The afternoon before the Celine Dion concert at Caesar’s Palace, I got a French mani-pedi at the Cosmopolitan Hotel salon. I then went to Walgreens and purchased concealer, eyeliner, and eyebrow powder. As I blew my hair dry—something I never do—I found myself growing suspicious of this mini-makeover. Did I think Celine and I were going on a date?
Then I repeat-listened to my four favorite Celine songs—”Where Does My Heart Beat Now,” “Think Twice,” “That’s The Way It Is,” and “If You Asked Me To”—got pumped, and stopped wondering what had possessed me to suburbanize myself.
Like everything in Vegas, Caesar’s Palace looks like a “team of experts” was hired to design and build the place with a theme (in this case “Rome”) and then finally the people who hired them were like, “Yeah, this isn’t working, fuck it, it’s a casino, just leave the statues and we’ll send you a check.” It doesn’t matter. You walk away from all casinos remembering the same things: the dealers, the cocktail waitresses, the people playing slots, and the exact same way they inhabit dull resignation.
At Caesar’s Colosseum will call, a group of women in their 70s waiting in line behind me groused about the very short skirts of the college-age women standing with their parents in front of me. “Ridiculous,” they said. If I’d taught them the word “THOT” they would have been like “Great, we will use that all the time, won’t we, Debbie?”
The college-age women marveled at the photographs of Celine. “She’s 48 and she still looks, like, good,” one expressed, astonished. Her friend said, “I know, wow, it’s amazing, she’s been around forever!” I wanted to ask them what they expected an extremely rich, attractive 48-year-old woman to look like. A broiled steak? The inside of Keith Richard’s asshole? But I said nothing. I looked at Celine’s serene face and I felt love for all these people.
The Colosseum itself is a nice venue. Everything is red and velvety and festively lit. It rises up at a steep angle so that even the second balcony seats are good. Not that I was fucking around with any balcony shit: I was right up front, where I would be able to see Celine’s Gallic nose, and the butterscotch glints in her hair. “I don’t think I have ever been so excited for anything in my entire life,” I said, unprompted, to the woman next to me. My voice caught, and I was embarrassed.
I needn’t have been. The woman smiled, and a tear sparkled in the corner of her eye. She was sixtyish, with short dyed brown hair, wearing one of those rayon printed dresses you can buy at an airport or large supermarket. “I’ve seen her eight times,” she said, and then added, as if seeing this show eight times would be excessive, “I saw her last show four times and this show four times.”
The lights went out but Celine did not appear. Instead we were shown a video of Celine fans all over the world lip-synching her 2003 hit, the Cyndi Lauper cover “I Drove All Night.” There were little girls and teenaged boys, there were old and young people, gay and straight people, black, brown, and Asian people. You could see the notes from the marketing meeting: “CD = global brand = love.”
But it was a brilliant way to start the show. I watched my brethren sing and felt a sob rise in my throat. Let the joyless minority who does not celebrate her enjoy their Radiohead, their Kendrick, their First fucking Aid Kit and Joanna Newsom or WHOEVER, I thought, because The Worldwide Celine Dion Family, we are the ones who truly understand, we are the ones who know what it is to feel.
After the video, the red velvet curtain rose to reveal the majestic form of Celine Marie Claudette Dion, the fourteenth and youngest child of a large French Canadian family, widow of recently passed René Angélil, mother of three, possessor of a $630 million fortune, motherfucking Aries queen. Her long ash-blonde hair was bountiful yet beachy. Her sparkling silver gown featured an intense but ultimately tasteful front slit. We rose to our feet and applauded, many of us crying. She smiled warmly, bowed modestly, and murmured with appreciation.
Standing in a private column of light, Celine sang “I Surrender,” from her 2003 album A New Day Has Come. I knew the lyrics, but I had never really given them a lot of thought. Now I did, and decided that “I know I can’t survive/Another night away from you/You’re the reason I go on” was—like “I drove all night to get to you”—a creepy, manipulative thing to say to a romantic partner. Then I thought about how people say things like that to each other all the time, and the extent to which Celine Dion bears responsibility for this.
The white curtain behind Celine went up, and the lone chanteuse moment gave way to the expansive theatrics of a large band: three backup singers—one man and two women—eight violins, an electric guitar player, and percussionists. The black female backup singer wore a white cocktail dress, the white one wore black, and they both looked like they spent all their free time at SoulCycle (except I happen to know there isn’t a SoulCycle in Las Vegas; I had recently befriended a bevy of female publicists who were ripshit about this fact).
Celine floated to the front of the stage and regarded her kingdom. She emanated calm and—I know it’s hard to emanate this but she did it—a deep respect for Romance At All Costs. You got the sense that if you told her you were leaving your partner of ten years because you just had a feeling about that guy at the dog park she would clasp her hands together and tell you that she was so happy for you and that René had come to her in a dream to say he was happy for you too. She seemed genuinely moved by how much we all loved her. She said she was doing well even though René, who was 400 years older than her and met her when she was 12, had just died. She said that her family was doing well. Everyone cheered. People shouted, “I love you Celine.” One of those people was me. “Tonight is going to be a very personal night,” Celine said, and I wondered, “Does Celine continue to work despite her enormous fortune simply because she loves us?”
When I heard the opening chords to the greatest song ever written, the 1989 ballad “Where Does My Heart Beat Now?” I knew that the answer was yes.
This is a song I have sung countless times in the car, in the shower, in front of a mirror. It received an ASCAP award for the most-performed song of 1991. This song is as powerful and passionate and feminine as a Dreamsicle jello shot on an empty stomach after Candlelight Inferno Hot Pilates. It opens with a somber melodic reflection that expediently explodes into shards of betrayal. Then the chorus (“where does my heart beat now”) kicks in, then there’s a verse, another chorus, and then the song drops down to where Celine really lives: the bridge. Here, a heartbroken Celine rises from the ashes, avowing that indeed she will manage to draw breath despite the absence of her beloved. She returns to the chorus with renewed vigor, and ends the song pleading to someone—perhaps God—“I need someone to give my heart to, and hearts are made to last until the end of time.” She holds the word “time” for about as long as it takes to make an egg salad sandwich.
I need someone to give my heart to.
I felt very grateful that someone had the courage to write those words down and that Celine had the courage to sing them. It’s not a terribly interesting or smart idea, but who among us hasn’t thought it? That said, just because something is common doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Most of Celine’s big hits are about converting the pain from your last heartbreak into fuel to get you to the next one. What I’m trying to say is if you want to create a stampede, go to a Celine Dion concert and shout “Free co-dependence workshop in the lobby!”
I myself developed a, shall we say, rather overwrought view of romantic relationships very early on. In 1980, my family soundtrack was the Barry Gibb-produced Barbra Streisand album Guilty, basically a 41-minute musical justification of obsessive behavior in the face of romantic obsession. In the chorus from its hit single, “Woman in Love,” Barbra proclaims, “I am a woman in love, and I’ll do anything to get you into my world.” This is probably not a good favorite song to have when you are 11, and this retrospective knowledge in no way diminished my profound relief at being surrounded by 4,000 other people who own Celine Dion’s 1997 hit album Let’s Talk About Love and don’t care that its rightful title is Let’s Talk About Stalking.
I was not prepared for the muscularity of Celine’s performance, an effective if odd hybrid of classroom-taught ballroom dancing and Sammy Sosa. She would pound her chest for emphasis, then widen her arms to showcase the impressive results of what must be very challenging upper body workouts. Then, going suddenly delicate, she would raise the silken train of her gown and gently guide it back to her side, all the while watching her hand with thoughtful pride, as if a falcon were perched upon it. She had four facial expressions: a sexual rock and roll grimace; a sort of soulful half-closed-eyes thing reserved for her signature minor-chorded tinged melismas; a less intense grimace where she also pushed outward with one hand, as if the emotion were a too-rich dessert she could taste but not consume; and finally, a sweet smile of relief when love manages to win.
I was hoping she wouldn’t sing “Because You Loved Me” but of course she did. I wrote myself a note: “Does BYLM come from a f-ing cartoon?” (I hate cartoons. Yes. All of them.) Later, I discovered it comes from something even worse than a cartoon: 1995’s Up Close and Personal, which stars Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert Redford, and tells the story of ’80s newscaster Jessica Savitch, who died in a car accident. This film is awful and includes, I kid you not, a 20-second shot of a grilled fish. It’s true. There’s a romantic evening cookout scene at the beach with Redford and Pfeiffer, and at one point the director pulls away from their news-anchor cookout canoodling and lets his camera linger on a grilled fish. For 20 seconds. I saw this movie in the theater, at a press screening, because I used to review movies, and I laughed out loud and two women turned around and glared at me. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were in the Colosseum tonight. I then realized why I had put on all this makeup, straightened my hair, and had my nails done. It was because Celine Dion had lots of fans who embraced a certain brand of femininity, such that they thought any love scene—even one with a 20-second shot of a grilled fish—deserved reverence. And these were the kind of ladies who wore makeup, like real makeup. And since I was going to be on their turf, and they were scary, I wanted to blend in.
In addition to that particularly awful song Celine sang two others in the same genre: “Beauty and the Beast” and “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now.” I call these her plink-plink songs because they all have these milquetoast piano parts and they don’t go anywhere emotionally. They’re just like “I love you, you love me, you make me feel good, thanks for standing by me.” It’s all very 1999 high school graduation, yet Celine sang all of them with her eyes closed and a faraway expression as if she were daydreaming about the hand jobs I hope she and René can one day give each other in heaven. I signed on for the plink-plink songs the moment I decided to come, but I did not sign on for the video montage of her kids and René that accompanied them. But I can’t say I hated that montage, because I really believed (and still do) that Celine a) loved me and b) really truly wanted me, her good friend, to see photos of kids and her dead husband on trampolines, on the world’s largest sectional couch, going down slides. (Bonus information: Everyone in the Dion-Angélil family has a red “Fly Emirates” t-shirt.)
Instead of an intermission, there was a video duet with Elvis. I should mention there was this very Scottsdale-y queen in front of me with an Android the size of a chicken fried steak who probably took 4,000 pictures during the concert. Every time Celine advanced towards us, up would go his giant phone. So I saw about a third of the concert through said phone, including Celine’s soliloquy about all the duets she had ever done, which was forgettable except for the 112 syllables she packed into “Pavarotti.” When she got around to talking about the Elvis duet, she said, “You know, this is maybe my craziest duet!” in a mischievous, devil-may-care tone, like a French chef about to toss brine shrimp into a chocolate soufflé. Then she left to change and probably have four bites of a chicken caesar.
At the end of my row was an L.A. queen who had clearly listened to “I’m Alive” on repeat every day of his first year out of Serenity Malibu, because when Celine said “Do you remember this one?” he shouted “I remember it, Celine, I love you!” and started crying. How do I know where all the queens live, just by looking at them? Honey, I just do.
The medley was followed up by another video duet, this time with the Bee Gees, of the song “Incredible.” Because she hadn’t had the foresight to film them singing this before two out of three Gibb brothers died, she projected large photographs of them, which would appear and disappear depending on who was singing. Staring at the eldest and only surviving Gibb brother Barry’s somewhat ursine face, I had an opportunity to reflect on my complicated relationship with Celine Dion. I like her light inspirational rock, and the pain-filled ballads; I deeply hate her plink-plink songs, and she has a lot of plink-plink songs. But I forgive her everything.
I forgive her everything because although I know Celine Dion is an enabler who allows people to care more about love than they should, she is still a fucking boss bitch. It’s not just that she knows that everyone is heartsick, and desperate to be adored, and desperate to feel that they will somehow transcend desperation. It’s that she managed to put all this into a sound. Sure, she put this sound up for sale and made $600 million dollars off of it, but when you see her in person, you feel like she might have done it for free. Maybe some day she’ll be reincarnated as a writer, and we can find out for sure.
The song ended. The Gibb brothers faded away. Celine moved to the front of the stage, swished her skirt aside and showed a long lean leg. The audience gasped and clapped, and she said, in a mock-chastising tone, “That was for René!” Then she sang the shit out of the 1975 Eric Carmen song “All By Myself,” which she covers on the 1996 Album Falling Into You. A few weeks after René’s death in January, Celine performed this song and broke down crying. If you have never heard Celine Dion sing this song, I beg you listen. The chorus is simple: “All by myself/Don’t want to be/All by myself/ Anymore.” At the end of the last “anymore,” Celine—well, I don’t know shit about music, but I can tell you that she wails pitifully, but on key, and then she hits this minor note, and crawls up it as if it were the last ladder out of the world’s deepest chasm of misery onto the world’s tallest, most flower-covered mountain. She went from broken mortal to formidable goddess in 12 exhilarating seconds, and the audience rose as one and applauded her. Seeing all of this through a phone screen made it no less thrilling.
After the expected “My Heart Will Go On,” Celine sang “Over The Rainbow.” I thought about Celine’s recent heartbreak. I have no doubt she is devastated by the loss of René, but I am also glad she can perform the shit out of getting over it. I want Celine’s heart to go on by any means necessary. I know she wants nothing less for the rest of us. As she trilled out the final “Why—Can’t—I?” eight to 10 people in my section let out the farts they’d been holding in through the performance. We filed out of the Colosseum encased in a hot cloud of farts. That’s also the way it is.
Sarah Miller writes for theawl.com, newyorker.com, time.com, thecut.com and others. Find her @sarahlovescali.
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