“What’s the only thing worse than your best friend dying?” I said as I sat in my room alone, knees against my chest. “Celine Dion!” I exclaimed, to an appreciative audience of myself. I laughed harder than I had in weeks. It was the only time I had laughed in weeks. I had been listening to Celine Dion on repeat following my best friend’s sudden death.
It’s a story I’ve found myself telling and retelling, writing and rewriting over the course of the past year, because it sounded too absurd to be anything but a Nicholas Sparks movie—or a Celine Dion ballad. My friend and her fiancé had saved up to get married for four years; they even shared a phone to cut back on expenses. The ceremony was just over a month away when it happened, and the morning I got a call from an unknown number on my phone, I just knew. I still don’t know how.
“She’s gone,” a small voice over the receiver explained. “What happened?” The voice explained that she had an enlarged heart. She died in her sleep. They found her body the following morning when she didn’t wake up. Her fiancé called out to her but she didn’t respond. He slapped her and she didn’t move. He shook her and he knew it was over.
I called my grandmother to tell her she couldn’t be my date to the wedding. There wasn’t going to be a wedding. She assumed they broke up and offered her condolences, with the implied undertone of elderly wisdom: “They’re young, and they’ll get another chance.” I tried to explain, but all I had was a bad joke I didn’t know how to tell.
To learn how, I’d find comfort in an unexpected place: schmaltz.
Celine Dion haters are the least exclusive club in the world. Like her music, which has sold an astonishing 177 million albums worldwide, disliking Celine Dion knows no boundaries of nationality or personality type. Her haters are every type of person, from night janitors to music critics. Growing up, they included my mother and me, who could agree on nothing except that Celine Dion was the anti-Christ.
If there’s an expert on hating Celine Dion, it’s undoubtedly Carl Wilson, the Slate critic whose 2007 book on Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love for the 33 1/3 series has become a seminal text on music criticism. In it, Wilson discovers that his disdain for Dion said less about her music than it did about his own preferences, and the way we present our tastes to the world. He found that her vocal detractors are looking to differentiate themselves from the type of person who would listen to her, the mythical teary-eyed soccer mom.
Although much ink has been spilled over what it means to hate Dion—and the musical schmaltz that she embodies—less has been said about why listeners might seek her out in the first place.
In an essay for The Independent, Fiona Sturges reports from the sea of emotional fans at a Dion concert. “Looking at the crowd, it is as if all 70,000 of us are engaged in some sort of group hug,” Sturges writes. “This lot aren’t your average gig-goers—they are all grown-ups with jobs, cars and children, who have come with the sole intention of ‘letting it all out.’ As Dion’s doe-eyed face looks down from the clouds and her fans look back with beatific smiles, the mutual admiration is overwhelming. Dion’s performance may not be the most original, but as therapy, it’s revolutionary.”
Given the state of Dion’s album sales, the herd mentality of group therapy is an appealing, but incomplete, explanation. As Dion has said, her music isn’t necessarily meant to be consumed as a stadium spectacle, a modern bacchanalia of hausfrau feelings; her songs are meant to be enjoyed while you vacuum the living room or do the dishes. “My work is to enter people’s lives with my music,” Dion says in her biography, For Keeps. “Do you think I want to disturb them when they bake? Do you think I want to disturb them when they make love? I want to be part of it.”
You listen when you think you’re alone or when you have nowhere else to turn. I didn’t, which is how I found myself listening to Celine Dion on repeat on a bus to Cincinnati.
Andrew Lloyd Webber, the grand maestro of schmaltz, supposedly once crowned “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now” as the greatest love song ever recorded, which is basically everything you need to know about that song. The man behind the tune, Jim Steinman, decided to adapt Emily Bronte’s Victorian romance, Wuthering Heights, as a power ballad in the style of Meat Loaf, and thus, it made sense that the singer himself wanted to record it. However, Steinman was so adamant that the track was a “woman’s song” that he actually sued Meat Loaf to prevent him from staking claim to it.
Instead, the tune went to Pandora’s Box, a little-remembered all-female group that Steinman managed. Their version of “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now” flopped. Dion, however, made the track famous when she covered it for 1996’s Falling Into You, a record that also spawned three top five Billboard hits in the U.S., including her second No. 1, “Because You Loved Me.”
Although that track was the bigger hit, “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now” remains a singularly compelling piece of music for its grand excess, the embodiment of everything glorious and terrible about Dion’s craft. The song is unabashedly sexual and naked in ways that are both liberating and embarrassing, as if reading a particularly juicy Penthouse letter only to find out your mother had written it.
In true Celine Dion tradition, the lyrics seem to lay all of her emotional cards out on the table, while technically revealing nothing at all. Lyrics like “There were things I’d never do again / But then they’d always seemed right / There were nights of endless pleasure / It was more than any laws allowed” are vague enough to allow listeners to project their own romantic fantasies onto them, but the words also sound like cryptic innuendo. In fact, the more I became obsessed with the song during a six-hour bus ride, the more I became convinced that it was definitely, absolutely about anal sex.
This tension between larger-than-life emotion and the giggle-inducing folly of it all has long been a criticism of Dion’s music, and the music video for “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now” doesn’t help matters. It takes place in a mansion positioned somewhere between the sets for a Vincent Price movie and a Fabio photoshoot—at the intersection of the grand and the macabre—which is exactly where Dion’s music makes sense. It’s everything you aren’t supposed to like, which makes it all the more likable.
When I initially listened to “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now” on Spotify, I didn’t listen to it because I wanted it to make me feel good. I wanted the worst thing I could think of. I wanted to feel as bad as I possibly could, wallowing in the lowest form of self-pity on the way to the funeral of someone I didn’t know how to let go of. When I played it again, I wanted to feel anger at something that wasn’t my friend’s death, screaming into the echo of Celine Dion’s empty rooms. When I listened to it a third time, I just wanted to feel.
While schmaltz is synonymous with sap, the word’s origins are even less savory. In Yiddish, “schmalts” is the term for the liquid animal fat used to make matzo balls, often derived from chicken or geese. The term, thus, connotes an unsavory byproduct, but as Germans or the Polish will tell you, that so-called excess is a crucial cooking staple, used for everything from roasts to stews.
In cinema, schmaltz has become synonymous with melodramas and “women’s pictures,” discarded as the kind of thing that serious people don’t indulge in. But the history of melodrama is as old as the history of cinema itself, with its reliance on broad types that are easily identifiable to the audience. In the silent era, melodrama helped actors say what the technological limitations of the time didn’t allow, conveying the story’s grandiose emotions when words failed.
While Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights is credited for its mix of light whimsy and searing social commentary, it’s the sheer schmaltz of the movie that makes the story stick: Boy falls in love with blind girl, girl learns to see, girl meets boy again and discovers who he is through the power of love. Thus, there’s less that separates Chaplin from Douglas Sirk than we might imagine, aside from their protagonists. Whereas Chaplin was interested in tramps and men of the streets, Sirk inhabited the living room, documenting the exact kind of woman who might be listening to a Celine Dion record 40 years later.
In their heyday, Sirk’s female-driven melodramas were popular with audiences but dismissed by critics for their weepy trappings, but his All That Heaven Allows and Imitation Of Life cut to the core of what made melodrama the unsung soul of cinema: It allowed Sirk to deal with subjects otherwise considered taboo. Imitation Of Life offers a powerful examination of race in 1950s America, while All That Heaven Allows questioned women’s domestic confinement in post-war America.
Melodrama functions as a space for conversation and catharsis by distilling emotions down to their purest elemental forms. In Todd Field’s In The Bedroom, melodrama brings to the surface the rage Ruth Fowler (played by Sissy Spacek) feels upon losing her son. While washing dishes in the kitchen, Ruth argues with her husband, her anger and guilt over losing her only child bubbling to the surface. In a moment of truth, she finally blames her husband for his death, smashing a dish on the table.
Breaking the dishes is the oldest melodrama cliché in the book, but the scene offers an emotional turning point, both for her character and the film: After you embrace the schmaltz, there’s no going back. Sap might ooze, but schmaltz sticks.
To call Celine Dion’s music “honest” might sound like a stretch; after all, this is a woman who, in the Max Martin-produced “That’s The Way It Is,” preached to the audience like some boastful clairvoyant, “I can read your mind / And I know your story / I see what you’re going through.” If there’s any doubt that it’s a direct address to her fans, the video is happy to clear it up: Celine sings while spying on her listeners from behind a TV screen. Not only does she understand you, she appears to have the help of Big Brother to do so.
While Dion likely lacks a Being John Malkovich-style portal into your brain, that doesn’t make her music a lie; in fact, Carl Wilson took particular issue with the idea that her “soundtrack-to-your-life approach” made her songs “emotionally manipulative.” Wilson wrote, “Manipulative? Manipulating listeners, moving them, is what music is supposed to do, skillfully. Phony? All art is fake. What matters is to be a convincing fake, a lie that feels true. Clearly Celine has her audience convinced.”
However, that doesn’t mean that schmaltz’s skillful manipulation always forces people to reach for the tissues. In “You’re So Vain,” the use of schmaltz (or “schlock,” as Robert Christgau termed it) allowed a scorned Carly Simon have her Taylor Swift moment, venting her rage about being jilted by a male lover (or music executive David Geffen, depending on which version of the song’s origins you believe).
According to Simon, however, it’s not about one man; it’s a composite portrait, a commentary on her experiences with men. The song’s awkward rhyme scheme (rhyming “yacht” with “apricot” and “gavotte”) might feel forced and false, but it’s a useful lie in the service of Simon’s second-wave feminist empowerment. With female listeners, who might know a thing or two about bad boyfriends, the song struck a chord, becoming her only chart-topper in the U.S.
In his write-up on “You’re So Vain,” Christgau called the song “good-bad,” a common term used to describe something we enjoy that we deem as lacking taste. But what Douglas Sirk so deeply understood is that honesty doesn’t have to be tasteful. As Stephin Merritt once claimed, “catharsis in art is always embarrassing,” and if Carly Simon’s music grew up and figured out what good taste was, it wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable.
Wilson claimed that Merritt’s statement was an endorsement of ironic distance, but intentions aside, Merritt has a point, especially for listeners. When I got off the bus, I found myself wandering the empty city streets, looking for anywhere to put my bag while I adjusted to the idea of home and what lay ahead. I settled on a McDonald’s, the only thing open at 6 in the morning. By that time, I’d moved on from listening solely to Celine Dion and had introduced Keane’s “This Is The Last Time” into my schmaltz playlist.
You don’t know embarrassment until you’ve cried in a booth at McDonald’s while listening to Keane on repeat.
If Celine Dion hopes to soundtrack our everyday struggles, she’s not doing anything we don’t already do, curating the mood of our day by what’s on our headphones. After I arrived home, the next few days were a blur while we prepared for her funeral. I barely remember what I saw or what anyone said, but I remember the music I listened to: Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games” and “Never Gonna Love Again” by Lykke Li. The choices weren’t particularly subtle, but neither is death.
Embracing schmaltz didn’t make losing my friend easier, and it wasn’t free therapy, a religious experience, or the “breaking dishes” moment I had been promised. It was simply a way of surviving, even if schmaltz itself does not. Carl Wilson describes schmaltz as “an unprivate portrait of how private feeling is currently conceived” and imagines that, in an artistic sense, that makes schmaltz particularly vulnerable to feeling dated. Keane’s “Somewhere Only We Know” came out just over a decade ago, but it feels like it existed in an alternate universe now.
But that fragility is its exact power. If listening to Dion or a mid-’00s British band that can be best described as “eunuch rock” is embarrassing in its vulnerability, as Stephin Merritt argues, it also gives listeners the freedom to let go. If there’s any consolation in schmaltz, it’s that it forces all of us to be more honest—and more alive.
Schmaltz might be a joke, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t ring strangely true. A year after the worst day of your life, when “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now” plays on Spotify as you’re walking out of work for the day, it might force you to look up and laugh in recognition. And then you’ll realize the truth that was there all along: It’s definitely, absolutely about anal sex.