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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. 1
    Kat but logged out innit on 25 Apr 2014 #

    SO much fun to sing at karaoke (my fart will go on etc). I give it a 6, with 3 points knocked off for post-traumatic whatsit and 1 for the bloody panpipes.

  2. 2
    flahr on 25 Apr 2014 #

    The Hatsune Miku version is better: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bGJ_L4Wxu9k

  3. 3
    Alan not logged in on 25 Apr 2014 #

    NEEEEEEEAR FAAAAR WHEREEEVER YOOU A… oh hi, there you are… so… alright then?

  4. 4
    Tom on 25 Apr 2014 #

    The link in the post to the Carl Wilson book is to the new edition, which I haven’t actually read – with a bunch of expanded essays etc. But you can still get the original slimline version too (which I have read, obviously).

  5. 5
    iconoclast on 25 Apr 2014 #

    Dull ballad, really; when you reach the end, you can’t help but wonder “oh, is that it?” Inoffensive but bland. FOUR.

  6. 6
    Garry on 25 Apr 2014 #

    In 1996 Braveheart was the video often watched in college. In 1997 it was Romeo
    + Juliet (with the soundtrack seeping out of some door or other at any given time). In 1998, once the video came out,, it was Titanic.

    In such an environment I somehow didn’t watch any of these films bar an odd glimpse from a common room TV. I’m still not sure how I achieved this but have been forever thankful.

    As for Celine, oh it all comes flooding back. I can see what you mean about ambition. It’s so… subdued. Irish instrumentation isn’t known for hugeness unless it is fast and furious or co-opted by a 70s rock album. Longing, generally, yes; soundtracks, again yes (I can hear the soundtrack to Cal in my mind as I type this), but you’d think a song from something as huge as Titanic needed a more robust sound, a bigger sound. It’s all a bit muzak to be epic for me.

  7. 7
    Kat but logged out innit on 25 Apr 2014 #

    I think this was the last time I found a French and Saunders sketch funny: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wm5fW1tGszc
    (Hmm – jury’s out, now I’m rewatching)

  8. 8
    23 Daves on 25 Apr 2014 #

    #1 The panpipes are such a distraction for me. By this point, panpipes evoked the image of low budget, tourist shop CDs like “Relaxing Rainforest Moods” (I’ve no idea if a CD with such a title exists, by the way, but I’m sure it must do). To plaster them so wantonly on a big Hollywood film ballad seems silly – for me, it deflates the song of any emotion and suddenly you find yourself thinking “Shit, I’ve walked into a shop filled with over-priced ‘hand-crafted’ tat by mistake”.

    If you were being particularly ungracious you could argue that the kind of audience Dion was appealing to would probably have happily bought one of those CDs, that it was a knowing nod to listeners with a taste for plastic-exotic mood music. I don’t think that’s right, though – it just sounds like a clumsy, cheap slip in the production.

    But it’s clearly not for me. “Titanic” probably isn’t either, so I’ve never watched it. I have a sentimental streak in me and may possibly be missing something spectacular, but nobody whose opinions I usually tend to agree with has ever truly enjoyed it, so I’ve filed it away under “probable waste of time”.

  9. 9
    Rory on 25 Apr 2014 #

    What a confession in that last line, Tom!

    You should. Because where I thought you were going at the end was to observe how this puffed-up song, which even James Cameron and Celine Dion thought was too much (what a revelation!), sank the reputation of Titanic as surely as that iceberg sank its subject. Many of us who saw it on release – when it was the new movie from the director of The Terminator, T2 and Aliens, which was one hell of a track record – thought it was a good movie, not the turkey it has since been made out to be. It was an incredible spectacle, something you had to see on the big screen, and the romantic storyline and the two leads were sufficient to justify it as a movie rather than as a glorifed special effects reel. The contemporary reviews were good (here’s Roger Ebert’s). I’m convinced it would have been remembered more fondly across the board (rather than just by incurable romantics) if it hadn’t had this song at the end of it. “My Heart Will Go On” retrospectively schmaltzified the whole movie, just a little when you first heard it at the end of that first viewing, but more and more as you heard it again and again on the radio and TV, until the whole thing was tainted. Tainted love.

    So forget the song – put it out of your mind – and if you have a home TV screen big enough to do it justice, put it on and give it a chance. The movie is bigger and better than this song. (Also, if you’re ever in Northern Ireland, give Titanic Belfast a chance. Don’t let “My Heart Will Go On” put you off.)

    As you might be able to guess, I don’t like the song much. I first heard it – the once – at the end of the movie, which I saw with my wife in Vancouver while we were travelling in late 1997. We were then blissfully Celine-free for a couple of months, but when we got back to Australia this was everywhere, spending four weeks at the top of the Australian charts in February-March 1998. I was glad we’d already seen the movie, because if this had been the first we’d heard of it I doubt we would have gone.

    On its own merits, I’d give this a 3 (with a point docked for the tin whistles), but for what it’s done to the movie’s reputation, it has to be 2.

  10. 10
    Kat but logged out innit on 25 Apr 2014 #

    But the film is so bloody LONG, especially if you dropped your x-large bucket of popcorn on the floor of Uxbridge Odeon during the first 10 minutes :( :(

  11. 11
    James BC on 25 Apr 2014 #

    Are they panpipes? I thought they were a tin whistle, for the Irish theme.

    Terrible song – I would have much, much preferred a Will Smith rap explaining the characters and plot of the film, perhaps over a nice descending bassline like Flashlight by Funkadelic.

  12. 12
    Tom on 25 Apr 2014 #

    #9 Point of detail: Wiki only tells us that Celine didn’t want to record the song – the “too much” is just my cheeky suggestion.

    Incidentally, if Elton/Diana hadn’t shown it, this absolutely demonstrates that the days of the Bryan Adams monolith #1 were (for now) behind us: its two weeks at the top were separated by the next two #1s. Of course, after THAT we get a six-weeker, but no longer could a movie soundtrack lock down the top spot for months – single marketers were ahead of it.

  13. 13
    Rory on 25 Apr 2014 #

    Garry @6, you’re also missing out on Romeo + Juliet – DiCaprio’s performance in that was another reason I was cautiously optimistic going into Titanic in December 1997, despite all the reports of production woes I’d read beforehand.

    Braveheart, not so much; but it’s passable entertainment.

  14. 14
    MikeMCSG on 25 Apr 2014 #

    Titanic might have been the only film we saw at the cinema in 98, a very rare evening out on one of the bank holidays due to mortgage tyranny so this does press some nostalgia buttons.

    Interesting that she’s only got near to the summit in collaborations since.

  15. 15
    MikeMCSG on 25 Apr 2014 #

    # 9
    Interesting Rory. My recollection is that it was rumoured to be a turkey while in post-production and then rescued by the ginger-haired geek whose name escapes me and his acolytes giving it the thumb’s up.

  16. 16
    Kat but logged out innit on 25 Apr 2014 #

    I fear I may be conflating panpipes/tin whistle instrumentation due to the VAST number of actual panpipe cover versions of this song (heard, as mentioned above, in hippy shops, the changing rooms of posh gyms and/or adverts for foot spas). Apologies.

  17. 17
    Rory on 25 Apr 2014 #

    #10: Now I’m trying to imagine Titanic: The Vine Cut.

    #15: I definitely remember people fearing it would be the next Waterworld before its release, because of the production stories. Then it got good reviews and did huge box office, and everyone loved it… and then at some point the backlash set in. I suspect that the move from big screen to small screen had a lot to do with it. The storyline is okay, but it’s the spectacle that really sells the thing, and I can’t see it translating well to smaller TVs – and screens were that much smaller in the late 1990s. Bigger TVs, though, could rescue what people saw in it in 1997-98 in cinemas. Plus on home video you can pause it halfway through for a loo break; and stop it the moment the end credits roll, to avoid Celine.

    Not one for the iPad, then, but if you’ve got a big plasma or LCD television, I say go for it.

  18. 18
    weej on 25 Apr 2014 #

    Kat @7 – better parody = Adam & Joe’s “Toytanic”.

    My wife likes this song and I’m trying to get her to explain why. Maybe she can even convince me! (she won’t convince me, pretty sure on this one.) Will report back later with her reasoning.

  19. 19
    Alan not logged in on 25 Apr 2014 #

    I enjoyed the film for all its hokeyness, by concentrating on the vast amount of expensive looking stuff being trashed, like a KLF art project. This time the money being “burnt” wasn’t past earned royalties, but from the future box-office attendance of me and the hordes of DiCaprio fans watching it for the 10th time at the box office. Would not watch again, A+. Song not so much, Tom has that right at 3

  20. 20
    mapman132 on 25 Apr 2014 #

    I saw Titanic for the first and only time all the way through shortly after its release in late 1997. I remember it was one of my first experiences with now-common stadium seating in a theater and also for some reason my friends had chosen an after midnight showing, meaning it stretched well into the wee hours of the morning. These factors probably affected my state of mind at the time but I was fairly awed by the spectacle, and the fact I only saw it that once (except for occasional snippets on TV) may be why I still have fond memories of it even as it’s gradually become unfashionable in the years since.

    Slight sidebar: The movie spent a record 15 consecutive weeks atop the US box office, something nothing has even come close to since. I mention this only because it’s the closest parallel the US has with watching “Everything I Do”s epic run due to our relative lack of interest in music charts and the fact that long runs are more common atop the Hot 100 anyway. It was significant news when it finally got knocked off the top by the otherwise forgettable Lost in Space.

    As for the song, I usually don’t care for Celine Dion, and I especially tend to hate schmaltzy ballads. Which it is why it’s surprising but….I actually like this song. No, I wouldn’t say love it, but like it enough to get 6/10. I disagree with the opinions expressed upthread as I think it’s the perfect song to end this movie with as it fits the tone and setting well. Perhaps it was due to the loopiness I felt exiting the theater at 3:30 am 16 years ago, but I thought it was good (not great) then, and I remember it as good (not great) now.

  21. 21
    mapman132 on 25 Apr 2014 #

    #12 Interesting that you mention “Everything I Do” and “Candle” here, as these three hits seem to be the three truly transcendent hits of the 90’s in the sense they hit it big across the whole Western world. While songs like “Love Is All Around” or “Macarena” were huge in individual countries, only these three hit #1 pretty much everywhere.

    That being said, MHWGO also had a short two-week stay at #1 in the US. In this case, it was due once again to record company shenanigans. MHWGO got a limited single release well after its airplay peak, seemingly engineered to get it recorded as a #1 hit without eating into the Titanic soundtrack’s huge sales. In a way this makes MHWGO’s huge worldwide sales even more impressive as it was barely available for individual sale in the world’s largest market.

    MHWGO’s odd Hot 100 run came up again at the end of the year when Billboard felt it necessary to dedicate an entire article to why the year’s obvious massive hit wasn’t the number one single of the year (it was only #13). Perhaps this was the straw that finally convinced Billboard to allow unreleased singles onto the Hot 100 starting that December.

  22. 22
    23 Daves on 25 Apr 2014 #

    #16 Which is probably where I’m also coming in. That and the fact that “Think Twice” definitely had panpipes in it (didn’t it? Please reassure me on this).

    Sorry for the mix-up.

  23. 23
    wichitalineman on 25 Apr 2014 #

    Another link to the pre-rock ballad era is that it’s easy to imagine MHWGO as an instrumental, whether it’s with the lush gliding strings of Mantovani or as a florid piano instrumental from Winnie Atwell (in Story of Three Loves mode rather than Let’s Have Another Party). In other words, it has a very strong, expressive melody with a few neat chord moves; I’d guess it had Unchained Melody in its sights. It doesn’t come close, of course, but I’d always take this over the broad-shouldered ugliness of Think Twice.

  24. 24
    poohugh on 25 Apr 2014 #

    Tom Marks at school went to see it five times because you got to see Kate Winslet’s breasts, anecdotally a common phenomenon, one of the reasons the film was a record breaker. 6

  25. 25
    lonepilgrim on 25 Apr 2014 #

    I’m a bit of a sucker for the Irish melody and instrumentation and when I watched the video again recently I felt a wave of nostalgia but my heart sank when Celine started huffing and puffing over the top.

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