“You can say no, but do you mind if I turn on my Céline Dion playlist?”
When I hear this, I am face-down, shirtless and instantly ecstatic. The context isn’t an uncommonly successful date, but my first massage in a long while. It is February 2020, the previous few months have been an uncharacteristically harrowing interpersonal time I very much hope to purge from my muscle memory, and I don’t know it yet, but lockdown (the first one) is less than a month away.
During the opening notes of Because You Loved Me—“a jam,” per my new RMT—a stubborn knot near my right trapezius unglues, and I sob quietly for the next 50 minutes. Harmeet is gifted, but I know from a lifetime of experience who is really responsible for this.
I have a vivid memory of when Céline Dion entered my life—and not just because of the aggressively yellow branding of the Cambridge, Ont.-area Hy & Zel’s checkout where my mom impulse-bought The Colour of My Love. I was just shy of seven, and the Charlemagne, Que., native was still unaware that her supernatural mezzo-soprano would spawn a 40-year career, 27 studio albums, two Vegas residencies, an abundance of critical eye-rolling and endless Saturday Night Live impressions. At that point, she hadn’t even married René.
Track one—on the album and for me—was The Power of Love, the vocal crescendo of which sounds like a human woman instantaneously shapeshifting into a shredded electric guitar. Her delivery is the reason I’m still enamoured with Céline Dion in 2021: she unselfconsciously expressed the outsized things I felt internally, and at the same relative amplitude.
As a species, we’ve been through a lot these past, well, years, and undoubtedly we have plenty to get off our chests—ideally face to face. A good cry, or a primal scream, would be nice, perhaps delivered in unison, middle fingers raised to the plague. With a just-announced documentary in the pipeline, a recently released (unauthorized) biopic called Aline dividing critics the world over and an anthemic gum commercial celebrating our reintroduction to high-contact society, perhaps Céline heard our clarion call for emotional release. I’m biased, but I’d say we’ve never needed her more.
It seems egotistical to lay claim to a uniquely sensitive disposition when empathy is, at least in theory, a factory setting for humanity. But the older I get, and the more people I meet, I feel it’s safe to say that some of us are just born porous. Some canonical proof: in video footage of my third birthday, my demeanour can best be described as “deeply concerned” while the other kids excitedly await my cake reveal. My parents were careful to choose their moments when playing musicals, lest their operatic quality turn me and my brother into tiny, puddly messes. “Noticing things” was an extreme sport. Like most teens, before bed I would turn on my parents’ boombox and ruminate on my crush’s utter indifference to my existence. Unlike most teens, however, my go-to was Water from the Moon, the fifth single off Dion’s second English-language studio album—and I was eight.
It wasn’t until my late 20s that it occurred to me that I might not simply be garden-variety anxious or “artistic,” but an empath. It’s a term used by some millennials as a chic way to say they’re codependent, but it is, in actuality, an experience increasingly defined in clinical settings—namely, a person so highly attuned to the emotions of others that they feel them in their own body. There are upsides, like rich friendships and deep insights. There are downsides, too: to this day, trips to the mall can feel tantamount to a personal attack, and I’ve never understood the concept of a single tear. With some egregious exceptions, I have a gut-deep sense for when people are lying. (Internally, it feels like someone strummed a C chord and an F came out.) I’ve never felt that dissonance from Céline Dion.
I don’t exactly adhere to the all-encompassing blood-oath expectations of contemporary music fandoms: I know all of her B-sides, including the French ones, but you will never hear me sing them out loud. I won’t be indiscriminately stockpiling gender-neutral onesies from Dion’s children’s apparel line, Celinununu, for the kids I don’t have. I will not be planning a car tour of her siblings’ properties, and, while I’m sorry to see Dion’s reupped Vegas residency postponed, I would not have attended: I’ve always feared I might physically react to a live rendition of All by Myself the way a glass dish reacts to a microwave: with a loud “pouf,” followed by an immediate shattering.
“Ce n’était qu’un rêve,” a song co-written by Dion with her mother, Thérèse, and her brother Jacques when Dion was 12. In 2004, Dion told Oprah Winfrey it’s one of her favourites.
Listening to Céline Dion—and later mainlining interviews and documentaries—was my introduction to the parasocial relationship between entertainer and entertained, and what compelled me was our seeming temperamental sameness. She was a sort of vibrational mirror, except Quebec’s favourite daughter bounced those tidal-wave feelings right back at the world, trading mainly in cinematic notions of love. She literally named her Laval, Que.-based production company Feeling Inc. She cried onstage, and people cried with her. She didn’t look burdened; she looked powerful.
Of course, this effusiveness made her immediately suspect to music critics, who are coolly detached by profession. Despite her five Grammy wins, every one of Dion’s albums has been met with at least a modicum of industry derision. The typical chorus claimed that she was too overwrought or sentimental; one critic described 2004’s A New Day Has Come as “a lengthy collection of drippy, gooey pop fluffer-nutter.” On the odd record where her emotions weren’t at their trademark full bore, she was accused of pandering to the lowest common denominator—or, weirdly enough, being tonally insensitive. (One writer lambasted her foray into “EDM and AutoTune frippery” on 2018’s Courage, an album on which she processed the loss of her husband.)
Canada’s Carl Wilson was the rare critic who interrogated his own knee-jerk skepticism, resulting in Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, a widely referenced examination of the star’s polarizing persona and what gets to be “cool.” In the book, Wilson writes, “Her music struck me as bland monotony raised to a pitch of obnoxious bombast—R&B with the sex and slyness surgically removed, French chanson severed from its wit and soul . . . Oprah Winfrey-approved chicken soup for the consumerist soul, a neverending crescendo of personal affirmation deaf to social conflict and context.”
On the phone from his home in Toronto in late September, Wilson’s tone has no such edge. “It’s that demonstrativeness that inspires so much affection for her,” he says.
Unlike fellow divas—including Madonna, with whom she has shared the “Queen of Pop” superlative—Dion’s ability to stay in our hearts doesn’t hinge on compulsive rebranding along with whatever’s currently de rigueur. “She doesn’t age in the same way as a lot of artists that are 20 years past their peak,” Wilson says. “Her cartoonish persona really keeps her seeming vivid. And she’s not really putting herself in a position to look dated by aiming to keep herself in the charts.”
Dion’s ability to channel the oft-closeted “extraness” of the human experience in song is especially pronounced in the current musical landscape, which seems reflective of our Bezosian desire to keep moving and keep consuming without too much of a mental tax on ourselves. In 2021, who has the bandwidth?
Shoes. In a “Carpool Karaoke” appearance, Dion told The Late Late Show’s James Corden that she has 10,000 pairs of shoes. He made her give some away. Not these ones, though, which were commissioned for Dion and made by Toronto set designer Caitlin Doherty.
This might explain the recent doubling-down on interpolation, a royalty-rich, Frankensteinian practice of repurposing an existing song’s composition in service of new output. On Sour, the year’s biggest debut, Olivia Rodrigo cribs from multiple pop-rock heavyweights: Taylor Swift, Paramore and Elvis Costello. Even Drake, the self-described Certified Lover Boy who popularized being “in our feelings” and once announced his intention to tattoo Dion’s face on his body, appears to derive most of his emotional clout from wearing soft sweaters and endless mentions of his mom. In many ways, music now feels a lot like A.I.: it appears to possess a human soul, but it doesn’t, really.
Coming off four years of the worst presidency ever, a racial reckoning, a plague that sent us all to our rooms and spawned a new strain of depression and the constant threat of almost certain environmental doom, we’re all in desperate need of a healing, cohesive cultural experience. For her ability to capitalize on what were once widely regarded as her biggest liabilities—unsettlingly sustained vulnerability and chronicling life’s highest-impact moments in an easily digestible format— Céline Dion is the musical defibrillator for this exact moment.
There’s a fine line between affected and afflicted, and I sometimes think Dion’s secret to success, both personally and professionally, is her ability to exist in perpetual catharsis. Wilson seems to agree. “She’s not speaking to [how] people feel in any precise way,” he says. “It’s more that she’s modelling someone who is ‘in her feelings,’ and externalizing them.”
Dion extends herself outward to us in a few ways. The first is, obviously, through her voice—which, when listened to at high registers, can feel like you’re being shot in the chest through the ear. She’s the rare entertainer whose vocals are frequently compared to an actual instrument—a numinous sound that’s simultaneously tender and not at all gentle, which Dion cultivates with an appropriately religious dedication to special diets, exercises and silence.
The next is her relentlessly warm, cornball nature—one you’d think is a stage gimmick if you’d never clocked its spillover into her promotional interviews. High fives, crossed eyes and entirely spontaneous childlike bursts of song are all regular parts of Dion’s campy rapport-building strategy. It’s her flamboyance and affinity for physical comedy that make her a fit with the gold-plated tomfoolery of the Las Vegas strip, where she’ll eventually return for a 10-show run timed to the 25th anniversary of Falling Into You. It’s her first without René Angélil’s inscrutable gaze overseeing things, but since his death, she’s been spotted sporting a suitably glittery cap that reads “Boss.”
While there are endless examples of Dion’s distance from the average person—her televised wedding at Montreal’s Notre-Dame Basilica; the camels at her vow-renewal ceremony; her 10,000-strong shoe collection—her bombast makes her the perfect surrogate to produce art about the high-level themes that touch all of us. The organizing principle of Dion’s oeuvre is unquestionably romantic love, and all of its attendant desperation and complications, even though she herself only ever dated one person (her manager), and later entered into a multi-decade fairytale marriage with him.
When Dion sings about relationships, she resorts to the same delusionally passionate absolutes we all privately hold, just out loud: when someone reaches for her, she does all that she can (The Power of Love); when she’s sorry, she’s sorry for the rest of her life (Sorry for Love); and when she surrenders, she surrenders everything (I Surrender).
But she’s also the rare artist who can carry off songs about love in the larger, Greek sense: agape, the kind shared among all the members of our species. Dion regularly dips into universal topics like children’s welfare (Prayer), motherhood (The Greatest Reward), the wound of human division (Where Is the Love) and feeling S.O.L. (Rain, Tax (It’s Inevitable)). Perhaps this is why her music tends to be the preferred sonic backdrop at gatherings where overt displays of emotion are met with approval rather than judgment: funerals, weddings, drag shows, large sporting events and karaoke performances. The kind most of us haven’t enjoyed in a while.
In Let’s Talk About Love, Wilson cites a study commissioned by Dion’s label in the mid-2000s that revealed that her fans are distributed across all income brackets. Though her releases are close to an even English-French split, she’s also recorded in Spanish, Italian, German and even Mandarin.
Golf. In 1997, Dion and her husband, René Angélil, purchased a golf club where they hosted the likes of Sylvester Stallone, Engelbert Humperdinck and Muhammad Ali.
Dion is a businesswoman who’s aware that her greatest strength lies in bonding en masse. When you venture to form genuine connections by the millions—even if that’s by making people sob uncontrollably to the Titanic soundtrack—an awful lot of people seem to open their hearts to you in return.
At no point was this more evident than in the period following the death of her husband from throat cancer in 2016. Breathless media coverage was dedicated to Angélil’s funeral—televised, like their wedding—and whether or not bereavement was leaving Dion too thin. At the time, I was working at a women’s magazine, and the moment the news hit Twitter, the office went silent. Later that day, as I travelled across downtown Toronto in an Uber, the driver turned around to me at a stoplight and said, with a sincerity that’s painful to recall, “I just want her to be happy.”
It can be difficult, if not impossible, to be deeply invested while perceiving everything acutely all the time. As a journalist, I am contractually obligated to pay attention, but as a sensitive, bisexual woman living through whatever’s happening on Earth in 2021, I’ve learned to be selective about which people and which newsfeed disasters I de-armour for. Despite being, in many ways, the consummate performer, Dion has always managed to achieve a reciprocal empathy with her fans that is—to myself and millions of others around the world—both unavoidable and aspirational. She leverages a quality that is paradoxically lonely, and yet moves us all.
Conversations around vulnerability have evolved by light years since I first lifted my mom’s grocery store CD, to the point where—as Carl Wilson joked to me—the world “has finally aged into [Céline].” In 2015, queer American artist Lora Mathis coined the phrase “radical softness as a weapon,” which is the idea that, in a society that considers emotion a weakness, sharing your heart is an inherently political stance.
The idea that Céline Dion is subversive in any way sounds patently ridiculous, unless you share in the belief that many of our current (and stickiest) collective messes can be boiled down to a reckless, narcissistic dissociation from others and the planet. And at a point where something (anything) unifying would go a long way, Dion’s particular skill set—delivering sonic hits of oxytocin while thumping her chest and yelling “Shall we go for it?”—seems pretty damn heroic.
It’s no coincidence that one of this year’s most celebrated commercial spots—an Extra gum ad titled “For When It’s Time” that imagines a euphoric return to normal—is backed by one of Dion’s most unrestrained singles. Zoom-free meetups, haircuts, public makeouts: they’re all coming back to us now. Who else would know that’s exactly what we’ve needed to hear?
This essay appears in print in the December 2021 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Coming back to us now.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.