(Hillary Rodham Clinton
and/or Her Royal Celine)
L to R: Denise Rich, Bill & Hillary Clinton; Celine Dion in Air Canada uniform.
No media have called yet to get my author-itative opinion on Hillary Clinton's campaign's choice of a Celine Dion tune as her 2008 theme song: I guess it would help if the book had been published (or for that matter, if the manuscript were finished). But meanwhile a few bird's-eye notes on the story:
- The choice was the result of a faux-American Idol-style contest on Clinton's website. Which reinforces a single lesson: Celine is the Platonic form of the American Idol contest winner. If you hold an open-slate Idol sort of thing, Celine will always win. This can be confirmed by a survey of Idol-style contests around the world, including Iraq Star (an actual TV program, where the prize is, and I'm not kidding, getting out of Iraq): Along with the matinee idols of their own culture, everyone's other influence is always Celine. Even when she's not on the ballot. (Celine was added as a write-in favourite - wonder what fan community coordinated that? Anyone who knows, drop me a line.)
- In any case, the evocation of Idol by a (leading) presidential candidate is pretty entertaining, an arguably risky reminder to the public of a more ideal version of democracy, or at least what democracy could viscerally feel like. And it's a contest that no one has ever been able to say was fixed by powerful interest groups - even though it's actually a corporate creation, of course, and has its own narrowly defined scope of permissible ideologies and qualifications, the Idol process still rouses a more participatory, engaged spirit than U.S. politics have managed in quite a while. Although, like American presidencies, it peaked early: Kelly Clarkson is the Abe Lincoln of Idol-spawned pop stars.
- For conspiracy theorists: There's a shadowy kind of link between Hillary and Celine: Two songs on Celine's Let's Talk About Love were written by Denise Rich, the songwriter-socialite who got embroiled along with her ex-husband Marc in just a teensy bit of controversy towards the end of the last term of Bill Clinton, when Denise's campaign contributions to Hillary apparently helped Marc get a pardon for tax evasion. The web was tangled enough to ensnare Hillary's brother Tony and the scandal hasn't entirely died. (For those who nod off unless there are really salacious angles, here's one.) Clintons-haters might leap to the conclusion that there was a fix in on this contest, but since the chosen song is not actually a Rich production, but a song written for an Air Canada ad campaign, you would be overreaching. (However, this kinda stuff is why the Clintons should think twice about blithely inviting comparisons between themselves and a Mafia family.)
- Insert Lettermanesque "10 Ways that Hillary Clinton is Like Air Canada" list here.
- To be more serious for a moment, the result can be read as a wad of demographic tea leaves at the bottom of Hillary's teacup: The chosen song was by far the most "soccer mom" of the options, pointedly bypassing the civil-rights-era echoes of the Temptations, the more youth-oriented Smashmouth (purportedly Bill C.'s pick, but in general a weird case of wishful thinking and cool hunting that missed the mark), and the overly politically aware U2.
- For many potential Clinton voters - especially working and middle-class women of all ages, single mothers, new immigrants, exurban families, and many more - the Celine choice is going to be a much more sympathetic and welcomed selection than you would think if you went by the media and the blogophere, which predictably went right into mockery mode. As I argue at length in my book, critics and pundits are, by and large, exactly in the place in the culture least disposed to understanding Celine's appeal, and have always, as they are this week, stood by and jeered while Celine went on to be embraced by hundreds of millions of fans around the world. At least for once Hillary's managed a genuinely populist move here, rather than backing away into the neutral zone her handlers seem to prefer. Although maybe that's because she doesn't make a very convincing populist, which leads to our next problem.
- The song itself, as usual in Celine's English oeuvre, extends a cliched metaphor (flying) to improbable lengths over the course of a few verses, but clips its wings to avoid the danger of getting too poetic, high-toned or metaphysical by relentlessly speaking in terms of "You and I" (as the title has it), which the Clinton campaign no doubt hopes strikes a tone of intimacy - it's between Hillary and the voter, working together - but unfortunately bears with it a kind of individualism and selfishness that is the downside of the Clintons' image. Once again, the "You and I" can be Bill and Hillary, in their opaque, power-seeking dyad, cased within a marital arrangement that is a mystery to the rest of us: "You and I/ Were meant to fly/ Higher than the clouds/ We'll sail across the sky." Way to confirm the perception that you're incapable of being down-to-earth, HRC.
- In most contexts, the use of this kind of privatized-dream language works for Celine, because it suggests that her music belongs in a domestic context, relating to the daily life and struggles and aspirations of her fans. And because Celine herself never seems to have any real ambition except to submit her voice to the approval of a wider and wider public, to be the conduit for a kind of global exchange of broadbrush empathy - oh, and to buy a lot of shoes - it doesn't seem so self-important (except from the POV of committed Celine haters). But give that same message to Hillary and the tonality shifts quite a bit: She would have been better off with a song more like Bill's most memorable campaign anthem, Fleetwood Mac's Don't Stop, which works in a kind of direct-address second person, an exhortation followed by a reassurance ("don't stop/ thinking about tomorrow/ don't stop/ it'll soon be here!"), which welcomes in the crowd much more, serves as much more of a rallying point rather than a breathless invocation of destiny.
- But then, that's the difference between Bill and Hillary, isn't it? His ambition always seemed to involve reaching out to touch (a few too many) people; her ambition always seems much more self-regarding and insular. (It's a kind of gender paradox in a way.) The Celine choice might be hoped to "soften" her image more than a rock-and-roll song would, and maybe that would work for a straight-shooting, tough-talking kind of woman, but for Hillary, who always seems just one blurry degree out-of-focus, what bleeds over are some of Celine's less-attractive qualities - her stiffness and awkwardness and melodrama - but not her common touch.