Can 'My Heart Will Go On' Be Resuscitated?

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Today, it's schmaltz. But someday it'll be like "This Land is Your Land"—just another folk song.

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Epic

It's been said in a thousand "... and on and on and on" wisecracks, but it's true: Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On" never stops, as if its launch sequence of peaks and crescendos long ago propelled it beyond the stratosphere and into permanent orbit around the planet.

As every sentient being from Argentina to China is apparently aware, James Cameron's blockbuster film Titanic last week returned from the deep, enhanced with 3D just in time for the centenary of the historic shipping disaster. In its wake, or rather perched pluckily upon its prow, inevitably comes "My Heart Will Go On," a song imprinted on the movie's legacy as indelibly as a late-1990s tribal tattoo. But after 15 years of overexposure, is this a song we can even hear any more as music, or can it be only an artifact, a maddeningly insistent reminder of its own maddening insistence?

Celine Dion is at once the most globally beloved and most critically sneered-at musical star of recent decades (a case study in the paradoxes of taste that I've investigated at book length), and "My Heart Will Go On" tops out both those scales. Among the many who've dived for the lifeboats, Maxim called it "the second most tragic event ever to result from that fabled ocean liner," the BBC voted it the most irritating song of all time and Blender said it made millions "pray that an iceberg would somehow hit Dion." Now the rerelease has occasioned the most stinging burn ever, when Titanic star Kate Winslet herself scandalized the Internet by admitting the song makes her "feel like throwing up" whenever it's played around her. (Or maybe it was worse last fall when it was reported MHWGO was playing when cruise ship the Costa Concordia hit the rocks.)

Yet surviving adversity has been MHWGO'S M.O. from its conception. When the film was being made, Cameron was opposed to composer James Horner's desire for a closing pop ballad, thinking it at odds with the score's attempt at period authenticity. So Horner pursued it behind Cameron's back. He solicited lyrics from friend Will Jennings, and set his sights on Dion. She hated the song at first herself, but her husband/manager Rene Angelil persuaded her to sing on the demo (literally weeping while doing it, by some accounts), which in turn convinced Cameron. (In fact, the original vocal is the one that remains on the final cut.)

It's ironic, then, that at this point the movie is arguably more of a footnote to the tune than the other way around. Each was as mega-huge as flick or ditty can be: Titanic still holds the record for the longest string of weekends at No. 1 at the box office, while "My Heart Will Go On" is estimated the 11th-bestselling global single of all time and thus the biggest movie theme ever, outstripping even Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" from 1992's The Bodyguard. But a movie by nature simply cannot be as ubiquitous as a song. You don't dance to the movie Titanic at your high-school prom, nor does it accompany untold numbers of weddings, funerals, and dead-pet videos, as MHWGO has continued to do since 1997. Year by year, its persistence pierced the hull of popular culture as it gushed forth unbidden from radios, department-store speakers, and passing cars, its tin-whistle wheedle inundating all.

That's the thing about overexposed songs, no matter how diligently you purge them from your personal playlists: You can't shut your ears the way you can shut your eyes. When you like a hit, it's an occasion for extreme sociability—that "summer song" feeling, as its lilt becomes the beat of the era, a big tuneful umbrella over all our heads. When you hate one, it's like a swarm of mosquitoes waiting around every corner. Most often, though, you lean a little pro or a little con until repetition wears the feeling down to a numb, useless stump. I dimly recall a halcyon interlude last year when I was amiably inclined toward Adele's "Someone Like You," for instance. But by now it has joined countless other hits whose terminal catchiness condemns them to stalk the earth as musical zombies, devoid of any purpose but to mindlessly devour airspace and patience.

Is there any cure for the song poisoned by its own success? Any equivalent of what Cameron has attempted to do by retooling Titanic in 3D, so that audiences might see his epic literally in a new dimension? There are a few. Some common tactics are in their own ways overexposed and internally flawed: There's critical reclamation, as Vulture writer Amanda Dobbins attempted last week for MHWGO, or as has been done before for Abba, Neil Diamond, the whole genre of heavy metal and, recently, Hall & Oates. This is often preceded by the designation of a "guilty pleasure," a term of inherent snobbery and self-contradiction better applied to the music of a bigot or criminal (Chris Brown fans need apply).

Sometimes the ground is prepared by a hip artist covering an unhip one, whether in mockery or tribute, as the Sex Pistols once did for the then-reviled Monkees, and as many musicians have in fact done with MHWGO. The most popular is probably by the snotty mall-punk band New Found Glory, but one of my greatest delights digging back into MHWGO lore has been finding out that the reunited Blondie has taken to covering it in concert, in a souped-up performance that sounds as native to Debbie Harry as peroxide. The translation is so fluid that I found myself imagining Dion in turn giving the slow-motion, power-ballad treatment to "Heart of Glass." (I bet she could make it her own, though the "it was a gas" line might be a bit awkward.)

Closer to the 3D reboot might be the remix. If Cameron had real nerve, he might have gotten Deadmau5 to re-engineer Dion's original for the closing credits of the new release and sent teary throngs of new-christened steampunks dubstepping out of the cineplexes.

But there are other options besides third-party intervention—or, as envisioned a year ago on the CW series Supernatural, travelling back in time and preventing the Titanic from sinking, so that neither film nor theme song are ever created.

The grimmest alternative is a performer's early death. Perhaps you know someone who's generally condescending about pop music but suddenly displayed their fealty to Michael Jackson or Whitney Houston after those stars' heartrending exits. A tragic end lends new shape and meaning to the arc of a career. A song gains poignancy when it is all that's left behind, with no promise remaining to be fulfilled or let down; the artist's contributions suddenly crystallize; it all becomes a narrative. As well, and less charitably, because these celebrities can no longer be gratified by our admiration, we're less stingy about granting it. Instead we claim our solace from them, as secular martyrs.

One wouldn't wish such a fate upon Dion or anyone else for the sake of some song. It is a clue to a key path to redemption for the overworked hit, but there are gentler mechanisms for distancing ourselves from a song's oppressive omnipresence. One of them is actual distance: Outside the context of western taste hierarchies, Dion and MHWGO don't carry any stigma at all—they're widely esteemed as signifiers of authenticity, emotion, and glamour, just like Jackson or Houston.

That's the thing about overexposed songs: You can't shut your ears the way you can shut your eyes.

Just in the past couple of weeks, for instance, I've been told, completely unbidden, two stories of the song's adventures abroad. One friend returning from a Central American vacation told me that one afternoon she ended up dueting spontaneously on the whole song with a little girl in the village of Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua—MHWGO's global reach making possible a little miracle of cross-linguistic, cross-cultural communion.

Then, at a barroom lecture series in Toronto, a speaker included the song in her account of evolving from vocal wallflower to karaoke queen. While working as a student teacher in Japan, she was "asked" (i.e., commanded) to sing Celine for a community culture festival--just because she was Canadian. Never having sung nor wished to sing in public, and without benefit of rehearsal with the scratchy student orchestra, she found herself bleating out "My Heart Will Go On" in front of 2,000 Japanese pupils, parents, and neighbors. And once she got past her fear and embarrassment, she felt something she'd never associated with Celine Dion before: a sense of liberation.

Perhaps even more potent is the 4D version of distance: time. No matter how cyclically Cameron or his estate adapt Titanic by the era, perhaps transforming it into an immersive virtual experience and then a neuromantic bioported game about an intergalactic spaceliner that runs into an asteroid, eventually the original will become at best a quaint classic or more probably a creaky object of cinephilic scholarship.

If history is any guide, though, a rather different fate awaits its theme song: What happens to the most enormous hits is that they become folk music. How many kids today know that Bing Crosby's version of Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" was the biggest commercial smash of the 20th century? They're less likely to think of that World War II-era recording than of their moms and dads singing it, or the local choir. Likewise, "This Land is Your Land" is no longer Woody Guthrie's dustbowl-socialist polemic but a classroom staple and an unofficial national anthem.

In the case of MHWGO, there's an even more direct example. The movie, the wreck excavations (subject of another Cameron film), and the current anniversary make it hard to recall that the Titanic wasn't always so sentimentalized. For a long time, it was seen more as an example of industrial hubris or the decline of the Edwardian upper class (as early episodes of Downton Abbey should remind us), and a minor horror by the measure of the bloody century to follow. That reaction is preserved for us in country singer Ernest Stoneman's "The Wreck of the Titanic," one of the biggest hits of the 1920s: "The rich declared they would not ride with the poor/ So they sent the poor below, they were the first to go/ It was sad when that great ship went down."

Again, one of the biggest hits of the 1920s. Did you know this, growing up? I heard the song at summer camps, in classes, at recess. It was a part of kid culture, and we sang it not with Stoneman's religious stoicism, but with the exuberance of kid culture. The best part, whenever you could get away with it, was always to throw in the alternate lyrics, "Uncles and aunts, little children lost their pants! It was sad when the great ship went down." It didn't have anything to do with an actual disaster. The idea of a massive boat sinking was an abstract, carnival image of disorder—i.e., fun.

I no longer have the bratty genius to imagine what might replace the lyrics of MHWGO when it hits the campfire crowd. Certainly, Weird Al Yankovic's "Free Delivery" is not his best, and the apocryphally Eminem-related "My Fart Will Go On" is pitifully thin. But chances are it's even now being put through changes its authors never dreamed of, because that's what becomes of songs that travel everywhere. History makes them eternal, feral, and unknowable, and thereby sets them free.

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Carl Wilson is a writer and editor at The Globe and Mail in Toronto and the author of Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste. He writes regularly at backtotheworld.net.

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