Music

Céline Dion’s New Album Is the Crowning Achievement of the Celinaissance

Courage finds the singer reborn as a swearing, drag-loving queer icon.

Celine Dion looks downward as a fire rages behind her.
Courage
Columbia Records

When Céline Dion released her 12th English-language studio album Courage early Friday morning, two things transpired that would have been damned near unthinkable when its predecessor, Loved Me Back to Life, came out six years ago. First, the “My Heart Will Go On” singer celebrated her new record’s debut by showing up at drag bar Lips NYC and cavorting gamely with the (other) queens there. She went so far as to perform a karaoke version of one of her recent songs, fearless of any blowback from the kinds of skeptics who would have slagged her as a “glorified karaoke singer” in her 1990s power-ballad heyday. Second, she was revealed to curse on an official recording for what I feel confident is the first time in her nearly four-decade career, purring “this shit is perfect” on the chorus of closer “Perfect Goodbye.” What must her 92-year-old Maman Dion think?

On that previous 2013 album, as well as 2007’s Taking Chances, she flirted more conservatively with the electronic-dance production touches and very un-Céline vocal effects (Auto-Tune filters on those pipes? Blasphemy! Except sometimes it works!) that abound here, now with collaborators such as David Guetta, repeat partner Sia, Stephan Moccio (Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” and the Weeknd’s “Earned It”), Sam Smith, Bruno Mars associates the Stereotypes, and others—with nary a Diane Warren nor David Foster track in sight.

But finding Dion at once so foul-mouthed and so publicly intimate with her longtime queer fan base is the most blatant evidence of what’s been called either the Dionaissance or the Celinaissance (the patrons of this new golden age have yet to reach a consensus). From the cocoon of the oft-derided kitschy pop belter of old, Dion in her early 50s has sprung forth as a flamboyantly winged icon of both haute couture and just plain human existence. Consider (and pardon my mixed entomological metaphors) her bejeweled-arachnid Oscar de la Renta outfit at this year’s Met Gala, which fully incarnated the event’s “camp” theme even as Dion, exquisitely, confessed to imagining at first that it meant everyone was going to sleep over in tents. Or her justification of the existence of James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke” schtick in the moment that she wailed out a Céline-ified version of the kiddy musical virus “Baby Shark” while the two cruised through the streets of Las Vegas, before performing a self-parodying mini-enactment of the Titanic theme song in the Bellagio lagoon. Let alone that Dion is often credited with singlehandedly recharging the casino capital itself by making it a respectable place for not just aging lounge lizards but viable contemporary artists to mount multimillion-earning revue shows since she took up residency in 2003.

The list of other artists who’ve proclaimed their admiration is endless, with Drake a couple of years ago declaring he wanted to get her face tattooed on his rib cage. (For her part, Dion would really rather he didn’t.) She’s become the focus of cultish devotion from cohorts of fans who were in diapers or at least scrunchies when she was ruling the charts. “Céline Dion Is Our Patron Saint of Being Weird as Hell and Loving Yourself Anyway,” they enthuse, or even, “Céline Dion Is on Another Level of Cool.” The revelation has been that, beyond her muscular multi-octave voice, what once seemed ridiculous about Dion is now, by far, her greatest asset.

For me, all of this has been simultaneously a consummation devoutly to be wished and an awkward surprise, as someone who about a decade ago wrote a book centering on Dion as the paradigm of pop-culture figures who are at once immensely beloved by masses of people and scorned by the taste-making few—including, at first, I admitted, me. It was an inquiry into how class, gender, background (like Dion’s roots in Francophone Québec), genre, and above all cultural capital (another word for “cool”) combine to create those aesthetic divides. Given that Dion then seemed well past her pop prime, I did worry her gradual retreat from the spotlight would make my case harder to decipher over time. What I didn’t anticipate was that future readers would scratch their heads over how anybody ever could have thought Céline Dion was anything other than the awesomest.

I have a few theories, probably too many. One is that I underestimated the sway of cycles of nostalgia: Taste battles mostly happen when pop stars are at their most ubiquitous, but later many of them become a lot easier to love as avatars of things past. On top of that, the online availability of everything has made taste discrimination less of a social divider, at least temporarily. Wary observers like me in the 1990s profoundly distrusted the unreconstructed sentimentalism that Dion’s hits seemed to traffic in: She seemed like a Hollywood-centric pusher of heteronormative hyper-capitalism. Now she’s a stalwart of feminine persistence—and, as shown by her drag show cameo (not to mention her recent video paying tribute to her drag and trans imitators), a much more legibly queer-friendly icon.

Further, it was hard to anticipate how much the exposure of vulnerability and emotion would become cherished by younger people this decade. “Authenticity” is inevitably a construct, but it’s still amazing to experience how what seems over-the-top and phony in one context can come to seem like brave spontaneity in another. In the wake of the new A Star Is Born, for instance, Dion now reads as an obvious Lady Gaga antecedent, in both broadness and eccentricity, even though Gaga fans might have hated that notion when Gaga was fresh.

But there’s more to the Célinaissance than that. It’s not just the culture around her but the diva herself who has transformed. The pivotal event is that, in early 2016, René Angélil died at 73. He became Dion’s manager when she was 12, then her husband when she was 26 and he was literally twice her age. Even moving past how any of us might feel about that (though, yes, I hear you), and despite the sorrow that’s amply documented on Courage, Dion in the past three years seems plainly liberated. This is a performer whose choices were mediated if not dictated for nearly 40 years by someone from a whole different generation. This was a man who came from the variety-show side of Québec’s entertainment culture, for instance, and had a strategy for how a teen-star prodigy could achieve global success. But that frankly made her seem like a holdover from pop worlds past, incorporating the influences of opera and Barbra Streisand along with Elvis, Tina Turner, and Michael Jackson.

Now, although she maintains much of the same staff, Dion has become her own boss. As she’s said in interviews, Angélil used to be the one who went to the production meetings about her albums and concerts while she devoutly tended to her vocal instrument, charmed the crowds, and mostly obeyed the decisions made within her gambling-addicted husband’s pop-conquest conclaves. Given the size of her personality, I’m sure she had input, both commercially and domestically. But now all the gambles are her call. The Dionaissance is the payoff. She can mourn her longtime partner but also, for the first time, wear crazy outfits at Parisian runway shows or the Met Gala and then scarf down a hot dog outside. She can position herself as a peer to her drag acolytes. She can let Vogue post an Instagram picture of her (kinda) nude. She can be the sponsor of a line of gender-neutral infant wear called Celinununu. And she can swear on her fucking album if she wants to.

So in a way, Courage is the first album English-speaking listeners have heard that bears her personal stamp. Not all of her choices work, to be sure. There are songs such as “Nobody’s Watching,” which melds a just-past-fashionable light-tropical beat with ersatz Ed Sheeran mellow grooves and lyrical clichés about dancing like, yeah, “nobody’s watching” with some jarring remarks about political correctness. It’s a mess, but it’s also a tentative grab at social defiance that wouldn’t have appeared on any other Dion album. There’s “Baby,” in which the gift for vocal mimicry she regularly shows off in cover medleys in live concerts betrays her because it sounds like Sia should be singing it.

One the other hand, there’s “Lovers Never Die.” On first listen, she seems to be doing a too-young-for-her Rihanna or Ariana Grande or Billie Eilish take on a goth-pop kiss-off anthem. But with a little acclimatization she seems instead to be claiming a French dark-cabaret space—and also complicating the album’s songs of bereft widowhood (such as the classic-feeling title track and “For the Lover that I Lost”) with a plunge into the stage of grief that is anger. Even if you’re not inclined to regard her marriage with suspicion, surely a woman a quarter-century younger than her late husband might be justified in feeling, in retrospect, that his promises of permanence were inherently blinkered. In a weird way, it’s the record’s deepest statement of passion.

Of course, Dion didn’t write any of these songs. That’s a rubicon she’s yet to cross in her rebirth, and frankly she doesn’t need to, as the performance-oriented artist she is. Look at Vegas history: It’s not like Frank Sinatra got hassled for not being Cole Porter. Instead, like most of the best singers in her pop tradition, she’s surveyed the range of material offered to her and made a coherent set of selections that communicate to listeners what she wants them to understand and feel about where she stands now. The opening “Flying On My Own,” with its upbeat (albeit eight-years-dated) EDM momentum, is her manifesto of being renewed but still not uncomfortably modern, not unlike the many disco and lightly house-oriented tracks on her past albums. (What reviewers who want only “classic” Dion miss is that she’s never done a record like that because a diva album is almost always a variety show.) The miniature electronic chirps and flutters that surface early in various tracks usually give way within a minute or two to the vocal flights Dion fans crave.

She’s not a girl and not yet an old lady, and that’s what Courage offers. But the central themes of loss and resilient reinvention—along with a couple of excursions into fantasizing what new romance might feel like—are consistent in ways that nothing less generic than “love” itself was on peak Dion albums, or the (mostly) placeholders that came in between. After a few days of taking in Courage, including its (as one tracks acknowledges) “Imperfections,” this record feels at first blush like perhaps Dion’s most beginning-to-end satisfying English album since her very best, 1996’s Falling Into You. That might not make it a hit, but I think it’s true. It’s too long, and it never blows the roof off what we know she can do. But for anyone who’s come to love her not in spite of but because of her messy Céline-itude, I have to say: This shit is perfect. But also, thankfully, not.

Courage

The new album from Céline Dion