21st February, 1998

It's only my decades-long head start that has enabled me to get to this ahead of Tom, Sally, or Marcello; anyone who surveys popular music of the twentieth century is going to have to contend with it sooner or later. In a decade characterized by staggeringly popular songs from staggeringly popular movies — "Everything I Do (I Do It for You)," "I Will Always Love You," "Kiss from a Rose," "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing," "I Believe I Can Fly," and on and on — "My Heart Will Go On" was the most staggeringly popular of them all, just as its parent film was, and it blanketed the earth so heavily in the years following the release of Titanic that people talk about it as having been metastatic, colonizing, inescapable; a very good book was even written about how impossible it is to say anything meaningful about such totalizing work.

Well, I haven't seen the movie. Nor had I consciously heard "My Heart Will Go On" before listening to it for this travelogue. Oh, it wasn't new to me; like anyone else alive, hearing, and capable of long-term memory fifteen years ago, I knew it. But I'd never listened to it. By chance I'd managed not to tune into commercial or contemporary radio during its seasons of dominance; I'd left the television turned off; I'd not been in the kinds of public spaces that pipe in the hits of the day at unignorable decibels. But of course it had seeped in anyway — the pennywhistle opening, the broad and sturdy chord changes, like vast steps leading up to some Brutalist cathedral, and of course Céline's painfully angelic voice sweeping through the pillowy orchestration like a tracking shot through a rote crowd scene: no time to pause for any enlivening bits of business or quirks of personality, we are Setting a Mood.

So of course when I do sit down and listen, it's a bit different than I had remembered, or imagined. The popular image of Céline Dion is that of a non-stop belter, tempestuous in her evocation of tin-pan melodrama, but on the opening verse her voice is as pure and ethereal as Sarah McLachlan's — or perhaps even Sarah Brightman's — and throughout she makes unusual choices, if minor ones. Nobody quite has her phrasing, and if the later choruses get histrionic they're still individual enough to give the pleasure of watching an entirely inimitable performer; the play may be the most frightful nonsense but by God there won't be a stick of scenery left on stage when she's done.

The lyrics are the most frightful nonsense, of course; a weak-minded declaration in the power of romantic love to transcend all limitations even unto death, given the solemn reading of a sacred hymn (those great gulping thwacks of syllables are straight out of praise-and-worship) and cloaked in a fuzzy and unmeaning spirituality, its catechism of willful self-belief and sentimental denial of all hard truths is one of the most overpowering and cringeworthy strains in late-90s pop. It'd be pretty (and awfully convenient to my tastes) to think that it was confined to that decade, that 9/11 killed it off  and that the public ever after has chosen either pure escapism or raw unvarnished Truth, but nothing dies that easily.

In a way, it feels like all the 135 songs I've written about for this blog were just a preparation for this: I had to come to terms with the 90s romántico ballad before I could hear this in its proper context, faux-Irishness, overbudgeted orchestra, climactic arrangement and all. It's perhaps worth pointing out that Céline Dion, a French-Canadian (which is to say, a member of a historically impoverished ethnic minority), is actually culturally closer to the Spaniards, Mexicans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and so forth on the Hot Latin chart than to the Hollywood Irishness of the song — and the modern big-voiced ballad, whether Anglophone, Hispanophone, or otherwise, is also Latinate, descended from the Italian bel canto tradition.

So it's fitting that Céline, who belongs to the entire world, not just the Anglophone (much less just the Francophone) parts of it, would usher in another of the momentous firsts in this travelogue: the first English-language song. There will be many more.

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