dion was pictured holding hands backstage with Smith and Aaliyah, an image which is almost unbearably sad to me now.

  2. 62
    Rory on 26 Apr 2014 #

    #61: I remember reading about that ceremony around the 10th anniversary of Smith’s death (and also watched it at the time, possibly the last Oscars ceremony I’ve seen). Smith said of his experiences there: “I was prepared to keep a lot of distance from Celine Dion. I thought she’d blow in with her bodyguards and be a weird superstar to everybody. But she wasn’t like that at all. She really disarmed me and won me over.”

    From An Elliott Smith Oral History:

    Margaret Mittleman: “The highlight of that event for Elliott was that Celine Dion made him feel comfortable, from backstage to onstage. It really was amazing. She made him really feel at home, like he was one of them.”

    Rob Schnapf: “Celine Dion was really awesome to him. She really was.”

    More power to you, Ms Dion. What with that and her terrific cameo in Muppets Most Wanted, I have nothing against CD herself.

  3. 63
    Kinitawowi on 27 Apr 2014 #

    I think I’ve worked out why I hate this song so much; it doesn’t deserve to explode in the way it does. There’s no build; it just plods harmlessly enough along on its own level (like a lot of Celine Dion, to be honest) until it makes that horrible, desperate grab for bigness, arbitrarily throwing itself up a cliff that it can’t handle.

    It’s also inextricably linked to its video, which has one of the most off-level sequences I’ve ever seen – after the bigness, matched to the panic of the iceberg crash (SPOILER: THE SHIP SINKS), Celine does her Bruce Forsyth impression and the song slowly winds down; but there’s still just enough time for the pleasant humming and piano to be undercut by the film’s footage of people FALLING OFF A BOAT TO THEIR DEATHS! Before we get one final shot of Leo ‘n’ Kate reuniting in their finery (I haven’t seen the film, but I gather the end sequence is basically Rose reimagining herself back on the ship).

    I fear it’s the approximate equivalent of all those post-9/11 videos with footage of the towers collapsing set to Only Time by Enya. Just as obnoxious as setting it to Yakety Sax.

    2.

    #2 watch: this song’s return to the top spot in March stuck Natalie Imbruglia with another unfortunate runner up spot, with the quite mad Big Mistake.

  4. 64
    swanstep on 27 Apr 2014 #

    @Ed, 59. My (5 year old) nephew has already seen The Lego Movie 3 times; next time is with me in a couple of days.

    @Tom, 57. Yes, this sort of ‘compress the whole film’ vid is a youtube staple now (I’ve made a few of ’em myself; The Young Girls of Rochefort anyone?), but they’re still very rare for movie studios themselves. On the one hand studios seem to have an irrational fear of ‘giving away too much for free’ if they use any of the money-shots, and on the other hand they have a more rationally grounded fear of spoiling their films (giving away plot points, what key figures look like, etc.). That Titanic had the confidence to give away the whole film ahead of time in the vid. presumably speaks to the film’s supposed weakness (we all know the ending ahead of time) being turned into a USP: it’s unspoilable so we’ll tease *everything*.

    @kinatowi, 62. Yep, the moral psychology of disaster or mega-action movies is a little disturbing when one things about it. People *want* to see cities leveled, planets blown up, etc.. MacGuffins of ancient power and evil tend to always be hidden in urban areas (sometimes, as in the Transfomers movies, put there by the good guys themselves! With friends like these….); all the better to ratchet up collateral damage when it’s hammerin’ time (or whatever it may be). And in Titanic’s case, Cameron both wants to sermonize about the reality of the sinking event and exploit the hell out of it – so, yes, people *will* be falling from great heights and bonking themselves on the propellor on the way down thank you very much. And Cameron’s giving the audience what it wants and demands in its dark muddled heart when he does so: sorrowful elevation all round.

  5. 65
    Utter Dreck on 27 Apr 2014 #

    #62: That is lovely to hear. I can’t imagine anyone can read the Wilson book and come away without a fondness for CD, she seems lovely, barking mad, and giving.

  6. 66
    Lazarus on 27 Apr 2014 #

    Oh dear …. this is just up the road from me.

    http://www.kentonline.co.uk/medway/news/celine-dion-music-16353/

    There is something priceless in the contrasting expressions of man and dog in that photo, though.

  7. 67
    Ed on 27 Apr 2014 #

    Yes! I think you’d describe the dog’s expression as long-suffering.

    Possibly a result of his owner’s enthusiasm for James Brown’s “Love Machine”.

  8. 68
    Ed on 27 Apr 2014 #

    Going back to Tonya’s point @37 about the Irish inflection here, it’s Hollywood’s go-to influence when it wants to signify “olden times Europe” without referencing Britain, which, as we all know, is evil.

    See Billy Zane’s pantomime villain in ‘Titanic’: I am pretty sure he’s meant to be English, although his accent makes it a little difficult to tell.

    At least given the Titanic’s origins some Irish influence in the music is actually appropriate here.

  9. 69
    Kinitawowi on 28 Apr 2014 #

    Pretty sure there’s a far more bland reason for the Irishness – America has always loved it. Let’s not forget how huge RiverDance was right about now.

    #64: Hey, I love a good disaster movie (and a bad disaster movie) as much as the next person. Nobody watches 2012 for the heartwarming story of John Cusack reuniting with his wife; they watch for Denzel Washington getting hit on the head with an aircraft carrier. Independence Day isn’t about Jeff Goldblum and his ex reconciling, it’s about the aliens blowing up the White House. Etcetera, etcetera. My problem with MHWGO’s video, though, is that all those moments happened either at a crescendo in the music or a point where there was no music at all. MHWGO has its crescendo (set to the iceberg crash), the final surge (set to Celine’s Brucie bit), then the song starts gently petering out and that’s when people start losing their grip on the half of a ship they’re clinging on to. Song’s over people, go home – oh but wait here’s some more people to kill. It’s simple bad video editing.

  10. 70
    swanstep on 28 Apr 2014 #

    @Kinatowi, 69. But once one has established that it’s OK to fill the frame with mass casualties, once death’s been aestheticised then it just is OK to have people falling to their death to heighten the poignancy of our focal couple’s predicament. The vid picks the breaking apart of the ship and the crashing down of the stern for the song’s climax (which seems right to me – that *is* the action climax of the film), then allows the song’s long comedown/outro to cover the less dynamic, more detachedly sublime final action sequence of the film, where the stern slides vertically down into the ocean (as well as the final fantasy sequence). I think it works.

  11. 71
    James BC on 29 Apr 2014 #

    Respect to the guy at #66 for throwing in Boom Shak a Lak. That’s a gem that I thought had been forgotten.

  12. 72
    ciaran on 29 Apr 2014 #

    My 2nd year secondary school went to see the film in early 1998 as we somehow convinced our teachers that it was educational. We did the same with ‘Michael Collins’ in late 1996 but I was out of the country and still to this day I must be the only one out of 100 or more that has still yet to watch it..

    I enjoyed the film I must say. A bit run of the mill maybe up until the iceberg but quite good from there on.It certainly wouldn’t be the worst film I ever watched so I wouldnt object all that much to it.

    MHWGO on the other hand is just a bore from start to finish. For me being tied to the film is the only reason for its massive success.It would be a top 10 like most of her other hits but wouldn’t stand up on its own merits.2

    One of the last movie soundtracks to hit the top too if I have it right. They seemed to really disappear as the 00’s went on.

  13. 73
    DanH on 18 May 2014 #

    My main memory of this song is two fold…Titanic opened up the exact same time as our town’s first “21-movie” theater, where my older brother worked. He would tell horror stories of this song reminding him of cleaning up popcorn and trash in the theater afterward. I didn’t have the same across-the-board hate for this as “I Will Always Love You” (I was the tender age of 8 when it came out, but was already music hatin’!) but I had no use for it at all even still. But, it was the first song I slow danced to a year later, so I’ll grudgingly give it that.

    I do agree, it does go from 0 to 100 pretty quickly in the final verse

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