Music critic Carl Wilson was always baffled by the French-Canadian singer’s massive popularity—until he started to examine his own assumptions about sentimentality and taste.

From the start of Céline Dion’s superstardom, her music had struck me as bland monotony raised to a pitch of obnoxious bombast—R&B with the sex and slyness surgically removed, French chanson severed from its wit and soul—and her repertoire as Oprah Winfrey–approved chicken soup for the consumerist soul.   

As far as I knew, I had never even met anybody who liked Céline Dion. Certainly not many other music critics do.

But her fans sure are out there. Dion has sold nearly 200 million albums, not counting the Titanic soundtrack. She has five recordings in the Recording Industry Association of America’s list of the top 100 albums by sales, making her the 23rd best-selling pop act of all time. Globally she is the most successful French-language singer ever and could be the best-selling female singer. For four years, beginning in 2003, her legions tithed their salaries to fly to Las Vegas for her nightly revue, A New Day, in the custom-built Colosseum theater at Caesars Palace, which wrapped up at the end of 2007. When the singer herself was asked if her critics bothered her, she answered: “We’ve been sold out for four years. The audience is my answer.”

Which doesn’t mean you have to admire her. Unless maybe it does. Those who find Dion tacky, gauche, or kitschy must be overlooking something, maybe beginning with why we have those sorts of labels.

And so I had set out on an experiment: It has to do with social affinities and rancors. Primarily, though, the question is whether anyone’s tastes—starting with mine—stand on solid ground: If I im-
mersed myself in her music, researched her influences, the sensibility she expressed, perhaps I could find the Dionysian within, my inner Céline Dion fan. And what then?

You don’t know what an egotistical control freak your taste can be until you try to turn traitor, as evidenced by the slapstick contortions I’ve had to resort to just to get myself to listen to Céline Dion. Right now her 2003 Roy Orbison cover “I Drove All Night” is pouring out of my speakers, and I can barely resist flicking out my hand to switch it off. It’s not that it offends me personally, as it once did. No, the problem is that my building is so poorly soundproofed. It’s a converted industrial space (cliché, I know), and to move in, I had to sign a waiver accepting noise levels higher than allowed by municipal codes. Whenever my neighbors argue, watch TV, or have sex, I hear it. And I know that they hear me. It’s a minor voyage of self-discovery: For instance, it turns out that I am not so bothered by having strangers hear me have sex, compared to how embarrassed I am by having them hear me play Céline Dion’s 1997 album Let’s Talk About Love over and over. I worry that it annoys them, but mainly that they’re thinking, “What a loser.” It took months before I could bring myself to play it openly at full volume, rather than through headphones. It was an exercise that forced me to confront how much is involved in not being a Céline Dion fan.

For a century or more, sentimentality has been the cardinal aesthetic sin. To say that a work is sentimental is perforce to damn it. To be sentimental is to be phony, manipulative. And all things considered, sentimentality is also the most formidable barrier between Céline’s music and me.

To be sure, I can absolve sentimentality of the superficial charges against it. Manipulative? Manipulating listeners, moving them, is what music is supposed to do, skillfully. Phony? All art is fake. What matters is that it is a convincing fake, a lie that feels true. Double standards arise everywhere for sentimental music: excessive, formulaic, two-dimensional can all be positives for music that is not gentle and conciliatory, but infuriated and rebellious. You could say punk rock is anger’s schmaltz. Punk, metal, even social-justice rock like U2 or Rage Against the Machine, with their emphatic slogans or individuality and independence, are as much “inspirational” as Céline’s music is, but for different subcultural groups. “Subversion,” today, is sentimentality’s inverse: It is nearly always a term of critical approval.

So what is the usefulness of Céline’s music for her fans, if it is not about subversion? Lawrence W. Levine has written that appraising art by its novelty or radicalism is “a modern fallacy contradicted by the centuries of folk artists who saw their function as embodying the beliefs and meanings of their cultures.” Sentimentality in popular art is one of the few vectors along which this “folk” function can still be fulfilled. Certainly, Céline gives her audiences what Levine calls “a sense of recognition and community.”

To find out more, I decided to make a field trip to Las Vegas. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

What I hadn’t counted on was Vegas itself. It was my first visit. I stupidly came alone. If there is a laboratory demonstration of the antagonism between economic and cultural capital, it is Las Vegas, a city of such pure commercialism that money is its entertainment, interrupted occasionally by a show. Nowhere else is it so palpable that art can be simply the green kid stepping in to give a brief break to the main greenback attraction. In this nonstop carnival of social inversion, only money is purely beautiful, in Immanuel Kant’s sense of being an end in itself.

All of which, in the abstract, seems kind of healthy. But in the flesh it depressed the hell out of me. I am averse to gambling. I am entirely too shy to hire prostitutes. In Sin City that leaves a solitary man at loose ends. I wandered in a haze through the gold towers and black pyramids, dancing water fountains, before slouching back to my room each night with a fifth of bourbon to watch pay-per-view. I was a stray member of the cultural-capital tribe deported to a gaudy prison colony run by a phalanx of showgirls.

It was in this state of mind that I finally threw myself to the Colosseum theater’s 3-D, full-color, computer-animated lions.

In the preshow of A New Day, the stage appears to be overhung by a mammoth gilded picture frame, within which is a real-time, live-video projection of us, the audience. As showtime nears, the camera zooms in on selected spectators, creating a serial comic pantomime in which we get to catch people catch themselves being caught on camera and flinch in embarrassment or mug for our amusement. First it’s three girls in J’adore Dion T-shirts; then two low-key parents with their daughter (Dad is reading a book and never even notices his 15 seconds); then an impressively tanked pair, the guy’s shirt half-unbuttoned and the woman with huge silicon breasts; last, a couple still wearing their wedding outfits.

And at that, the frame, which is merely a computer-generated illusion on North America’s largest indoor LED screen, expands and shatters into a thousand shards of glassy light, which all spin tinkling through the air and converge—on Céline herself, revealed poised atop a sweeping red staircase.

I hardly needed to see the rest of the show. It was a perfect figure of music calling forth, representing, breaking, and remaking identities. Céline was offering to reflect us back to ourselves, with all our endearing foibles but larger, fancier, better. She put an 18th-century golden frame around us, the ultimate in egalitarian bling, then shattered our collective self to draw the fragments into her own body, itself little but a container for her voice, its own kind of exquisite antique.

Yet the frame was long out of fashion—no elite connoisseur or curator would fix it to a contemporary picture. And this, I thought, in my cut-price balcony seat, is why Céline winds up mocked, because her efforts at class and taste always go wrong. With her synthesized strings and genuine pearls and her opera-crossover attempts, she aspires to the highbrow culture of a half-century ago. She doesn’t pass the retina scan: The real elites now are busy affecting muttonchops and trucker caps and reading about teen pop in The New Yorker.

But the fact is, A New Day, which I’d been dreading as I boarded the plane, was the most fun I had the whole trip. Céline was gawky and funny and, compared to most of Vegas, human-scale. I liked it best when she came downstage, out of the knot of dancers and numbingly literal CGI projections that illustrated every song, to chat a bit stiffly and accept flowers. We could be uncool together, along with the tiny Filipino mom who sat beside me whispering, “Wow. Oh wow,” and occasionally weeping behind the sunglasses that she wore, sitting in the dark, the whole show.

I started to get sucked in by the music, too. The songs of devotion—‘‘If You Asked Me To’’ or “Because You Loved Me’’—began to probe at the open sore of my own recent marital separation, and even coaxed a few tears.

It’s often assumed that audiences for schmaltz are somehow stunted, using sentimental art as a kind of emotional crutch. But there’s no evidence for this slur: Isn’t it equally plausible that people uncomfortable with representations of vulnerability and tenderness have emotional problems? Sympathy and compassion are prerequisites to charity and solidarity. So between the sentimentalist and the anti-sentimentalist, who is the real emotional cripple?

Me, for one. The underlying reason I had such a bad time in Vegas was not that it was tacky: It was that the tackiness made me feel even lonelier than I already was, some six months after my marriage dissolved. For a moment in the Colosseum, beside the teary Filipino mom, Céline helped me feel that big, dumb emotion on a gut level. Unlike my usual, more “sophisticated” listening. 

I never became a true Céline fan. But for a few moments, standing in the Colosseum, I got it. Of course, then Céline would do something unforgivable, like a duet with an enormous projection of the head of Frank Sinatra. Still, I could see the point of her in Vegas, land of ejaculating slot machines and flows of global capital through artificial rivers: As she exclaimed in her infamous Larry King Show interview about poor New Orleans looters, “Let them touch those things!” And I could answer, Yes, touch me, Céline.

From Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste by Carl Wilson. Copyright 2007 by Carl Wilson. Published by arrangement with Continuum books.