‘You like me, you really like me …’
Last week a poll came out suggesting that Celine Dion is still the most popular singer in America. Statistical skepticism aside, the idea that this could be remotely true came as a surprise to a lot of people. So, for obvious reasons, New York’s Flavorwire came knocking, seeking explanations. Here’s the unabridged version of our conversation.
FW: Are you surprised?
I’m not surprised, given how enormously popular Celine was in her heyday (which, going by the sales of her last couple of releases, has definitely passed): She was one of the biggest stars of the 1990s. That doesn’t just fade away in a decade. To make a comparison that’ll curdle some people’s blood, when I was a teenager in the 1980s, Led Zeppelin records from the early ‘70s were still the coolest thing. And the fact that she still tours, plays Vegas, puts out concert films, etc., helps perpetuate that. That’s how an entertainer cultivates Sinatra-esque longevity.
Her fame is also renewed regularly these days by American Idol, the largest mass musical phenomenon of the past decade, where Celine’s stood solidly in its pantheon of singers for young people to emulate, alongside Whitney & Mariah.
You can’t take an online poll as gospel in any case, but I have to admit I’m relieved to know that Celine won’t be irrelevant by the time the next edition of my book comes out.
Why has she remained so popular?
Celine occupies a niche in popular music that’s far from the sexiest, most intellectually stimulating or world-shaking. But it’s central, and it’s a job someone has to do. She makes the sentimental music that’s the soundtrack to courting, marrying and burying. It’s music for the wedding dance floor and the family-video montage.
At the same time, it’s music that reinforces and plays out central value conflicts in our culture: It’s got a constant eye on individual ambition, striving and success, in everything from its lyrical content to its production style and Celine’s vocal performance, and yet it is very attached, again both lyrically and melodically, to family and tradition.
In other words, it’s quintessentially middle-class music, with a stress on the feminine side. That’s the kiss of critical death, of course - it’s got neither global-slumming esoteric bohemianism nor virile proletarian machismo, so in post-1960s western Cool culture, it’s void of the marks of sophistication and distinction that count. But it’s the kind of music that, once it lodges in someone’s life, stays there, as part of that person’s story.
What does this say about American taste after all this time?
It’s not particularly an American story, in fact. Celine wasn’t born in the U.S. and she remains popular all over the world - likely even more so in places like Asia, the Middle East, Africa, the Caribbean. She represents somewhat different things in those places - no doubt she seems more glamorous to a listener in a developing country than she does to someone in Los Angeles - but she signifies.
It’s partly, too, that her own story is rags-to-riches, a fairy tale people want to emulate. In that sense her fame may be more like Oprah’s or a basketball star’s than that of, say, Mick Jagger.
But for Americans perhaps this poll is a welcome sign that there’s still some loyalty and longevity to people’s tastes. It’s not all instant disposability. Meanwhile if you’re waiting for the public at large to move on to a favorite that isn’t on at least some level cheesy and goofy, well, make sure you’ve packed plenty of lunches. Look at her main rival - Bono! Goofiness is the crack in a star’s aura that lets the fans’ love in.
(By the way, is no one else a little surprised that after Celine and U2, then Elvis & Beatles tied at #3, next comes Tim McGraw? That’s what we should be talking about.)
Will Celine Dion ever fall out of favor?
My suspicion is that in a generation, she’ll be remembered more vaguely, the way that Nat King Cole or Connie Francis is by younger people today - you might recognize a few songs but you don’t necessarily have a firm grip on who or what they were. The sentimental-song niche may turn on a longer cycle than that of the dance hit, but it’s still pop music, and it turns. Plus, not much of her repertoire is up to the level of the Great American Songbook era - Dianne Warren has her strengths, but she’s no Brill Building writer (I wish Celine had done more songs with Carole King), much less a Gershwin.
So there’ll be a fade. Whether it’s a fade to black, and how long that would take, I wouldn’t venture to guess.