Her list of crimes is long and harrowing: the beautiful five-octave voice being used to beat songs into submission; the endlessly rambling anecdotes about her husband and child; the fashion disasters like the Academy Awards backwards white tuxedo; the cover versions of legendary songs she had no business going near (John Lennon, really?); the unspeakable CD/coffee-table book project with creepy baby puppeteer Anne Geddes; and of course that song. The iceberg we couldn’t avoid for years on end.
Yes, Céline Dion has a lot to answer for but my own longstanding grudge against her is purely personal: years ago, while I was soft putty in the grip of young love, I dated a Céline fan. Romance curdled into something terrifying as he would turn the lights down low, place Falling Into You in the CD tray and lean in for a kiss while his diva wailed, “Because You Loved Me.”
“That’s when you run for the door,” says New York-based comedian Robert Keller, “Making out to Céline Dion is not normal behaviour for human beings.” Growing up in Montreal, Keller couldn’t escape the budding pop diva. As a young girl, he says, “Céline sang this song about peace for the Pope’s visit in 1983 and they released a thousand white doves. Even then her aesthetic was over-the-top.”
Keller turned his fear into a performance as he developed his comedy lounge act in New York back in 2006, “I wanted to start doing characters,” he says, “and my friends all said, ‘You’re killing us with the Céline impressions’ so I needed an outlet.” He dressed up in a replica of her bizarre 1998 Oscar outfit and discovered, “I looked just like her.” Keller now loves performing as Dion, dropping into a nasal Quebecois accent to utter her infamous fortune-cookie-from- Harlem profundities: “It’s all about the love, girlfriend. Love is the most important thing to have. Big time.” He quotes the singer in an interview in which she insisted, “I do not talk about politics, dot com.” “She obviously meant to say period,” Keller laughs, “but how funny is that? She’s spent 16 years in America and is still less articulate than Charo.
“I do have a love/hate relationship with Céline ,” Keller says insisting he’s not just being mean. “If you merely dislike someone, you won’t be able to sustain the interest to study them. I truly find her fascinating.” He’s not alone. Female comedians do Céline Dion impressions the ways guys love Christopher Walken. Saturday Night Live’s Ana Gasteyer got great mileage out of her version of Dion as a oblivious narcissist who regularly proclaims, “I am zee greatest singer in zee world!” Or perhaps the biggest punchline: in 1999, The Daily Show’s Beth Littleford skewered Dion for her numerous (and temporary) farewell concerts (“Céline, we can’t miss you if you don’t leave!”) while these days, Kathy Griffin typically goes for the jugular mocking Dion’s May-December marriage to her manager Rene Angelil, 26 years her senior, by cheerfully calling him “the child molester.” Griffin informs her shocked audiences that Angelil “is in his early hundreds. He’s actually the oldest living Canadian.”
Toronto actress, performer and fab cover girl Laura Landauer agrees that Dion is fascinating. Lanauer’s emulation is nowhere near as cruel and it’s the most spectacularly dead-on impression out there. “People kept telling me I looked like her,” she says. After starting out on a dare as a female Elvis in Collingwood, Landauer began acting and singing as the Quebec diva. Her hilarious Céline Dion Workout video is a YouTube favourite. “I’m a huge fan,” says Keller of Laura, “She’s so funny and she really captures the essence of Céline.” Landauer admits that it’s not even so hard. “I just flip a switch—she’s already in my head.”
Although she considers her act to be more performance art than a straightforward impression (“it’s the whole package”), Landauer admits to watching drag queens for tips. “Because they aren’t singing, they focus on gesture and movement and some of them are bang-on.” That said, however, she’s still as stumped as I am over why Dion and her middlebrow music have proved popular with many gay men. Traditionally, gay men have loved Madonna’s transgressions, Cyndi’s support, Kylie’s flashiness, Mariah’s hyper-femininity and Britney’s…Britney-ness. But what does Céline have?
Rich Juzwiak, a gay blogger for VH1, has a theory. He edited footage from Dion’s Las Vegas concert DVD into a five-minute YouTube manifesto, Hypothesis: Céline Dion is fucking amazing. Though his droll checklist of Dion’s wacky mannerisms leaves the viewer unsure whether he’s come to praise or bury the singer, Juzwiak insists he loves this concert DVD for being “a treasure trove of unrelenting ingeniousness. Céline Dion and Vegas were a pairing meant to happen, like chocolate and peanut butter.” He laughs, “I bought the DVD assuming it would be ridiculously entertaining but I had no idea it would be the mother lode.”
“Camp always has this ‘is it ironic or not ironic’ question about it,” says Carl Wilson, music critic for The Globe and Mail, but he notes it would be unfair to assume that’s all there is to Dion’s appeal. “In some ways, she’s less self-consciously campy than, say, Cher. She doesn’t really seem to have a sense of irony.” This becomes painfully apparent whenever the songstress leaves her bubble of love and engages with the real world. In an appearance on CNN during Louisiana’s Hurricane Katrina crisis in 2005, Dion cried onscreen, pledged to donate $1 million to help and, infamously, absolved looters: “Oh, they’re stealing 20 pair of jeans or they’re stealing television sets. Who cares? Some of the people who do that, they’re so poor they’ve never touched anything in their lives. Let them touch those things for once.” Without a lick of self-awareness, Dion said, “I’m not thinking with my head, I’m talking with my heart.” Landauer shakes her head and laughs at the memory while Keller, more cynical, notes that “she’s been a performer since she was 13.” Listening to Dion weep for the poor is like listening to George W. Bush insist that everything is under control: you start to hate them for being so full of shit until that eerie moment when you realize they fervently believe every word they’re saying.
In a cynical age, it’s easy to see Dion as some deluded rich shut-in, or worse, a schemer who taps champagne glasses with Rene and laughs about the Anglos who buy her crap. But Céline Dion is nothing if not honest—probably too honest. There’s a bloodcurdling scene on the Las Vegas DVD in which she meets a young, wheelchair-bound fan and imparts her wisdom. “Some people have everything…they have nothing,” she gushes. “Oh my God,” says Landauer, “How did her people approve that and put it on the DVD?” Juzwiak loves it, noting that such accidental smarm is throughout Dion’s music, “I find Céline Dion soulless more often than not but she’s so committed to that soullessness that there’s honesty there anyway. She might not mean what she says but she’s certainly convinced about saying it.”
Wilson, like many, finds Dion a curious entity and even wrote a book on her for the 33/3 musical anthology series called Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, a brilliant, often hilarious takedown of Dion and her music. Wilson wanted to explore the notion of “popularity vs. critical acclaim” and had to decide on which singer exemplified that. “Because I’m Canadian and lived in Montreal for a long time, Céline was more of an irritant to me,” he laughs, quoting the South Park movie song “Blame Canada” with the line, “When Canada’s dead and gone, there’ll be no more Céline Dion.” But in defending our country, Wilson also grudgingly came around to defending its diva. “There’s something endearingly gawky and weird about her persona,” he says. “She has this old-fashioned idea of elegance but she’s a bit too much of a hick to pull it off.”
Juzwiak agrees, saying, “She’s almost like a throwback in the Barbara Streisand virtuoso sense.” He thinks Céline Dion’s highpoint came with “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now,” a song from Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell maestro Jim Steinman. It was a perfect union of bombastic styles proving while Meat Loaf would do anything for love but not that, Dion has no such limits. “It’s an epic seven minutes of thunderclaps and wailing sonic theatre,” laughs Juzwiak and even Wilson agrees that “the theatricality of the song suits her so much.”
Though Juzwiak wishes Dion would take chances with her music and Wilson prefers her French material, the diva will surely outlast her critics. Wilson notes that three of the top 25 bestselling albums of all time are Céline Dion albums so she must be doing something right. Landauer teases the diva for a living but still says, “Do I listen to Céline for pleasure? Absolutely. Even my husband does now and he never liked her before.” In researching her role, the actress says, “I read stories from Céline fans whose lives were changed by her music. One man had thoughts of suicide until he heard one of her songs on the radio.” That’s interesting, I tell her, because I usually have the opposite reaction. Landauer laughs but says, “It can seem scary that Céline is like a religion to some of these people but there are worse things to believe in.”
“What’s adorable about Céline,” concludes Wilson, “is that she’s not cool and there’s something to respect in the way she doesn’t strive to be. In our culture right now, cool is so overvalued that there’s something kind of nice about that.” Juzwiak quotes a Guy Maddin line from Wilson’s book. “I think that melodrama isn’t life exaggerated but life uninhibited.’” In her best musical moments, says Wilson (mostly the French ones), Dion achieves her straightforward, full-on quest for direct emotion but, judging from her massive success, the tackiest English songs are working too. It’s as though her music so overloads the brain with cheese that it can only shut down, allowing the heart to go on and on. I’m not sure ‘turning off your brain’ is totally fair,” Wilson laughs, “but it definitely is about being willing to be vulnerable to those big expressions of emotion.”
Vulnerability is what drives Dion’s critics nuts, muses Landauer, suggesting that “the haters can’t stand to be confronted with someone who lives life so freely. Céline just puts it all out there and doesn’t care what anybody thinks.” Juzwiak agrees, admitting, “It’s kind of freeing to see someone be that big of a cheese ball.”