As we prepare for the 2018 Oscars Sunday, March 4th, Anne T. Donahue looks back at the film that defined the show 20 years ago, Titanic, through its game-changing ballad—Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On.”
The second half of the nineties felt like the cultural equivalent of a mall food court, histrionic and bright: The Spice Girls fronted for Pepsi while Fiona Apple told us the world was bullshit. Backstreet Boys lip synced in the rain while Marilyn Manson removed a rib so he could fellate himself. R&B stars Brandy and Monica argued about the loyalty of a love interest; toy conglomerate Mattel sued dance heroes Aqua over a song about Barbies. But somehow, someway, near and/or far, Titanic, and Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” the greatest movie ballad of all time, defined it.
By Titanic’s release at the end of 1997, Celine Dion had established herself not only as one of Top 40’s most powerful and schmaltzy voices, but a staple of nineties soundtracks, having sung the title themes for Beauty and the Beast (“Beauty and the Beast,” 1992), Sleepless In Seattle (“When I Fall In Love,” 1993), and Up Close and Personal (“Because You Loved Me,” 1996). Dion’s voice resurrected the emotions associated with the films in question, symbolizing pure, unadulterated, capital-f Feeling through songs steeped in bold declarations and grand gestures. But it was the Titanic that catapulted Celine into untouchable stardom—and it wasn’t even meant to happen.
Dion hated “My Heart Will Go On” as much as director James Cameron did—poor guy never intended to close the film with a pop ballad. Writer James Horner and co-producers Simon Franglen and John Landau are responsible—the trio wove the track into the movie’s closing scene so seamlessly, it carried with it Leonardo DiCaprio (Jack) and Kate Winslet’s (Rose) assumed reunion in the afterlife—theirs’ are the hearts that most definitely went on. The inclusion of the song at Titanic’s end helped immortalize the intertwined memory of both, which is why it’s still so dang recognizable two decades after the fact.
But a song is only as effective as it’s parts: the combination of the Irish flute heard throughout the movie and the powerful delicacy of Dion’s voice made “My Heart Will Go On” the sonic embodiment of Titanic’s heartbreak, drama, and passion. It was also a celebration of the all-or-nothing approach to young love. Celine’s “you’re here, there’s nothing I fear” refrain leaves no room for confusion, and in listening to it, you believe Dion’s sentiments are universal; that in only a matter of time, anyone could be the Rose and/or Jack of our own stories, willing to jump off lifeboats to be with whoever looked our way. Celine, by performing a song so associated with all-encompassing, larger-than-life, do-or-die affection, blew even Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” out of the water.
Seriously! Where Houston’s cover of the 1974 Dolly Parton original is still best defined as a Gift From God™ (just pretend you knew this if you didn’t until now), the fact that its origins lay in Parton’s sentiments for her former partner and mentor Peter Wagoner lessens its direct emotional blow. Whether the listener is aware of it or not, we crave authenticity in balladry. No one could, or should, diminish the intensity of Houston’s version for the 1992 film The Bodyguard, which she starred in as singer Rachel Marron, blurring the lines between Rachel and herself—the real meaning of the song is reserved for a man with whom Parton had endured a toxic relationship. It wasn’t only The Bodyguard’s song, or Marron’s, it was Parton’s, and Houston’s, which is what separates it from the Titanic masterpiece.
“My Heart Will Go On” belongs to its film, exclusively, wholeheartedly, with every tear it inspired. And while 1996’s “Because You Loved Me” is arguably another worthy contender for Best Movie Ballad, Up Close and Personal didn’t draw the young audiences that Titanic did. (Shout-out to stars Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert Redford, but their love seemed like a story for grown-ups—movie songs should transcend age.) Dion found a way to successfully bridge the gap between young and old(er) romances with “My Heart Will Go On” in undeniable ways: the track appeared on her album, 1997's Let’s Talk About Love (a gift to existing Dion fans), but most importantly, it was the only vocal track on Titanic’s soundtrack, making it, and her, memorable to new, young, impressionable listeners.
Lest we forget that the rest of the soundtrack consisted solely of Irish flutes and orchestral offerings titled “Southampton” and “The Sinking,” allowing “My Heart Will Go On” to succeed not only because it was attached to one of the biggest movies ever made, but because it had nothing to compete against. Even Seal’s unforgettable “Kiss From A Rose” (Batman Forever, 1995), Roxette’s “It Must’ve Been Love” (Pretty Woman, 1990), and R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” (Space Jam, 1996) appeared alongside some of the biggest names in music, in popular movies tailored to specific audiences. Titanic was a pop culture phenomenon, and Dion’s was the only voice attached to it.
The result: “My Heart Will Go On” changed the game for movie ballads altogether, and the impact was felt immediately. Totally mimicking Titanic’s last scene, melting into the opening notes of its title track, Armageddon delivered Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing” in 1998 and wove the father/daughter theme into its music video, where singer Steven Tyler’s real-life daughter (and Armageddon star) Liv Tyler reenacted the film’s heartbreaking close (spoiler: her dad dies). That same year Aqua broke out of their dance mould for Sliding Door’s ballad, “Turn Back Time,” which served to expose the group to audiences not inclined to play “Barbie Girl” on repeat. (Also known as Gwyneth Paltrow fans.) As years went on, most ballads stuck to the spirit of ballads before “My Heart Will Go On,” halfway-decent songs attached to movies that paled in comparison to Titanic’s glory. Had “My Heart Will Go On” found itself in support of a movie like 1998’s Deep Impact (see: hardly Titanic), it wouldn’t have made the splash it did.
The energy of the song, and its unique ability to exist as both a part of and extension of the film continues to set it apart from its movie music successors. Ballads like Adele’s “Skyfall” for the James Bond film of the same name in 2012 earned her an Oscar, but some of its power lay in Adele’s own popularity—and the fact that the single dropped between albums. Idina Menzel’s “Let It Go” (Frozen, 2013) was a force to be reckoned with, but failed to sell the 15 million copies that “My Heart Will Go On” did—plus, it was officially released as a Demi Lovato single, which didn’t make as big of a mark. Bangers like Eminem’s “Lose It” (8 Mile, 2002), Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” (Despicable Me 2, 2013), and Tegan and Sara’s “Everything Is Awesome” (The Lego Movie, 2014) aren’t ballads in the traditional sense. So far, Dion’s offering remains unparalleled.
And maybe it is impossible to beat. “My Heart Will Go On” exists both as a music and movie juggernaut, and the space where the two impenetrable pop culture forces meet. In the modern era, we no longer see the same artist sing similar songs for a variety of films (a la Dion,) we see a variety of artists from a variety of genres record music that reflects the spirit of the films they’re tied to. Simply put, “My Heart Will Go On” will likely continue to be the greatest movie ballad ever, because the days of straight-forward movie ballads may be going the way of the Titanic, anyway. That’s nothing to fear.