Daggy, moving, glorious: why no one can be cynical at a Céline Dion concert

Every moment with the vocal gymnast is so joyous and sentimental, it hardly matters she’s overlooked by the cultural elite

No one who grew up in the 90s could have missed Céline Dion’s dominance of the charts, peaking with the decade-defining Titanic theme song, My Heart Will Go On. But like many inner-city queers, I’ve since gravitated to Dion more as a meme than a singer. Her unintentionally hilarious and deeply empathetic appearance on Larry King Live in the wake of Hurricane Katrina is still rolled out at parties; and her zeitgeist renaissance as a newly minted fashion icon has rendered her iconic backwards tuxedo a distant memory.

So, it is with an ironic love of camp, and more than a little cynicism, that I enter the Dion Dome. That cynicism, I soon discover, has no place here.

It is impossible to remain disaffected and tragically hip among the tens of thousands of fans who are here to see their idol, after an 11-year absence from Australia. The most striking thing about Céline’s performance, and the huge, warm crowd she attracts, is that it is neither highbrow nor lowbrow. This is middlebrow fare in all its daggy, suburban glory – and it’s glorious.

To enter the Rod Laver Arena, we are cattle-pressed through metal detector-wielding security guards who, at Dion’s request, have made anyone carrying a backpack or even a handbag check it in and reclaim it later. In a post-Manchester bombing world, Céline Dion is taking no chances.

Once inside, I’m surrounded by gangs of mother/daughter teams, women in friendship clusters of all ages, families who have come together to bring their mums or grandmas to see Céline, and several supportive male hangers-on. There are, of course, pockets of gay men who remind me that the line between high camp and unashamed dagginess is a thin one at best – and it cuts across the deep ravine of Aussie nationalism when Céline covers John Farnham’s You’re the Voice. The night after I see her, during her final Australian show, Farnsy joins her onstage with a bagpipe player.

I still can’t believe that I got to perform You’re the Voice with @johnfarnham! John, thank you for your incredible talent. I love you! Thank you, Melbourne - Céline xx…
📸 : Brian Purnell of Mushroom Creative House #CelineDionLive2018https://t.co/I0gjPT6nga pic.twitter.com/qwnFx6QU1D

— Celine Dion (@celinedion) August 8, 2018

A pair in front of me captures my attention for a large part of the night: a mother and her son, who wouldn’t be a day over nine, both of them belting out every word to hit after hit – from Power of Love to It’s All Coming Back to Me Now to Beauty and the Beast. Blessed are the nonjudgmental mums, for they shall inherit the spoils of their extremely well-adjusted sons.

Every moment with Céline Dion is so pure, so joyous, so silly, so sentimental – from her lengthy banter between numbers, replete with physical comedy and Jerry Lewis-style buffoonery, to her anything-but-crocodile tears of gratitude at the end of songs.

It’s the disarmingly hilarious patter that forms a huge part of Dion’s brand, that brings a sort of clownishness into her glamorous persona, separating her from other female pop stars from her era. In this way, she’s a throwback to the pop icons of yesteryear – a mix of Liza Minnelli, Peter Allen and Liberace.

Celine Dion – a throwback to the pop icons of yesteryear.
Céline Dion – a throwback to the pop icons of yesteryear. Photograph: Ian Laidlaw/Mushroom Creative

At the centre of it all is an artist who understands intensely who these people are, why they have come to see her, and how to transport them into her alternative universe.

And it is an alternative universe. Amid the vocal gymnastics and French-Canadian clown shtick that have made Céline a household name, one observes an extraordinary absence of politics, or even aphoristic messages of self-empowerment. The closest we get to anything even resembling inspiration porn is when Dion maniacally decrees, “Life is beautiful! We have to laugh, I LOVE TO LAUGH!”

This absence of inspirational or realpolitik is, of course, extreme privilege at play. Dion has been inside the bubble of wealth and fame since adolescence. When Beyoncé uses her stadium tours as a platform to pay homage to the Black Panthers, it’s not a design choice: it’s her reflecting back the ongoing struggles of people of colour around the world. Dion has been inside the bubble of wealth, whiteness, fame and uber-progressive Canada since adolescence.

So Dion favours the personal over the political. In the most baffling and endearing part of the evening, we are treated to an eight-minute monologue about Deadpool star Ryan Reynolds that is so off the wall I would expect to see it at a performance art scratch night. By the time she brings up the topic many in the audience have been expecting – the recent death of her husband and manager René Angélil – we are ready putty in her hands.

Dion and Angélil were married for 22 years, and their relationship was the butt of many jokes (Dion grew up around Angélil, who was 26 years her senior), but when she brings him into the show she drops the goofiness to deliver a powerful moment of truth. Dion is an empath, and there was no brave face or celebrity manoeuvring in her public grief for Angélil. Now we are witness to it in person, and as she talks about him, despite the cavernous arena, it feels as though she’s right beside you. Dion doesn’t dwell, but acknowledges the grief via a song, Recovery, written for her as an offering of condolences by the pop star Pink.

“Mourning the loss of my husband, I received a gift from an amazing artist and wonderful mother,” she says. Pink, who is also in Australia right now, occupies a same-same-but-different place in the suburban pop star firmament as Dion. Both are overlooked by the cultural elite but have huge pulling power in Australia – thanks in large part to their winning combination of sentimentality and authenticity.

That combination is no more evident than when Dion moves seamlessly to All By Myself, the Eric Carmen song that has become unmistakably hers. This is the Dion of the early-to-mid-90s, who pumped out daggy mum-rock ballads, like Meatloaf but minus the masculinity and minus anything remotely rock’n’roll.

Here, in Dion’s alternative universe, what was once daggy is now divine – and as she belts out the final big notes of this lament to loneliness, after letting thousands of us into her loss and grief, I leap out of my seat to applaud. Any cynicism I entered with has melted off entirely.


Nic Holas

The GuardianTramp

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