“I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. If you f—ing like something, like it.” – Dave Grohl
Twelve years old. I am lying on a mattress in the narrow loft above the driver’s seat of our rented RV. My headphones are on, the bridge resting against the back of my neck. The black CD in my Discman whirls as a soulful ballad soars into my eardrums. I feel myself leaning into the ache of the string instruments. I wiggle my head imperceptibly along with the vocal acrobatics. “YEAH! YEAH! YEAH! YEAH! YEAH! Ohhhhhhh yeah-haaaa, ohh whoa whoa yeah WHOA OH OH! YEAH! Ohhhhh, oooooo, the reeeeeeasoooon,” Céline Dion belts, and I sigh, staring at the miniature curtains swinging in the miniature windows, blissed out.
I stand before the 20 or so members of my freshman English class. A synthesized beat fades into the background as I press the pause button on the boom box and turn back to the class. “So, that was Rain, Tax (It’s Inevitable) by Céline Dion. This song touches deep on our human dependence and the laws of nature.”
I’m deconstructing the song, as we have each been required to do, and many of my fellow classmates look bored, but no one is laughing. I’ve sat through a dozen of these presentations already. Most of them were probably about the last song that came on the radio. Christina Aguilera, Blink-182, The Offspring. When I was planning my presentation, I considered choosing a more popular song by a less dramatic singer. Just for a moment. But I’ve never been one to deny my love for Céline Dion, and I’m not about to start now.
I’m sitting in a concert hall next to my sister, my mom and grandma on the other side of her. We’re here. We’re actually here. Céline will be live before us on this Caesars Palace stage in less than 15 minutes and I am squirming with excitement. I don’t care that I’m 19 and usually have a little more poise in public. My idol and I will be breathing the same air tonight.
The hall darkens. A video screen glides into place. I can feel the tension of all 4,296 of us holding our breath. I bounce in my chair, gripping my sister’s leg. “Oh my god!” I whisper. “She’s here!”
“I know!” Erika whispers back. The screen lights up to show an endless staircase with a tiny, elegant figure at the very top. I make a small squeak in my throat. The figure moves. She moves. She slowly comes down the staircase and I realize that the screen has vanished. Her human self is in front of me. She begins to sing a single note and I can feel my chest burst into sunshine and wildflowers. I don’t care what I’m supposed to be listening to or who it’s cool to like. I love Céline Dion and I won’t deny myself this pleasure.
After the show, I go to the gift shop and buy a black T-shirt with her silhouette outlined in red and blue. I wear the shirt to bed, around the house, at the gym. Even when it’s on the shelf, that is enough for me.
Let’s Talk About Love is probably my favorite Céline album. For starters, it got me and my friend Lucas through a Philosophy of Human Nature course during our sophomore year of college, and then brought us together in 2012 to see Céline in Vegas (yes, again). The songs on this album swing wildly from a power ballad penned by Carole King to a goofy reggae-lite anthem to a gospel-style inspirational. Céline can sing them all, even if she can’t make you believe every word.
Let’s Talk About Love is also a book written by Carl Wilson, subtitled Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste. The book is brilliant and funny and thought-provoking. He chose Céline’s 1997 album as the subject of his book as an example of global fandom and schmaltz and pop culture that he could never fathom. He pulls apart the Céline phenomenon piece by piece in chapters: “Let’s Talk about Pop (and Its Critics),” “Let’s Talk About World Conquest,” “Let’s Sing Really Loud.”
Taste is subjective, he says, but more importantly, it’s ruled by (often) young critics who trade in cultural capital, which is to say: cool. By the end of the book, he comes to a simple conclusion: Céline Dion is decidedly uncool.
So, let’s talk about love. I love that Céline is brazenly emotional. I love her dedication to her slightly-creepy-but-solid marriage with her late husband Rene Angelil, 26 years her senior. I love her absolutely kooky personality. I love her Quebecois accent. I love the fact that we were both raised in big families and small towns. I love her campy vocal acrobatics. I love that she has the chutzpah to duet with hologram versions of famous singers…or her own self. I love the way her voice sounds. I love the way she makes me care about schmaltzy love songs that talk about things I’ve never felt. I love her bombastic, unnecessary arm motions and chest pounding. I love her.
Nick Hornby sums it up in an essay in part two of Let’s Talk About Love: “In my ideal world, people would be reading and listening to music and watching movies all the time, and loving the stuff they’re consuming; to judge these people, or the things they love, whether it’s Céline Dion or a Schubert symphony, is to damage their relationship with culture in a profoundly unhelpful way.”
I’m young and critical and care about my cultural capital, but there are some places where the brain cannot deny the heart.