Apr 14

CELINE DION – “My Heart Will Go On”

Popular74 comments • 5,384 views

#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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  1. 26
    Andrew Farrell on 25 Apr 2014 #

    I’d have to agree that Romeo & Juliet is better than you might imagine if you’re put off by the fans – John Leguizamo’s best role, and Pete Postlethwaite as the priest, are worth the price of admission alone.

    (I saw it for the first time last year in a double bill with 10 Things I Hate About You – there was a very funny noise in the cinema at the first appearances of Mr DiCaprio and Mr Ledger, and a very very funny noise at the first appearance of Master Gordon-Levitt)

    Obviously a lot of the backlash for Titanic has been due to the commercial rather than critical reception – as the megafans start pulling the fan membrane in one direction*, people will naturally feel uncomfortable being under it as well.

    I’m wondering if there’s been a reverse backlash in the last decade – say what you like about Titanic, but it has enough texture that I (who’ve never seen it) would be able to make 5 different humorous comparisons to it if the situation occurred. I’ve actually seen Avatar, and… nothing.

    *spotted afterwards, left in.

  2. 27
    Kat but logged out innit on 25 Apr 2014 #

    Celine’s dark-lipliner-pale-lipstick on the single cover is possibly the most madeliney moment of all as regards to this song: I am instantly transported back to the Year 11 loos (aka ‘the Smoking Loos’ – only 3 cubicles and the one furthest from the door was reserved for everyone to cram in for a fag. Teachers turned a blind eye as long as the unwritten rule of only doing it there and nowhere else was strictly adhered to). Happily the only lipstick I wore was BLACK and I only wore it when I went to CAMDEN and thus I didn’t need to squish up to the tiny mirror in the Smoking Loos to put it on.

  3. 28
    Andrew Farrell on 25 Apr 2014 #

    #15 – I don’t think we can give Harry Knowles too much credit here – the rumours were largely that after blowing past its budget and setting sail for $200 million, it’d be a financial rather than artistic flop. I want to say – though I admit this might be from the unreliable half of my memory – that people seeing the same film repeatedly as a badge of being a fan wasn’t really a thing before this.

    Also of course if you want film subjects that write their own headlines…

  4. 29
    Kinitawowi on 25 Apr 2014 #

    Pretty sure I clocked up about seven cinema trips during the time of Jurassic Park. I’d be willing to bet that there were people who went to Star Wars a LOT more than that.

    No Titanics for me, though.

  5. 30
    Tom on 25 Apr 2014 #

    “ET” was the big one in my childhood for multiple viewings – I knew tons of people who’d been more than twice. For very similar reasons to Titanic, I’d bet, a direct-hit combination of spectacle and sentimentality.

  6. 31
    Cumbrian on 25 Apr 2014 #

    Not to drag politics into everything, but I will wager that a major reason that Titanic is not as well regarded as a film is not because of this song, but because the fans who went back and saw it again and again were predominantly teenage girls and, in general, their interests seem to be belittled by the wider culture, certainly at this time and maybe even right up to now – though that might be getting better (maybe? I am not as plugged into this as I should be to make such a claim with certainty). No such backlash for films inspiring repeat viewings by teenage boys (Star Wars being a major beneficiary of this).

    This was better than I expected and would agree that the interesting part is the opening, more softly sung section, rather than the strum und drang that brings it to a climax, which is just Celine doing Celine as far as I can tell. I certainly like it better than some of the other soundtrack hits from the late 90s – Lovefool is too simpering and weedy, for instance, and there’s that god awful track that Sting, Bryan Adams and Rod Stewart (?) did, which I can’t remember anything about except it being bloody terrible.

  7. 32
    Chelovek na lune on 25 Apr 2014 #

    There was at least one European country, Sweden, where Titanic wasn’t the biggest grossing film of the year. There the title (deservedly, I think) went to Lukas Moodysson’s tale of smalltown schoolgirl lesbian love, ‘Fucking Amal’, also known by the name it took in the UK from its theme song, ‘Show Me Love’ by Robyn.

    Which, all things considered, is probably preferable to this. I think still MHWGO is a reasonably decent, even likeable, take on the OTT ballad, though it’s rather more depersonalised than ‘ Think Twice’. And I too haven’t seen the film, despite living two mins walk from a cinema (where tickets cost £2.30!) at the time.

  8. 33
    Mark M on 25 Apr 2014 #

    Like a lot of film journalists, I felt I’d spent most of the year before writing up the endless rumours about the out-of-control and supposedly cursed production, plus doing sidebars on the 10 most expensive films ever at the time they were made etc, then in the build-up having to watch previous films about the Titanic… The question was never particularly about whether the movie was going to be good or bad, but whether it could possibly be the enormous hit it needed to be to recoup that budget…

    And then it was.

    And so after all that… I’ve never seen Titanic the whole way through, either. I was simply never remotely interested – it just never seemed like an intriguing story for the purposes of fiction – it’s a boat, it’s going to hit an iceberg – and by then I had concluded that Cameron was a director whose work I didn’t want to ever see again. The Terminator I like lots (like Star Wars, it almost certainly benefits enormously from technical constraints), Aliens I know people love but I’ve never really seen the appeal, The Abyss bored me shitless and I’m with David Foster Wallace (‘an appalling betrayal of 1984’s The Terminator’) on T2, which is just an horrible mixture of heartless sentimentally and tedious CGI. As for True Lies – fucking hell.

    (I didn’t watch Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla, either, that year, although I did see both Deep Impact and Armageddon).

  9. 34
    Mark M on 25 Apr 2014 #

    Re 32: Well done the Swedes! (And that makes this a good opportunity to urge everyone to see Moodysson’s awesome teen punk girl movie We Are The Best!, out now in British cinemas).

  10. 35
    Chelovek na lune on 25 Apr 2014 #

    #34 Thank you for alerting me to that – I may just do so…although his last film, Mammoth, was rather disappointing, with the fizz missing – and I rate his almost intentionally unwatchable Hole In My Heart as one of the quite, quite, brilliant (and intensely, justifiably, angry) films of the last decade.

  11. 36
    Mark M on 25 Apr 2014 #

    Re 35: In both spirit and subject matter, We Are The Best! has a lot to do with Fucking Amal and Together, and little to do with the films he’s made in the years in between (A Hole In My Heart is probably the most unpleasant experience I have ever had in a cinema – glad you seem to have got more out of it than I did).

  12. 37
    tonya on 25 Apr 2014 #

    James Cameron’s I’m-the-king-of-the-world speech at the Oscars didn’t help Titanic’s reputation any (while LA Confidential’s esteem grows and grows). And ugh the ridiculous trend of having Irish-y music in every blockbuster, from Gladiator to Lord of the Rings.

  13. 38
    tm on 25 Apr 2014 #

    I was dragged to this as the only boy on a German exchange (the English leg, whereas I saw Romeo and Juliet in German on the German leg. I also heard Bob Marley’s Legend for the first time!) One of my female classmates commented afterwards that the only time I stopped chomping my giant bag of Opal Fruits (as they were called back then) was when Jack paints Rose’s picture…

    Oh, and hack stand ups are right, there was plenty of room for both of them on that door…

  14. 39
    Mark M on 25 Apr 2014 #

    Re 6/13/26: I liked Romeo + Juilet a lot, too, while having no truck with Luhrmann’s later work.

  15. 40
    anto on 25 Apr 2014 #

    It always surprises me that ‘My Heart Will Go On’ was only at number one for two or three weeks. It certainly felt twice as long but maybe I’m confusing it with other similar chart-toppers or maybe scale and tedium combined had the relative effect. I’m much more resentful of film than song – I only have to look at James Cameron’s smug face to remind me of those three hours that will never be returned.

    re: Ireland – There is a lengthy and substantial story of Irish immigration and it’s influence on UK pop music yet to be written up – It’s time the tale were told.

  16. 41
    tm on 25 Apr 2014 #

    Anto: it was more like four hours!

  17. 42
    Nick R on 25 Apr 2014 #

    The film came out when I was in year 7 at school, and My Heart Will Go On was something we had to sing in every music lesson for a long time afterward. That was enough to make me loathe the song.

    As for the film: last time I watched it, I wasn’t particularly moved by the romance. But once the sinking begins, it’s a very well made disaster movie, with some really good sound design as the ship’s hull creaks.

    @#7 Kat but logged out innit:

    > I think this was the last time I found a French and Saunders sketch funny: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wm5fW1tGszc

    Directed by Edgar Wright! (At least, he did some parts of that special – presumably the bits that were intended to look like they were from the film.) And I agree, none of the later French and Saunders specials were anywhere near as good as that year’s.

    @#38 TM:

    > Oh, and hack stand ups are right, there was plenty of room for both of them on that door…

    James Cameron’s defence of that, in his recent Reddit AMA: http://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/22uz4m/i_am_james_cameron_ama/cgqmuus

  18. 43
    Tommy Mack on 25 Apr 2014 #

    James Cameron’s defense…Hmmm…he has a point.

  19. 44
    PurpleKylie on 25 Apr 2014 #

    Ugh, the bane of my childhood. I found it unlistenable back then, and I’m still not fond of it now. It’s one of those records where I can’t put my finger on exactly why I dislike it, maybe it’s because it’s overblown, maybe because it was overplayed, I don’t know. All I know is that it has always created great feelings of discomfort whenever I hear it.

  20. 45
    thefatgit on 25 Apr 2014 #

    Those who have never seen Titanic; seems like an “I have never seen Star Wars” boast/confession/badge of honour/call it what you will. My congratulations to all who avoided it. Anyhoo, I saw it twice at the cinema; once with my ex and once with my daughter. We had the Titanic bug in our house. Big time. My daughter is still an obsessive who owns many books on the subject. I don’t share the obsession, but I did enjoy the film. As a disaster movie, it has all the hallmarks, as disparate characters are thrown together. The only difference is there’s a ridiculous love story in the midst of all the class war (which should have been dealt with more intelligently than champagne and stout), bubbling under the surface. It’s a movie of 2 halves and the 2nd half is the most enjoyable, albeit troublesome as Cameron plays fast and loose with the facts in order to squeeze the pips for action. The first half of the movie is dominated by the best actor in this film. Leo? Kate? No, the bloody ship. And it’s all held together by Cameron’s McGuffin, The Heart Of The Sea, the reason why Cameron’s best mate, Bill Paxton goes hunting for the wreck in the first place. It’s the sheer scale of the movie that’s impressive. The set was huge. The budget was huge. The ship was huge. If the film had been released during the Tumblr era, the shipping of Jack & Rose would have been HUMONGOUS.

    A little ditty about Jack & Rose*

    MHWGO is first and foremost, a Big POWAH BALLUD (good), tied to a movie (bad), sung by Celine Dion (good) in English (bad) “and you’re here in my hardened…my heart will go on”. Like all power ballads, it builds steadily from breathy whispers to full-on belting out “I BEELIIIIEEEVVVVEEE….”. The penny whistle is awful. That needed saying. It grates every time. The iceberg moment in the song, is that brief pause before Celine takes it up several notches, “You’re here…” and all hell doesn’t break loose. It’s not at all what you’d expect it to be. The electric guitar buried in the mix. A half-hearted drum break. Strings and strings and the fading whistle. And after all the iron and mahogany and marble slips beneath the water to its final resting place, then the song smoothly exits on a bit of restrained vocal technique. Points added on for Celine playing the song straight and not delving into cod-operatic nonsense. (2)

    *apologies to Bryan Adams.

  21. 46
    Simon on 25 Apr 2014 #

    @45 John Cougar Mellencamp not Bryan Adams (sorry to be that guy)

  22. 47
    thefatgit on 25 Apr 2014 #

    past my bedtime :-(

  23. 48
    Billy Hicks on 25 Apr 2014 #

    My Dad, circa late 97/early 98 – “Apparently they’re releasing a new film about the Titanic. Hopefully it’ll be an interesting factual film this time rather than some stupid love story”.

    My main memory of this is from a BBC weekend morning kids show called Fully Booked, which had some sort of request chart on and this was the most requested track for bloody weeks, causing increasing mock irritation from the presenters as they had to play it for so long. This, again, was absolute torture for a nine year old boy who had no interest in two people being in this silly ‘love’ thing, and while I enjoy a lot of Celine’s music today, this has become too much of an overplayed cliche to actually be able to enjoy it.

    Absolutely agreed with the French & Saunders shout-out though, I don’t think I’d ever laughed so hard at anything on television – to the point where I was struggling to breathe – when I first saw that. They repeated it two years later on Christmas Day 2000 when the film premiered on BBC1 and was just as funny to me…sadly I think the adult me would enjoy it less but as a kid it was television heaven.

  24. 49
    Martin on 26 Apr 2014 #

    I think Rory at 9 is right. This song probably did decrease the perception of the quality of the movie. It revealed the naked middlebrow ambition to achieve maximum mindshare in the general population a little too baldly. Lots of things in the movie are good. I could do without the Heart of the Sea and the Paxton framing device. I guess those things are there for a reason, and they did yield a payoff. Cameron and Dion ARE middlebrow mindshare beasts, ultimately.

    I was in my late 20s when this came out. As others here have noted, it was taken for granted that it would be a colossal disaster, the combination of the price tag and the subject matter seemed to guarantee it. It came out on the Friday before Christmas, if memory serves, and I remember making a roughly four-hour drive from Providence RI to my home near New York City in inclement weather, the drive was difficult, in my mind right now the memory is not unlike being on the Titanic itself. I spent the drive listening to a sports call-in show (!) taking calls from people who’d just seen the movie gushing about it. This show NEVER discussed movies to that extent, but the surprising success of Titanic elbowed out all other subject matter that day.

  25. 50
    tm on 26 Apr 2014 #

    Weirdly, I have a bit of a soft spot for this song. I think it’s like Eddie Murphy with transvestites: you can’t pointedly hate something for so long without developing a fascination for it.

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