Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? On our show 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s, Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla embarks on a quest to answer those questions, one track at a time. Follow and listen for free exclusively on Spotify. Below is an excerpt from Episode 49—about Céline Dion’s 1997 megahit “My Heart Will Go On”—which features journalist and author Leslie Steeter, whose book Black Widow is available now.
Céline Dion sings her songs like they owe her money. She sings her songs like she’s a street-walkin’ cheetah with a heart full of napalm. She sings like she’s Marshawn Lynch and her songs are the 2010-11 New Orleans Saints in the NFC wild-card game. She sings as though the listener were Sisyphus and she were the boulder. She came here to kick ass and sing songs, and she’s about out of ass. She sings the songs that make the whole world cower in the storm cellar. She sings as though she intends to fell the mighty oak and drink every drop of the sea. Put Céline Dion in Super Smash Bros. She sings like the floor, the ceiling, and also the very air she breathes is lava. She sings these songs like she has a very particular set of skills. Skills she has acquired over a very long career. Skills that make her a nightmare for songs like these. She sings hard, man. Do you get what I’m saying? She sings hard even at her softest; she sings loud even at her quietest. She is everything louder than everything else. She is the Too Much that will never be Enough. She is the Final Boss of Popular Song. Take for example the song she sang in 1997. Three purposes for this song, to my mind. Three objectives. Objective no. 1: Win Céline Dion boatloads of prestigious awards: Grammys, Oscars, even a Golden Globe. Objective no. 2: Hit no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, vanquishing, for example, the fuckin’ “Macarena.” And objective no. 3: Finally, definitively win over all those snooty music critics who dismiss her as walking, breathing, living cheese. Well, don’t be sad, ’cause two out of three ain’t bad.
Indeed, this week we’re talking about “My Heart Will Go On,” from Céline Dion’s 1997 album Let’s Talk About Love—31 million copies sold worldwide. This song appears, as well, on the soundtrack to the James Cameron feature film Titanic, which also came out in 1997 and grossed more than $2 billion. I went to see Titanic in the theater on a double date and on the drive home I idly considered trying to make myself cry so as to appear more sensitive. Right off the rip, actually, I want to play you my favorite part of this song.
It’s the background dudes cowering in the storm cellar there: Why does the heart go on? It’s lovely. Isn’t it? I think it’s lovely.
She was born Céline Marie Claudette Dion, in 1968, in Charlemagne, Quebec. Youngest of 14 children. Her debut album, La Voix du Bon Dieu, was released in 1981, when she was 13.
That’s French! Album’s French language. Quebec only. That’s from the title track; La Voix du Bon Dieu translates as The Good Lord’s Voice. Check out that debut album cover—there’s a neat little echo of the substantially more famous Let’s Talk About Love cover, or the other way around I guess. Celiné flush to the right, brown eyes, Serious Expression. It’s a cool parallel, to me. From the nonce young Céline was managed by a gentleman named René Angélil, 26 years her senior, who mortgaged his house to put her debut record out. I suspect that you are familiar with the 33⅓ book series (and podcast), each book is about one specific album, they got over 150 books at this point, but the all-time best-seller in that series, according to the 33⅓ brain trust itself, is the book about Let’s Talk About Love, written by the Canadian music critic Carl Wilson. Fantastic book. Full title of that book actually is Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste. Because Carl is not, or was not at the time, a Céline Dion fan. Didn’t like her. He wanted to figure out why millions and millions of people loved her, but he (and seemingly millions and millions of other people) did not.
But Carl, by dint of being Canadian himself, can also speak to the Canada of it all, the Quebec of it all. And what’s immediately striking is that at 13 years old Céline is already very much not a critics’ darling. Carl writes that “Quebec radio said her syrupy ballads were fit only for nursing homes.” People made fun of her looks, her non-pop-star looks, her bushy hair, her teeth, whatever. The Mad magazine equivalent in Quebec, which existed, called her “Canine Dion.” The French have this word kétaine: cheesy, tacky, hickish, provincial, I guess. And so now you’ve got a guy saying about Céline, “She wasn’t simply perceived as kétaine—she was kétaine.”
Undeterred, Céline put out eight French-language albums in the ’80s. And seven more since then: three in the ’90s, amid all her other activities, and one as recently as 2016. She has for sure not jettisoned this French element, this foundation of her career. I’m bopping around now on message boards and the like—I do it so you don’t have to—and you can of course find people who insist that Céline singing in French is superior to Céline singing in English: The theory being there’s a singular confidence, a passion, a softness, a nuance to Céline Dion singing in French. She puts down the bazooka. I wonder, though, if part of the appeal of French-language Céline, if you’re indifferent to her or even outright hostile to her, is that if you don’t speak French you don’t know what she’s saying. Lyrically, her best-loved songs are so broad, so direct, so sentimental, so lovey-dovey—if you don’t like her lyrics perhaps you find them florid and trite and melodramatic. But so with the French stuff, you can just luxuriate in the military-industrial spa day opulence of her voice, and not worry about what she means.
Céline Dion made her full-length English-language debut in 1990, with an album called Unison. I am listening now to these first few crossover Céline albums and I am preferring them, as full-length experiences, to the blockbuster Population of Ghana albums coming very soon. I feel a little more relaxed with these records, than the Let’s Talk About Love–tier records. And this has to be recency bias, on my part, or Oh, I Forgot About That Song bias. I really like being reminded about songs I forgot about. I’m having a good time here.
There’s that bazooka. “Where Does My Heart Beat Now.” I forgot about that song. There’s a song on Unison called “I Feel Too Much.” I think her fans took it as a promise. I think Céline thinks that her fans think that however much she feels, it’ll never be enough, or at least, she could always feel more. She could always feel harder. And so the Feelings Arms Race was on. I am honestly digging her self-titled 1992 album, the Céline Dion album, quite a bit. I am relaxed even when she is not.
To hear the full episode click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.