When Did Celine Dion Become Cool?
As a certified gossip hound who spends an awful lot of my time online looking up stuff on celebrities - for entirely analytical purposes, you understand - I’ve found myself becoming increasingly drawn to coverage of Quebec’s finest, Ms Celine Dion. Her music does nothing for me and I’d never given her much thought before, but recently, I’ve been completely taken by her bonkers charm and wholehearted dedication to doing the absolute most at any given time. Every outfit is lavish to the point of baroque, even if it’s just for the photographers watching her go from the hotel to the car; Each encounter with another celebrity highlights how immensely beloved she has become, or perhaps always was in the industry; Even the bastion of sartorial elitism, Vogue Magazine, has welcomed her under their wing with a fabulous French photo-shoot where she worked the fashion better than women half her age. At the age of 49, after close to 37 years in the industry, Celine Dion is having a moment, and I am living for it.
Dion’s music has always been defined by its seeming aversion to the notion of ‘cool’. While the range and marvel of her voice, powerful but immensely controlled, has never been denied, her genre choices have been something of a punching bag for music critics since she hit the big time. She’s an easy listening queen: Big ballads, lavish declarations of love, key changes to shatter glass, and teeth-rotting in their sentimentality. It’s pop with the whitest soul imaginable, and ready for the biggest audience possible. No moment is so big that it can’t be bigger. That’s worked out well for her, as the 250m worldwide sales can attest to.
Dion herself has also been consistently easy to mock. She’s goofy, she’s performative, she’s utterly committed to every moment being a show. She’s always on, and that can be exhausting. When you’re uncool, you expect those things, but that’s another part of Dion’s charm that has often passed by, unnoticed by those who find her too much: She knows she’s a lot and she entirely owns it.
There’s a wonderful book called Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste by Canadian music critic Carl Wilson that attempts to understand why her critically mauled music is so popular, and why Wilson himself is so averse to it. While he does not change his mind on her songs, viewed mostly through the album that catapulted her to international English language success, he does display enormous empathy to the Dion fans who find solace in her work, and gives Dion credit for everything her career encapsulates. That book came out a decade ago, and not much of Dion’s career has gone under any major changes. She’s still headlining at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas - where her original residency helped to revive the practice in the city for stars like Elton John and Rod Stewart - she’s still releasing new music in both English and French, and she’s still that same personality. The only difference is now we’re ready for it.
Of course, the major change in her life was the death of her husband and manager, René Angelil. The pair met when she was 12 and he was 38, and he had managed her ever since, eventually beginning a relationship with her when she turned 19. This has always been a discomfiting pairing to watch, despite Dion’s frequent declarations of love for Angelil (the pair had three children together). I don’t doubt the strength of her feelings for her husband, but one couldn’t help but think of grooming when it came to Angelil, going from managing a girl who respected and trusted him from a pre-adolescent age to spending her life with him. This was made all the harder for many of us to watch as Dion has been consistently candid about her private life in interviews: She talked openly of her struggles to conceive and centred Angelil as an inspiration for her dramatic love ballads. He was always on the side watching, even in interviews with Oprah (Dion appeared as a guest on her talk show more than any other celebrity). When Angelil died, his Montreal funeral was close to a state-wide event of national mourning, and Dion stood for hour to accept sympathies from hundreds of well-wishers. Her performance at the following Billboard Awards saw her sing Queen’s ‘The Show Must Go On’, and ever the show-woman, she made sure the show went on.
Following Angelil’s death, Dion has marched on and continued her public grieving as well as her typically goofy celebration of life. Really, she’s not doing much now that she hasn’t for 20-odd years in the spotlight. If nothing else, the past year of her life has shown the good of a wardrobe change.
Stylist Law Roach, the first black stylist to cover the annual Hollywood Reporter ‘Stylists and Stars’ issue, has treated Dion as the couture Vegas canvas she’s always been. Dion’s fashion has frequently been daring and strange, but now it feels more complete, as Roach’s guiding hand steers her towards vintage clothes mixed with statement pieces. He understands that every moment is a show for Celine, and he doesn’t miss an opportunity to show that off. In an interview with Pret-a-Reporter regarding her incredible puffy-sleeved Billboard Awards gown, Roach noted that Celine ‘can literally wear, and will wear anything’. That amazing wardrobe - part opera headliner, part international jewel thief, part Parisian vampire - simply shines a brighter spotlight on everything Dion has already been. She’s never given a fuck, but now she doesn’t give a fuck while wearing couture, including an oversized designer sweatshirt with the Titanic image emblazoned on the front.
Everyone else is seeing her new coolness now, or at least they now feel unashamed in expressing it. Drake gushed over her at the Billboard awards, admitting he was ‘like a year away’ from getting a Dion tattoo; Adele bowed to her as she accepted a Grammy from her; even Rick Rubin and Timbaland expressed interest in working with her. Her last English language album, Loved Me Back to Life, included production from Ne-Yo and a song written by Sia. It’s also pretty damn good.
Perhaps there’s more open love for her because it’s just not cool to hate her anymore. There are new music punching bags - Canada alone doesn’t need Dion to shoulder that burden now that Justin Bieber’s continuing to exist - and she’s not the inescapable omnipresence she once was in the ’90s after Titanic hoisted her onto every radio station for years. After so many years of supposedly being shoved in everyone’s face, a healthy distance has given everyone a chance to re-evaluate their Dion disdain, and people like what they see.
Society is exceptionally shitty to women who age. Look at how Madonna, one of the great pop stars of our age and constant pusher of the cultural zeitgeist, was tossed aside for daring to own her muscled sexiness in her 50s. It didn’t matter that her music was still great (Rebel Heart is a stomping good album) because she was ‘too old’ for young people and the radio. Dion has never been a bastion of youth culture, and she’s often seemed much older than she is, but now as she approaches 50, there’s a fascinating zest to her public persona, even as the music remains in its adult contemporary box. She’s become almost timeless, but now with thigh high boots.
‘Authenticity’ is a false standard to hold any public person to because the goalposts always change and it’s an absolute necessity to have some sort of shield to your image in order to survive the spotlight. Audiences are pathetically fickle but they generally have a good nose for what feels real and what doesn’t. It’s why Taylor Swift’s achingly choreographed perfect life doesn’t ring true, nor does Madonna’s strained shock tactics. Beyoncé isn’t perfect, but her persona and the slivers of insight she gives her fans about her life are perfectly choreographed to convey an ethereal brand that means so much to so many, particularly young black women. Dion has a similarly unabashed excitement for her big rich life - the Vegas home, the diamonds, the world travelling - but she holds no pretensions regarding herself. She’s far too giddily silly for that, and that’s so easy to appreciate.
Dion is currently in Paris for the French leg of her European tour, and every moment is glorious to watch, even if it’s simply to gawk at her latest sartorial success in walking from the hotel to the taxi. It’s always a thrill to watch women living their best lives, free of having to prove something to the world. Celine will continue to sell millions of albums, perform to sold out venues across the globe, and make her Las Vegas residency the record breaking success she pioneered. Little has changed from the days of her peak; maybe it’s just me that’s changed.
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