Question: Who is America’s favorite singer? Mariah Carey? Nope. Whitney Houston? Try again. Lady Gaga? Please. America has voted, and the undisputed champion is the French-Canadian singer extraordinaire, Celine Dion. At least that’s the conclusion of a recent survey conducted by Harris Polls. So if you think “My Heart Will Go On” sank with the Titanic, it didn’t. Celine Dion beat out U2, Elvis, The Beatles, and Tim McGraw for the coveted position of America’s most-loved singer/musician or band. Lady Gaga didn’t even crack the top 5, proving outrageous costumes and innovative videos can’t compete with power ballads sung from the bow of an epic boat.
To better understand the diva’s everlasting popularity, we spoke with Carl Wilson, a music critic who spent a lot of time thinking about the phenomenon that is Celine Dion while writing a book about her career, entitled Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste.
Flavorpill: Are you surprised to hear that Celine Dion is still America’s favorite musician?
Carl Wilson: I’m not surprised, given how enormously popular Celine was in her heyday: She was one of the biggest stars of the 1990s. That doesn’t just fade away in a decade. To make a comparison that’ll curdle some people’s blood, when I was a teenager in the 1980s, Led Zeppelin records from the early ‘70s were still the coolest thing. And the fact that she still tours, plays Vegas, puts out concert films, etc., helps perpetuate that. That’s how an entertainer cultivates Sinatra-esque longevity. Her fame is also renewed regularly these days by American Idol, the largest mass musical phenomenon of the past decade, where Celine’s stood solidly in its pantheon of singers for young people to emulate.
FP: Why has she remained so popular?
CW: Celine occupies a niche in popular music that’s far from the sexiest, most intellectually stimulating, or world-shaking. But it’s central, and it’s a job someone has to do. She makes the sentimental music that’s the soundtrack to courting, marrying, and burying. It’s music for the wedding dance floor and the family video montage. At the same time, it’s music that reinforces and plays out central value conflicts in our culture: It’s got a constant eye on individual ambition, striving and success, in everything from its lyrical content to its production style and Celine’s vocal performance, and yet it is very attached, again both lyrically and melodically, to family and tradition. That’s the kiss of critical death, of course — it’s got neither global-slumming esoteric bohemianism nor virile proletarian machismo, so in post-1960s Western cool culture, it’s void of the marks of sophistication and distinction that count. But it’s the kind of music that, once it lodges in someone’s life, stays there, as part of that person’s story.
FP: What does this say about America’s taste in music?
CW: It’s not particularly an American story. Celine wasn’t born in the U.S. and she remains popular all over the world — likely even more so in places like Asia, the Middle East, Africa, the Caribbean. She represents somewhat different things in those places — no doubt she seems more glamorous to a listener in a developing country than she does to someone in Los Angeles. It’s partly, too, that her own story is rags-to-riches, a fairy tale people want to emulate. In that sense her fame may be more like Oprah’s or a basketball star’s than that of, say, Mick Jagger. For Americans perhaps this poll is a welcome sign that there’s still some loyalty and longevity to people’s tastes. It’s not all instant-disposability. Meanwhile if you’re waiting for the public at large to move on to a favorite that isn’t on at least some level cheesy and goofy, well, make sure you’ve packed plenty of lunches. Look at her main rival — Bono! Goofiness is the crack in a star’s aura that lets the fans’ love in.
FP: Will Celine Dion ever fall out of favor?
CW: My suspicion is that in a generation, she’ll be remembered more vaguely, the way that Nat King Cole or Connie Francis is by younger people today — you might recognize a few songs but you don’t necessarily have a firm grip on who or what they were. The sentimental-song niche may turn on a longer cycle than that of the dance hit, but it’s still pop music, and it turns. So there’ll be a fade. Whether it’s a fade to black, and how long that would take, I wouldn’t venture to guess.