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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  1. 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.

  2. 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

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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!

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 66
    Lazarus on 27 Apr 2014 #

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


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

  17. 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”.

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. 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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