Céline Dion is one of pop music’s most misunderstood artists.
She dominated the ’90s with power ballads that showed off her remarkable vocal prowess. Her voice did things that other singers simply couldn’t. With hits like “Beauty and the Beast,” “All By Myself,” and of course “My Heart Will Go On,” she established herself as one of the top female vocalists of the era, alongside Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. In some ways, her commercial success eclipsed theirs: 1996’s Falling Into You and 1997’s Let’s Talk About Love sold over 30 million copies worldwide each. (You could argue that Dion was the big draw of the Titanic soundtrack, which also sold 30 million copies.)
As successful as she was, there was some confusion about who Céline Dion was compared to what she sang. She became a music icon singing mountainous love songs, but her public persona was quirkier and off-beat. Possibly a reflection of her French-Canadian heritage, Dion in interviews and public appearances was lively and animated, unlike the stately pop goddess image singing “Because You Loved Me.” She was also surprisingly outré in her fashion. She accepted her first Grammy Award in a sheer black crocheted gown, and famously wore a backwards white suit at the 1999 Academy Awards.
That contrast didn’t quite translate at the time. Audiences and critics often associated Dion’s persona with her hit songs, which were often criticized for being overly sentimental. Because that wasn’t “hip,” neither was Dion. She was chintzy, square, and sang music for older people. (Granted, she was a mainstay on AC radio stations well into the 2000s.) When she did try to switch things up – dance, R&B, even reggae – it registered to some as inauthentic. (Her most successful attempt to skew younger was her 1999 smash “That’s The Way It Is,” produced by Max Martin.)
Dion has since undergone a reappraisal, part of larger cultural reassessment of the ’90s. Thanks to her headline-grabbing fashion choices during Paris Fashion Week and late-night TV appearances, people are realizing that Céline Dion is a camp goddess. She takes her craft seriously, but not herself. She is delightfully self-aware and affable, happy to poke fun at her image while still singing artists half her age into the dirt. Sadly, Dion’s two public personas rarely synced up at the height of her fame. When they did, though, the results were extraordinary. (Of her catalog, “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” and its rock-opera melodrama fits the bill best.)
The best live example is arguably her best performance. In 1993, Dion promoted the release of The Colour of My Love – including the #1 hit “The Power of Love” – with a concert special filmed in Quebec City, Canada. Towards the show’s end, Dion sings acapella the opening lines of Elvis Presley’s classic song “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” Dion takes her time, stretching the notes and letting them breathe, while also showcasing her stunningly rich tone. She decorates the verse with little melismatic moments here and there, but she mostly plays it straight. She interprets the song as a wistful lament of unrequited love. It’s very much within what would become Dion’s wheelhouse.
Then something unexpected happens: strings and an electric guitar join in, and beams of light peer out from behind her. It’s a cue for Dion to officially let it rip. Her voice takes on more theatrical shades. Her melisma is less restrained, and her notes are bigger and longer. She actually growls in places. Dion is absolutely showing off, but not to prove some point. You can see it in her eyes: she is having fun, putting on a real performance, for her hometown no less.
Then, the lights behind her vanish and much of the backing band retreats, leaving Dion just as she started the song. However, she doesn’t retreat; no, she’s evolved and shows us how much. She turns the song’s last line into an astonishing display of range, agility, resonance, control, and genuine emotion that would be inconceivable if you weren’t witnessing it firsthand. People aren’t supposed to sustain notes like that. They’re not supposed to turn the music scale into their personal plaything. But Céline Dion does. If anyone in the audience or watching on television doubted that her greatness, she proved them wrong.
This performance is a perfect representation of who Céline Dion was always meant to be. It’s fitting that one of her greatest performances was of an Elvis song; the two do share some key similarities. While their recordings were wildly successful, Elvis and Dion were born for the stage. They understood its power, and how they their unique talents – his raw physicality, her powerhouse voice – could add dimensions that their records couldn’t. It isn’t coincidental that they both landed in Las Vegas. Vegas – one of the camp capitals of the world – allowed them to embrace their theatrical sensibilities at the highest count. It helped them solidify their legends. (If that isn’t enough of a connection, let me remind you of their duet on American Idol in 2007.)
Thankfully, Céline Dion is getting to enjoy this later stage of her career in ways neither Elvis or Houston could. She still sells out arenas around the world, thousands of people singing her love ballads. This time around, everyone gets it. They get what Dion is about, and what she offers to the masses. She is Elvis by way of Barbra Streisand. She is the living embodiment of chaotic good.
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