THE BACK PAGES

Get out the fishnets

BARBARA AMIEL February 19 2007
THE BACK PAGES

Get out the fishnets

BARBARA AMIEL February 19 2007

I AM WOMAN, HEAR ME THINK

On DßElles, her next CD, Céline Dion turns philosopher queen

BY ANNE KINGSTON • In an act of global repositioning befitting a multinational corporation, Céline Dion is going highbrow. The doyenne of the Vegas strip will be shedding her Cirque de Céline image on D’Elles, a French-language CD set for release May 22. All of its lyrics have been written by high-profile female francophone authors meditating on the theme of “woman.” Quebec’s Lise Payette, Denise Bombardier, Janette Bertrand and Marie Laberge have been recruited, as have France’s Nina Bouraoui, Christine Orban, Françoise Dorin and Nathalie Nechtschein. Dion will also be “interpreting” an 1834 letter written by the cross-dressing French novelist George Sand to the writer Alfred de Musset, a missive that ended a tempestuous affair punctuated by de Musset’s forays with prostitutes and Sand’s dalliance with the physician attending to his venereal disease. Innocent star-crossed kids who met on a doomed boat they weren’t.

Details remain sketchy about the Sony France production that is currently being recorded. This being the Céline Dion juggernaut, an apparatus appraised by Forbes last month at US$250 million, expect the organizational finesse of a space shuttle mission. The first single, Dorin’s S’il n’en restait qu’une (je serais celle-là), will be released next week, on Valentine’s Day, in France. A “Collector’s Box Set” has been announced.

One need not be a Jesuit to question the recalibration. After all, the doe-eyed gamine with the lumberjack lungs is beloved by her fans for thinking with her heart, not her head, reflected in the titles of her greatest hits— Because You Loved Me, Love Can Move Mountains, The Colour of My Love, and her signature My Heart Will Go On. The vehicle has been the affecting resonance of her supple five-octave voice, a paranormal force of eerie clarity and precision for which songs are tailored. “Her voice itself is an emotion,” says Denise Bombardier.

As for intellectual angst, Dion has long avoided any such association. Her formal education ended at age 14 after two years of high school, with the encouragement of her manager René Angélil, the impresario who

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took Dion under his wing when she was 12, made her an international star and, in a Pygmalion-ish twist, married her in 1994When announcing a 1988 endorsement deal with Chrysler, the company that now sponsors her current A New Day show at Caesars Palace, Dion summed up her philosophy: “Chrysler and I, we’re looking for the same things. Above all, we want to satisfy our customers.”

And the last thing Dion’s customers, or Team Céline as her fans are known, want is ideology. A Sylvain Lelièvre song about the environment on her 1990 Unison album was greeted with sneering. Dion also learned to steer clear of politics. In 1992, the singer distanced herself from her comment that the idea of Quebec separation was “awful” to her, telling the Journal de Montréal: “There’s no feelings in politics. My specialty is feelings.”

Even these have been stage-managed, right down to the spontaneity—gracious nods issued to the audience, the hands outreached to the heavens, the thumbing of her chest, the scripted patter with the audience. From a

young age, Dion’s life has been hermetic: a relentless parade of hotels and stadiums, a gruelling performance schedule requiring the discipline of an athlete in training and days of silence to protect the instrument.

Emotion has been doled out via the DionAngélil love story—first in a $6.95 souvenir album of their 1994 Royal Wedding at Montreal’s Notre-Dame Basilica that brought in more than $1 million, then coverage of their garish Middle-Eastern-themed second wedding in Las Vegas in 2000 to which bride and groom wore Givenchy. There were also teary tales of his skin cancer requiring him to freeze semen for their much-desired child, her fertility treatments, and their idyllic two-year hiatus after the birth of their son, René-

Charles, in 2001. The couple has ridden through the bumps—rabid tabloid speculation, Angélil’s illness, an extortion bid against him, his alleged gambling habit—to create Céline Inc. Last month, Forbes ranked Dion, who has sold 140 million albums worldwide, fifth in its roundup of the “20 richest women in entertainment.” She came in seventh in the magazine’s “Music’s Moneymakers” of 2006, earning US$85.2 million. Since March 2003, Dion has packed the 4,148-seat Caesars Coliseum, a $95-million edifice built for her, five nights a week. Then there’s the brisk business at the Céline boutique on celinedion. com selling all manner of Céline-obilia—per-

fume, heart-shaped lockets, scarves, good luck frog charms, T-shirts and a “Treasures of the Heart” charm bracelet.

Now, however, a retooling of the Céline machine is in order. Dion is 38. A New Day is closing on Dec. 15. Already 2008 is mapped out to include the release of A New Day DVD and televised special, a world tour, and the family’s move to their oceanfront house in Florida. Dion needs to distance herself from the burlwood fog, vast herds of romping halfnaked dancers, gigantic doves projected on the largest LED screen in North America and other surrealistic special effects. She’s worked far too hard to end up embalmed in Vegas as Elvis was in his bloated final days.

Strategically, D’Elles is a brilliant move. It signals Dion’s return to her French roots as well as a reconnection with the French-speaking audience that formed her base before her anointment by the American entertainment

complex. The recording also reunites the singer with legendary Paris-based producer Jean-Jacques Goldman, with whom she collaborated in 1996 on D’Eux, the bestselling French-language album of all time. Though Dion’s English-language fans know her for syrupy power ballads, her French-language recordings, fraught with the same heavy orchestration, tiptoe into more nuanced, cerebral territory. Her 1991 Dion chantePlamondon is filled with songs of existential torment, including one, Le fils de Superman, about a boy who confuses reality with fantasy and jumps to his death. On D’Eux, she sings of a woman’s unrequited love for a gay man. Given Dion’s stated desire to portray Edith Piaf on the big screen, a dimming of the Vegas gloss is definitely in order.

The choice of strong-minded female writers signals Dion is an independent woman willing to take risks. Certainly some of the choices will be discussed. Payette, for instance, is a feminist and broadcaster well-known in Quebec who gained notoriety as the Parti Québécois cabinet minister who unleashed a firestorm before the 1980 sovereigntyassociation referendum with her utterance that Quebec, women had been raised to be

“Yvettes”—a reference to the passive, obedient girl in school primers. She urged women to avoid any such conditioning and vote “Yes” to separation. The comment provided the “No” side with the emotional ballast it had been lacking as women mobilized in protest. Payette, who left politics in 1981, wrote Le pouvoir? Connais pas (Power? I Don’t Know What You’re Talking Ab out), a feminist testimony of disillusionment, and produced the 1997 documentary, Women: A True Story. She is now a columnist for Journal de Montréal. It was on Payette’s program, Tête-à-tête, in 1992 that a 24-year-old Dion broke down in tears over her treatment in the Quebec media. She also admitted for the first time she was in love with Angélil but refused to say his name for fear it would place her career in jeopardy. “It was a turning point in public sympathy for her,” Payette says today.

Payette’s contribution to D’Elles, Je cherche

l’ombre, is about “being fed up with the lights, the honours, of dreaming of the quiet life,” she says. Dion called her personally to thank her. Payette says she has heard Dion questioning the price of her fame: “She said if she had to do it over again she might not.” Of course, it’s exactly that sort of comment that enhances Dion’s reputation as being “grounded.” Bombardier, a chevalier of the French Légion d’honneur, is another contributor known to stoke controversy. Recently, the celebrated broadcaster blamed her firing from Radio-Canada on pressure from gay “fundamentalists” after a debate in which she condemned gay marriage. Long a critic of erosive effects of U.S. movies and English rock videos on the French language, Bombardier once used Dion as an example of the skewed values of mass culture: “We could

say that Céline Dion is better than Mahler because Céline Dion sells more records than Mahler,” she wrote.

When Angélil called her two months ago, Bombardier thought it was a gag. She had never written lyrics, but quickly wrote two songs—one about Dion’s love for her husband, another about motherhood. Both were rejected. A representative of Sony France told her that the desire was to reposition Dion away from the “my husband, my child” to more “universal” themes. Bombardier travelled to Las Vegas where she visited with Dion backstage; she reports the singer, whose voice was being treated by a doctor, appeared fragile but in control. She saw in Dion “great creative anguish” and an obsession with perfection. “She told me, ‘Only four times the show I gave was good and my voice was very good.’ ” Bombardier told Dion she reminded her of Maria Callas; when Dion responded

that Callas fascinated her, Bombardier found her subject. It took her 45 minutes to write La Diva. Dion is acutely aware of her lack of formal education, Bombardier says. “She suffers for that now. She knows it’s important. She’s discovering reading.” Bombardier believes that the album will bring texts and writers to an audience that otherwise wouldn’t be exposed to them.

Both Payette and Bombardier speak of Dion as a strong, complex woman who’s misunderstood. “She’s a prisoner of her image in Quebec where she’s seen as a little girl,” Bombardier says .D’Elles is “very audacious” for Dion, Bombardier believes. “It’s a risk. It’s very courageous, very creative and very surprising. Payette says it’s time. “She’s almost 40. That’s how long it takes to make a real woman.” M With Nancy Macdonald