22 January 2009

I've Celine that face before.

So, an excerpt from my exigesis on last week's Celine Dion show got used in the Nashville Scene in their "The Spin" music gossip column, and you can read it here.

But there's more fun to be had on that front, y'all. Without further ado, here's my unedited thoughts on l'Affaire Dion.

Dion and on.

You know that feeling, that “I’m gonna sit in this car outside of this son of a bitch’s house with this bottle of Boone’s Farm until he realizes that we’re meant to be together” feeling? Well, Céline Dion does too, and even the most die-hard ironist had to bow down before the ‘wake up and love me’ passionate desperation of “To Love You More,” the 1996 sometime hit that she used to close the ‘Here’s the Hits’ opening portion of her show at the Sommet Center. We wanted some diva moments, and Canada’s most endearing export since Edith Prickley delivered in full.

Never anything less than completely committed to the songs, which she nurtures to maturity using melisma and Intellabeams, she nonetheless spends her between-song patter as a goofy spaz who loves nothing more than making silly faces or sincerely asking the audience’s permission to perform songs that people’d gleefully shelled out dollars to hear in the first place. If she weren’t so completely genuine, it would seem like Gena Rowlands-in-Opening Night madness, and yet you come away from the Taking Chances tour with the kind of respect normally afforded to civil engineers or a really adventurous chef.

Her commitment, especially during the ‘didn’t see that coming’ James Brown medley, her fits of floor-writhing ecstasy during her Andrea Bocelli duet “The Prayer,” and during a fierce barrel through her 1995 Francophone career-definer “Pour Que Tu M’Aimes Encore,” is unquestionable. It’s weird, though, how so many of her songs could be seen as other artists’. She’s had a gift for much of her career for taking others’ almost-theres and minor hits and making them into something major and epic.

“The Power of Love,” written and initially recorded by Jennifer Rush but then also a big pop hit for Laura Branigan, is now Celine’s. Her Jim Steinman collaboration was originally a minor UK flash for the producer’s attempted girl group Pandora’s Box. Tonight’s show opened with “I Drove All Night,” which was recorded by both Roy Orbison and (definitvely) Cyndi Lauper. And we also got a cover of Heart’s “Alone.” Similarly, we had Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself” and a take on the Phil Spector/Tina Turner classic “River Deep, Mountain High.” That Dion is not a songwriter (often) is not up for a debate. But it’s fascinating that she takes the same approach to pop music as her fans do, finding the songs that speak to her and giving them voice as she sees it.

What she excels at are songs where there is some distancing factor; not to say some form of irony or dramatic device, but more where she incarnates a character in the song who is at a remove from song’s object. Perhaps a remembrance, a crippling regret, a dramatic shift between indicative and subjunctive tenses; these are the hallmarks of the truly exceptional Dion offering.

She shines as the outsider, whether as the shunted one who wants “To Love You More,” or the narratrix of the so-devastating-they-couldn’t-even-translate-it-into-English/’What would Bible Belt America think of this” “Le Fils du Superman,” or, in the shimmering, 60s girl-group coulda been “I Love You,” from 1996, where the subject and object of the song’s profound love don’t even get to speak to one another directly until the bridge.

And then, of course, there’s that Titanic song. And that’s the key to Céline Dion. You can’t approach her or her songs ironically (Oh, if only she’d recorded a theme song for Revolutionary Road…). That’s why The Mattoid’s cover of “My Heart Will Go On” seems like such a great idea in the abstract, then just becomes painful in the concrete. You have to give props to a woman who ties herself to the vicissitudes of pop music without hesitation. At times, that means feeling a bit like you’re at a show in Blanche and Baby Jane’s living room, but it’s unquestionably worth it.

Why does the heart go on? It’s a grammatically awkward and lyrically inconclusive song, and there’s not a single other big ticket diva who could tackle it and make it work. It’s not in their personae as singers to allow that much uncertainty into their work, and Dion thrives on precisely that.

When you listen to “Pour que Tu m’Aimes Encore,” or even its English version “If That’s What It Takes,” there’s an almost submissive streak in the lyrics, and that’s what allows her voice to thrive. Divas by the dozens use their voice to let you know who calls the shots, and Dion, with just an occasional shift in phrasing, says that’s not always the case. It’s why the only enduring ballad that Mariah Carey has ever recorded is “I Don’t Wanna Cry,” where she uses her silky (and hence almost completely unused) lower register for the first two thirds of the song. There’s a dangerous sincerity there that practically defines Céline Dion’s best work.

She has the rigid and fierce articulation of a drag queen, which is meant as a complement. Gestures carry a lot of meaning across, especially when dealing with as polyglot a fanbase as Dion’s. I’d love to see one of her shows in France, or Belgium, or Québec; it’s no secret I adore her Francophone material, and her whole policy of only performing one song in French at U.S. shows I find somewhat of a shortchanging. The glittery black bell bottoms, the toreador dancers, the extended Chrysler dancer remix that opens the show, even the ceaseless thanking of the audience. You feel like that’s just how she is, and she’d be doing it even if millions of people worldwide weren’t there to see it.

That joy and that drive, that’s rarer than unicorns or decent Vandy parking. Sincerity, even strapped to the hood of a Jim Steinman roadster like “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now,” punches through even the thickest of Lithium and Zoloft hazes, and it’s no surprise that the near twenty thousand faces filing out after the show were moved. I went with two pregnant women and an angel-faced vixen whose name was, in fact, Love, and we felt it for the rest of the night, the four of us.

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