There was a time when Celine Dion did not have to beg rappers not to tattoo her face on their bodies. But as the lady once sang, those days are gone. When Drake announced his plans to get the fellow Canadian icon’s visage inked on his rib cage, joining his tats of Aaliyah, Rihanna, Sade, Denzel, and the Beatles, Celine pleaded, “Please, Drake, I love you very much…. We can sing together. I can talk to your mother. Whatever you want, but please.” Oh, the price of being a legend. One day you’re standing tall on the prow of the Titanic, ululating “My Heart Will Go On” over Celtic pipes; the next, you’re giving tough love to the guy who wrote “God’s Plan.”
It’s just another weird moment in Celine’s dazzling resurgence, nearly four years after the tragic death of her husband of 22 years and manager of 35, René Angélil. Like Mariah Carey, Celine is an old-school pop diva riding high. Her new album, Courage, like Mariah’s Caution, is a powerful comeback.
Neither one has released a proper hit song in years. Until last week, the only time either had cracked the Top 40 in the past decade was Mariah’s Miguel duet “#Beautiful” in 2013, from her superbly titled Me. I Am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse. But of course, Mariah is currently at Number One with her 1994 Yuletide carol “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” virtually the only song of the past 30 years that can be called a true holiday classic. (Before that, you’d have to go back to the Eighties for Band Aid, George Michael and Paul McCartney.) Mariah’s surprise sleigh ride back to Number One makes it the oldest song ever to reach the top, and the first holiday tune to do so since “The Chipmunk Song” in 1960. It definitely says something about our shaky times that the U.S. has suddenly embraced the U.K. tradition of the Christmas Number One, when oldies by Slade or Wizzard would return to the charts every December. But it’s also a sign that we’re craving these divas’ eccentric wisdom more than ever.
But neither of them really needs any new hit singles. The radio does a remarkable job of editing their canons so the quality songs remain, while the bad ones just disappear. So the longer they step back from the hitmaking hustle, the better they sound. The longer they wait between records, the more like stars they seem. They age well because they give us more emotional high notes, more back catalog, more will-to-power egomaniac overdrive than younger divas can possibly hope to match. Neither has ever for one minute resembled a sane, down-to-earth adult, and thank the pop gods for that.
Like fellow Quebec music legend Leonard Cohen, Celine is primed to thrive in her fifties because she never seemed young. Since she crossed over from Canadian child-star status to global pop prominence, Celine has had a delightful nutty-auntie energy. Who can forget her immortal rendition of AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” at the 2002 VH1 Divas Las Vegas concert, complete with pained air-guitar faces that John Mayer must have studied frame by frame? (When Celine sings the line, “He told me to come, but I was already there,” she truly shoots to thrill.) But her new phase is her most endearing and moving yet: a middle-aged widow learning to loosen up and live again. She even cusses in the studio for the first time on Courage, declaring, “This shit is perfect!”
Mariah’s ascent to a whole new level of celebrity mystique can be summed up in four magic words: “I,” “don’t,” “know” — and I cannot stress this enough — “her.” Not since Peter denied knowing his Lord and Savior on the evening of the Crucifixion has a denial resonated through history like Mariah’s strategic amnesia on the subject of Jennifer Lopez. It was a classic power move, like her fantastic New Year’s Eve TV debacle a few years ago, when she refused to play along and lip-sync. That charm just shines brighter through the years, which is why at this point, the world is even finally catching up with the greatness of Glitter, her awesome 2001 cinematic fiasco.
Celine’s Courage — which reached Number One on the RS 200 chart — is her version of Mariah’s The Emancipation of Mimi, or Whitney’s My Love Is Your Love: a midlife album from a diva with way too much grown-up shit on her mind and an anomalously personal statement that’s out of whack with everything she’s done before and whatever she’ll do next. It’s been six years since Celine’s last English-language pop album, and in that time the world has changed in many weird ways. (Including the fact that lots of people now spell Celine’s name with an accent over the “e,” a comic frisson on par with Motörhead’s umlaut. Why doesn’t every letter in Celine’s name have an accent?) But one of the weirdest changes might be that everybody worships these two now, after so many years when they were two of the most divisive figures in music. So now is the right time for them to luxuriate in the kind of grande-dame role Whitney didn’t live to see, reigning with all their quirks and tics intact. Fads come, fads go. Fashion changes. But for these two, the heart goes on and on.
A version of this piece appears in the January issue of Rolling Stone, as part of Sheffield’s regular Sound & Vision column.