Carl Wilson’s remarkable manuscript about Céline Dion is now in-house and we’re looking forward to publishing this one before the end of the year, with any luck.
Here’s a brief excerpt from Chapter 3 – “Let’s Talk in French”.
Céline’s ineluctable Quebeckitude remains a block for anglo audiences abroad. When British writer A.A. Gill, in a 2003 anti-Vegas diatribe in Vanity Fair, attacked her “ungodly French-Canadian glottal accent,” it was remarkable less for its rudeness than for being unusually well informed. To most of the English world, Céline’s Frenchness remains a vague thing, almost an affectation; that it represents a whole culture groping its way to self-determination doesn’t translate. She is condemned to a kind of pidgin otherness that gains her little in empathy or exotic allure because few know how to place it within standard North American racial and ethnic matrices. If she fails most non-fans’ authenticity tests, the trouble may be not only her showbiz upbringing but that her personal touchstones are off the map. Her commercialism does not get the kind of pass given a rapper who fixates on “gettin’ paid” or a country singer who thanks God for the hits that rescued her from a Southern shack. Since Quebec is a null set in the popular imagination, Céline is judged by middle-class standards in which “sellout” is always a handy stick to slap down the overreaching.
When Céline talks in the first-person plural – we achieved this, we hoped for that, we decided to make this record – she is speaking of herself, René, her producers, her Charlemagne clan and all of what’s called “Team Céline,” but symbolically it includes Quebec’s extended family. Where she comes from, collectivity counts, and her gains are the gains of a people. It is a recognizable ethic in an African-American star, but in Céline it doesn’t read: She represents for an opaque referent, rendering her meaning illegible.
Which brings us back to the September 2005 Larry King interview. There’s no denying its spectacle. From the first, Céline, who had just given a million dollars to the New Orleans relief effort, was in tears. She gasped over explaining the disaster to her son René Charles. She demanded to know why it was hard to send helicopters to rescue New Orleanians from rooftops when “it’s so easy to send planes in another country to kill everyone in a second!” The centrepiece was her paean to the joy of looting: “Oh, they’re stealing 20 pair of jeans or they’re stealing television sets. Who cares? They’re not going to go too far with it! … Some of the people who do that, they’re so poor they’ve never touched anything in their life. Let them touch those things for once!“
Then Larry King, with jawdropping crassness, asked if she had a song for the occasion. Céline did not break into Motorhead’s “Eat the Rich.” She wiped her eyes and sang “A Prayer,” which she’d recorded with blind Italian opera guy Andrea Bocelli, purring piously of “a place where we’ll be safe.”
“Let them touch those things” instantly joined the annals of unhinged celebrity utterance; the hymn was consigned to plastic showbiz sanctimony. But every second was quintessentially québécois: the pro-American but anti-Washington stance, the class consciousness (what other white pop star would not only excuse but advocate poor blacks ransacking retail stores?) and the intense identification with New Orleans, which Quebec sees as both a cautionary tale of language loss and a distant-cousin outpost of joie de vivre in stiff-necked America. She shrugged off the million bucks as the least a happy entrepreneur could do, and sang when called upon like the dutiful national daughter ever ready to put her gifts into service.
Because most viewers couldn’t see the link between the nègres blancs of Quebec and the creole blacks of New Orleans, Céline’s state seemed out of all proportion. But in that light it was as culturally sound as rapper Kanye West’s televised outburst the next week that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”