Apr 14

CELINE DION – “My Heart Will Go On”

Popular74 comments • 6,683 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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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).

  4. 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).

  5. 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.

  6. 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).

  7. 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.

  8. 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…

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 41
    tm on 25 Apr 2014 #

    Anto: it was more like four hours!

  12. 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

  13. 43
    Tommy Mack on 25 Apr 2014 #

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

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 46
    Simon on 25 Apr 2014 #

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

  17. 47
    thefatgit on 25 Apr 2014 #

    past my bedtime :-(

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

  21. 51
    Garry on 26 Apr 2014 #

    Rory @13 – I think I missed out on Romeo + Juliet for a couple of reasons. Firstly it was because it would made by our Baz (of whom there is more to be said) – which meant the film was hyped up hugely here in Australia. Maybe it was a form of cultural cringe, but I used to shy away from over-hyped Australian culture.

    As an example I only saw Cathy Freeman win a gold medal at the 1996 Olympics because my college block’s cleaner wanted to see it, I had a TV in my room, and I was home when the race was on. I had been avoiding the entire Olympics coverage because of the saturation of Freeman on our TV. I had nothing against Freeman, just over-saturation.

    This meant the Sydney Olympics was excruciating. However in retrospect I realised I missed a great opportunity to go to an Olympics. I got over my issues with the over-hyped by Athens four years later, and watched a lot of it on TV. But at college over-hyped movies, sporting events etc were avoided at all costs.

    The other reason I avoided R+J was the soundtrack, of which I was over-familiar because everyone was playing it. It took me years to realise I didn’t mind the Cardigans because the character in Lovefool sounded so whiney. The cover of When Doves Cry (on volume 2) got saturation coverage and couldn’t be escaped. There were a few decent songs on the soundtrack, but they were dragged down by the not so good tracks.

    I generally liked Shakespeare films, but at the time nothing could make me watch this one.

  22. 52
    Kat but logged out innit on 26 Apr 2014 #

    We had to do an essay for GCSE English comparing Romeo Plus Juliet with Franco Zeffirelli’s R&J. “These films are different because no-one took ecstasy and hooked up in the 1960s” = D MINUS SEE ME

  23. 53
    Garry on 26 Apr 2014 #

    I was a year or so too early to do R+J at school. We did Branagh’s Much Ado instead, with wooden Keanu, and our Mel’s Hamlet.
    (I don’t think he is our Mel any more. He was born in NY don’tchaknow.)

    But my main memory was the BBC’s Hamlet with Jacobi doing convulsions on the floor every time there was a soliloquy. Hilarious.

  24. 54
    Cumbrian on 26 Apr 2014 #

    51: horrendously nitpicky of me but Freeman came second in 1996, to Marie-Jo Perec. I only know this because we were on holiday in France at the time and they went mental for their gold medal winner. Also gave rise to the saga of whether or not MJP would defend her title in 2000 (there was some insinuation by MJP that she was being targeted by the Oz press to destabilise her preparations – though I am not too sure that was ever proved). In the end MJP pulled out of the 2000 games.

  25. 55
    Garry on 26 Apr 2014 #

    Being factual isn’t nitpicky. You are completely correct, and I was being lazy with my remembrances. I watched the race it hasn’t stayed in the memory as much as the Freeman cult which followed, which I always felt weirded out by, because I fully acknowledged and appreciated her cultural importance in Australia ie Indigenous recognition etc, but I had a personal issue with the media turning anyone into cult figures.

  26. 56
    swanstep on 26 Apr 2014 #

    I like this quite a bit more than most here; I give it a 7. I agree with Tom’s claim that it’s parasitic on its film but I think it’s much artfully so than MIB. The thing about MHWGO is that its structure of whispery nothings for the first 40%, moderate intensity for the next 30%, full-balladosaurus for the remainder mirrors the film. The video then does something obvious but unprecedented: it uses the song’s timing and framework to tell a compressed but surprisingly complete in-sequence version of the film (including lots of the biggest fx money shots, and covering most of the emotional high-points). Tom says that if you haven’t seen Titanic the song is an empty vessel, but the truth is closer to ‘if you’ve heard the song and seen its vid. you’ve seen the movie’. This makes MHWGO rather special – it’s a true adjunct to the film, one that either re-enacts or sketches out the whole film for you every time you play it according to whether or not you’ve seen the film yet. I tend to think it’s pretty hard to come up with something – both an underlying song and a performance – that can bear that sort of load, that can hold an entire movie within it the way MHWGO does (indeed the movie that MHWGO sketches is actually better than the full movie because it usefully omits the inelegant framing story). We know that Cameron and Horner and co. tried and failed to reproduce the magic w/ Leona Lewis for Avatar. Not even close. Annie Lennox doing ‘Into The West’ for the LOTR finale is a better effort in the same direction, but again no cigar; it appears to have failed to chart anywhere.

    I do agree that MHWGO is an odd fish – it’s closer to an advertisement than an ordinary record (so maybe ‘I’d Like To Teach the World To Sing’ and ‘First Time’ are useful comparisons). But the thing that it does really well is something that’s incredibly hard to do and we’re unlikely to see anything like it again.

    A few other notes:
    1. The 20 second or so comedown with Celine crooning/intoning to close is bee-yootiful. If that was really one demo take…
    2. The weakest, most French&Saunders-inviting moment for me is the backing vox at 2m43s ‘Why does the heart go on?’ Awful. Prevents an 8 from me for sure.
    3. The single mix of MHWGO is 25 sec shorter, much more trebly (fewer held bass notes, guitar added, lots of other sweetening changes) than the soundtrack album version. I much prefer it.
    4. The knives originally came out for the movie because it wasn’t finished in time for its summer release date, and it got pushed back to November 1997. Plenty assumed the worst, and Late Night comics and others feasted for months on the supposed preposterousness of a gazillion dollars being spent on a story where we all know the ending ahead of time (‘It sinks. Haw haw.’). Cameron had the last laugh of course, though not with movie snobs. I like Titanic quite a lot (and I’m very glad to have seen it on a huge screen) but 1997 was an awesome year for film, and T wouldn’t make my top 10, probably not my top 15.

  27. 57
    Tom on 26 Apr 2014 #

    You’re absolutely right about the video, which is a very interesting point – of course that kind of video/music matching has become part of the grammar of film and TV fandom even if it’s not something pop video makers try and do. So perhaps the MYWGO video is a kind of grandmother of the modern fanvid!

  28. 58
    Ed on 26 Apr 2014 #

    The reviews of ‘Titanic’ were generally but not universally positive – says Wikipedia – but the Academy *loved* it. It won 11 Oscars, as many as any film in history, up there with ‘Ben Hur’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King’: another two great thundering middlebrow epics. One of those Oscars was for MHWGO, which got Best Original Song.

    It’s not a terrible movie: the leads are charming and the sinking itself is undeniably impressive, although probably only if as Rory says @17 you see it on a big enough screen. The class war stuff seems cartoonish but apparently has some historical basis, so maybe it’s just the reality that was grotesque.

    As Swanstep says, the modern-day framing device with old Rose is superfluous and slows it down badly. Spielberg uses a similar device more economically and a million times more effectively in ‘Saving Private Ryan’, which was shot around the same time, although slightly later. I wonder who stole the idea from whom

    I don’t really think they made a mistake in giving ‘Titanic’ the Oscar for best picture, though; at least not when you see what it was up against. On a shortlist of nominees that also included ‘The Full Monty’, ‘As Good as it Gets’, ‘Good Will Hunting’ and ‘LA Confidential’, I can’t really think that there was an obviously more deserving candidate that missed out.

    IIRC, this was around the time there was a lot of angst about how Hollywood couldn’t make intelligent, exciting commercial movies any more, the way it could in the 70s. Certainly looking at the 2013 list, which includes many great films and one hands down masterpiece for the ages, things seem to have improved a lot since the 90s.

  29. 59
    Ed on 26 Apr 2014 #

    The latest example of the multiple viewing phenomenon seems to have been ‘Frozen’, which a friend of mine took his daughter to at least four times.

    That has a truly great song, also Oscar winning, in ‘Let it Go’, but sadly that now looks unlikely to make an appearance here.

  30. 60
    sukrat unlogged in SEATTLE on 26 Apr 2014 #

    I was maybe 11 when I first encountered the phenom of the repeat-view filmfan: a woman who had seen sound of music — so went the story — 300 times (actually I don’t recall the number, maybe it was 30). As fingerwaggily sage as only 11-yr-old boys can be, we judged her self-evidently mentally ill

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