Sharps & Flats

To deny Celine Dion is to deny the culture that made her a star.

Published December 1, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Celine Dion makes hits like Philip Morris makes cancer. She sells her acrobatic voice with marketing tie-ins to big-budget movies and uses prime-time TV specials and diva-driven VH1 to further the brand recognition of her factory pop. Her research-and-development team is a handpicked consortium of America's most commercially successful and least offensive songwriters. Naturally, the public is addicted, and her critics snicker every time she thumps her chest. Truth is, both groups overlook who she is: a special voice with awful taste.

It's important that Dion exists, an undeniable icon of middle-of-the-road '90s pop. To deny her is to deny the culture that made her a star, to refuse her is to refuse "Titanic." This everywhereness plays into all that is Dion: her omnipresent guru/manager/husband, the cheap, half-funny "Saturday Night Live" parodies and now the selling and singing that goes into her new album, "All the Way ... A Decade of Song."

With nine greatest hits and seven new songs, "All the Way" is a marketing no-brainer. The Dion-obsessed will be impelled to pay for an album half-stuffed with material they already have; the record company gets new music to push during the two- or three-year sabbatical Dion is taking after a millennium concert at Montreal's Molson Center.

But musically, "All the Way" is a mixed bag. While the old side of the collection includes four No. 1's ("The Power of Love," "Because You Loved Me," "I'm Your Angel" and "My Heart Will Go On"), it doesn't offer Dion's dog-ear-shattering remake of "All By Myself." But the hit "If You Asked Me To" (1992), with Dion's moaning, pleading, screaming take-me vocals, works when reassessed as a chunk of modern soul as worthy as anything recorded by Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey.

Of the new songs, the low point is an awkward fake duet with dead Frank Sinatra. The vocal sampling, provided with Barbara Sinatra's permission, simply doesn't mesh with Dion's synth-heavy arrangement. The Alanis-yodels on "That's the Way It Is" feel contrived, and her version of "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" is so understated it's hard to understand why she bothered. Only "Then You Look at Me" and "I Want You to Need Me" have that crashing Dion quality, the latter a full-stringed sound perfected on latter-day Aerosmith ballads.

During those peaks, Dion shows off the voice that coaxed Phil Spector out of retirement (although not long enough to produce an album) and convinced the New York Times to write a trend story about the tin whistle. It is a voice that has defined and dominated the pop charts for the last 10 years.

Which means that someday, even the cheesiest of Dion's chart-toppers will have the same sort of throwback quality that gives us courage, nay, pride now to crack out a copy of "Copacabana." When that moment arrives, you may find yourself first at the Y2K retro theme party, chugging Zima, adjusting that phony nose-ring, pitching your head back to the glorious tones of the tin whistle.

By Geoff Edgers

Geoff Edgers is a writer at the Raleigh News & Observer and a frequent contributor to Salon.

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