Celine Dion Falling Into You

Céline Dion’s ‘Falling Into You’ Was a Triumph of 1990s High Camp Pop Art

Falling Into You could only be made by an artist like Céline Dion, who knows that whatever she puts out will be slammed by critics but adored by her audience.

Falling into You
Céline Dion
11 March 1996

If one were to look for a pop manifesto of the 1990s, one wouldn’t have to look further than Falling Into You. Today, 27 years after its March 1996 release, Falling Into You sounds like a time capsule of mainstream 1990s pop, or more accurately, 1990s mainstream diva-pop. More so than any other performer of the decade, Céline Dion became the epitome of diva-pop. Between April 1990 and March 1996, she released four English-language albums: Unison (1990), Celine Dion (1992), The Colour of My Love (1993), and finally, Falling Into You.

In those eight short years, Dion had transformed remarkably, changing from a coltish newbie from Canada to a glossy, polished superstar. A national heroine in her native Canada, singing sentimental French pop tunes since the tender age of 13, Dion’s plot to take over American pop began in 1990 with her English-language debut, 1990’s Unison. That record would create a pattern of Céline Dion albums: a collection of safe, enjoyable pop songs formatted to the broadest range of mainstream top 40 radio possible. Quickly, Dion established her strong suit: bombastic power ballads.

Céline Dion’s rapid ascension to pop royalty came at a time in popular music when the Seattle grunge of the early 1990s made way for the sparkly, gleaming Hollywood of diva-pop. In a crowded field of vocalists like Shania Twain, Mariah Carey, Gloria Estefan, Toni Braxton, and Whitney Houston, Céline Dion stood out, dominant with her impeccable state-of-the-art MOR pop.

Falling Into You would prove to be the perfect Céline Dion record that would redefine her stardom and pop persona but also set a standard for Adult-Contemporary pop music. Taking inspiration from singers like Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, Whitney Houston, and Michael Bolton, Dion built on the sound of the contemporary pop balladry of those artists, reaping incredible financial success, moving tens of millions of albums and becoming the voice of American radio for the period of 1996 to 1998. Dion was unique among her peers because few had (or have) her range or stupendous lung power. That singular voice is astonishingly loud with the propulsive force of a Mack Truck. Dion’s instrument is the ideal vehicle for diva-pop ballads – it can pull every imaginable emotion (or, more accurately, manufacture every possible emotion) from the requisite banal and cliched lyrics necessary when crafting a 1990s love ballad.  

The other key element to the success of Céline Dion’s music is sentimental songwriting. Her career has made maudlin tunesmiths like Diane Warren, David Foster, Walter Afanasieff, and John Bettis the Brill Building of the 1990s. The songs these sentimental pros wrote weren’t just songs but Valentine’s Day cards set to music. Dewy, star-eyed love songs enveloped in thick, silky productions, timestamped for the 1990s. Combined with the gooiest of love lyrics and the most sweeping arrangements, Dion’s voice graced the perfect 1990s pop ballad: readymade for a school dance, a first date, a department store, an elevator, or the credits of a rom-com. To be alive in the 1990s was to be intimately familiar with Céline Dion’s voice. It didn’t matter if you weren’t a fan of her music or pop music; her voice was omnipresent, like oxygen. It was inescapable. Because she was such a ubiquitous presence in the 1990s, both fans and non-fans were serenaded by her many hits.

Before Falling Into You’s March release, Dion’s label, Sony, released the first US single for the record, the Diane Warren-penned “Because You Loved Me”, produced by David Foster. Warren and Foster were instrumental to Dion’s success and vital in creating Dion’s signature sound. The song was the theme of the Jon Avnet romantic drama, Up Close & Personal, a Star Is Born rip-off set in journalism. “Because You Loved Me” was a massive hit for the star, her second number-one Billboard hit and the third hit theme for a film. As a lead single, “Because You Love Me” set the stage for Dion’s pop dominance (and would predict her success with the inescapable 1998 hit “My Heart Will Go On” from the James Cameron epic Titanic). Cinema and Céline Dion made for a beautiful musical marriage: a Dion ballad’s cinematic, theatrical scope was tailor-made for the movies.

To promote Falling Into You, Dion guested on several talk shows, particularly morning talk shows aimed at her fanbase. Revisiting Dion’s morning chat TV appearances is like being drowned in 1990s pop culture. She stopped by shows like The Rosie O’Donnell Show, Lifetime’s Intimate Portrait, and Live with Regis & Kathie Lee, and her videos were in heavy rotation on VH1, the gentler answer to MTV. Like most pop acts of the 1990s, Céline Dion was a beneficiary of the flush days of pop music, a time when labels were pouring an infinite amount of money and resources into pushing albums that would sell millions of copies. (Little did anyone know that the emergent Internet would end those indulgent times.) 

This exhaustive promotional tour paid off handsomely for Dion and Sony: Falling Into You would reach number on various sales charts, including the USA, Canada, and the UK, and would eventually sell over 30 million copies worldwide. It would be Dion’s second blockbuster, as her previous release, 1993’s The Colour of My Love, would sell more than 20 million copies. Reviews of Falling into You were mixed, as they always would be for a Céline Dion record. There’s always conflict when assessing a Céline Dion record critically. Though Dion’s voice is excellent, she’s sometimes criticized for oversinging or showing off, reliant on her wide range to make up for sincere interpretation; and her material’s lyrics and production are often derided as trite, overblown, bathetic, and vulgar. 

Rolling Stone damned Falling Into You with one-and-a-half stars and sniped that “she always used her voice as a club with which to bonk listeners”.1 In a rather scathing review for New Music Express, Mike Goldsmith described the music on Falling Into You as “schmaltzy, nauseatingly sycophantic” .2 Elysa Gardner echoed some of Goldsmith’s sentiment when she suggested that on the album, Dion “often falls back on her characteristic platform of polite, predictable schmaltz” .3

But Céline Dion is an artist that is immune from critical pans. She doesn’t have designs to be anything but entertaining, and she understands that her fans expect extravagant emotions. The question of authenticity lies at the heart of criticism leveled at Dion. Carl Wilson, in his excellent analysis of Céline Dion’s work, has suggested that criticism of Dion speaks to more significant questions of good taste and class in popular culture and does the singer’s transparent commercialism and aggressive, almost crass aim for mainstream success speak to snobbery, classism, and musical elitism.  

These questions of taste and “Is Céline Dion’s music good?” seems superfluous when listening to Falling into You. The record is everything its critics accuse it of being: often sappy, lyrically empty, flamboyant, and at times quite soppy. However, dismissing Falling into You misses the point of the album because music as unabashedly sentimental as Falling Into You is designed as an outlet for uninhibited emotionalism. Songs like the title track or the operatic Eric Carmen cover “All By Myself” are thoroughly indulgent. But, honestly, if you feel nothing as Dion shrieks the word “Anymore” at the climax of “All By Myself”, stretching that two-syllable word into a ten-second cry for help, you need to get your heart checked. When Dion hooks up with shlock Mozart, Jim Steinman, the result, “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now”, is deliciously ridiculous and camp.

The camp makes Falling into You such a great success. In her seminal essay, Notes on Camp, Susan Sontag explained camp, capturing why Céline Dion is popular by suggesting, “Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation – not judgment.” She goes on to write, “Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy.” Despite the essay’s publication date of 1964, some 30 years before Falling into You’s release, Sontag seems prescient when she opines, “Camp taste…relishes, rather than judges, the little triumphs and awkward intensities of ‘character’.” 4

If any artist personifies the adage “Dance like nobody’s watching,” it would be Céline Dion. In concerts and on chat shows, she’s bright and witty, with an off-beat sense of humor. But she’s also endearingly corny. In Sontag’s view, the “pure examples of Camp are unintentional; they are dead serious.” 4 However, I would argue that Dion’s brand of camp is, at once, deliberate and naïve. Though this assertion seems contradictory, it’s important to note that Dion is an artist creating art 30 years after Sontag’s essay. Dion has had over three decades’ worth of pop art as a reference and therefore is of a generation of camp pop artists who benefit from a consciousness.

Dion’s work in the 1990s comes after such self-referential camp work of artists as varied as Andy Warhol, Dolly Parton, Bette Midler, John Waters, and Madonna. At the height of her 1990s superstardom, Dion appeared on Fran Drescher’s sitcom, The Nanny, a prime example of a comic pastiche of carefully curated camp. So, though much of Dion’s shtick is endearingly sincere and genuine, the singer is also quite aware of how she comes off: she’s got a sense of humor that is, at once, goofy and sly. Look at her appearance on James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke and witness her uproarious eccentricity.

More than anything else, Falling Into You is about doing your own thing. There’s an audacity in Dion’s decision to cover three classic songs, two of which were recorded by the most revered, greatest female artists of the 20th century. On the international version of the album, we are gifted with Dion’s take on Aretha Franklin‘s “(You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman” (which was recorded for an all-star tribute album to Carole King‘s Tapestry album); the other cover I’m referring to is her version of Tina Turner‘s “River Deep, Mountain High.” Dion approaches these towering achievements in song with an admirable lack of trepidation. Instead of singing these songs as an unsure fan, she roars like a nervy peer through these tunes. She doesn’t seem cowed by the legend of either Franklin or Turner, both of whom enjoy the veneration that usually skips Dion (even though both iconic singers have also released mediocre music in their storied careers).

Joined by Jim Steinman on “River Deep, Mountain High”, Dion barrels through the Phil Spector classic with a deliriously over-the-top vocal performance. The production attempts to ape Spector’s Wall of Sound, but Steinman gives the proceedings a lavish polish. But it’s not enough to enjoy the song by simply listening to it. To get the full effect, one must watch Dion’s performance on the VH1 concert special, VH1 Divas Live, in April of 1998 (when Dion was promoting her follow-up to Falling into You, the even more successful Let’s Talk About Love). Headlining with other female music greats like Aretha Franklin, Mariah Carey, Gloria Estefan, and Shania Twain, Dion improbably steals the show with her fantastic, committed performances. When she takes to the stage to rock out to “River Deep, Mountain High”, Céline Dion asserts herself as a great vocalist and an entertaining one. Not caring about being hip or cool, Dion mugs through the song, replacing any angst and sorrow in the track with unbridled joy and enthusiasm. She steamrolled through the tune, tossing aside any of the anguish that Turner imbued with her rock-salt growl; instead, Dion took the opportunity to play out her Hollywood/Las Vegas fantasies.

On “(You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman”, Dion partners with Dave Foster. Like Steinman, Foster has that indelible ability to process an older song through a 1990s pop filter, and the resultant is more akin to Dion’s trademark balladry than Aretha Franklin’s sultry original (or even Carole King’s plaintive version). Dion’s performance lacks the depth, grit, or knowledge Franklin brought to the original. Yet, despite the MOR trappings, Dion triumphs by sheer dint of her confidence. Emotional resonance and gravitas be damned: Dion knows her voice is a freak of nature, and the song is the equivalent of an assertive strut down a catwalk in Milan.

We return to the VH1 Divas Live concert again. This time, we are at the grand finale, and the big-voiced divas converge on the stage: Franklin, Carey, Estefan, Twain, and Dion join forces to sing “(You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman”. As an added treat, we also get the song’s composer, Carole King. It starts appropriately enough, with Franklin asserting her rightful dominance. Each diva gets a chance to sing a verse. Still, it’s clear that this is Franklin’s song, and the other singers are essentially relegated to background vocalists (damn good background vocalists, but background vocalists nonetheless), with Dion being a notable stand out due to her quite specific showbizzy onstage persona.

When the divas follow up the Carole King tune with a gospel-fuelled testimony, Franklin, yet again, is transcendent. She gallantly and dutifully allows the other divas a chance to sing, but instead of melting away into the back, Dion struts forward and answers Franklin’s soulful trills and runs with her own set of high-octane wailing. It’s a dizzying experience, seeing Dion appropriate gospel churchiness and attempt to square off against Franklin, the younger singer prancing on the stage (the other divas seem content to shuffle in the background and watch). Again, Dion’s performance is a very loud intertwining of both naïve and deliberate camp (gassed up, no doubt, by the evening’s sense of both camaraderie and competition).

Though most audiences are familiar with the balladeering Dion, the campy Dion is the far more accomplished and exciting artist. Yes, she sang the hell out of the predictable “Because You Love Me”. It’s a beautiful performance, and the song is impeccably produced and arranged. However, much more engaging is her bonkers Meat Loaf impression, “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now”, an overwrought, seven-minute epic that is probably Céline Dion at her greatest. It’s the work of sheer camp-pop genius. The song was initially recorded by the Steinman side project Pandora’s Box (which featured Ellen Foley).

Calling “It’s All Coming Back to Me” melodramatic would be an understatement. Thundering pianos, dramatic strings, pounding drums, and squealing electric guitars compete with Dion’s loud, impassionate singing. As the song rumbles on, loud noises crash, and background vocalists wail. None of this can upstage Dion, who emerges from the Cecil B. DeMillesque production with a spirited and sly performance. Instead of trying to find nuance and subtlety in Steinman’s work (there is none), Dion responds with precisely the kind of performance the song deserves: a stratospheric, operatic show. Her extravagantly powerful voice matches Steinman’s overexcited instrumentation.  

Moments like “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” or “River Deep, Mountain High” are essential to the aesthetic success of Falling into You. It complicates the narrative which defines Céline Dion as merely a warbler of Hallmark-worthy platitudes. Of course, she sounds so pretty on the ballads, but the weird songs deserve more attention, like the so-wrong-it’s-horseshoed-to-right reggae-pop of “Make You Happy”. Produced by Ric Wake, “Make You Happy” sounds like something Diana King would have released as a B-side to a catchier tune.

Even stranger is the Shania Twain-like rocker “Your Light”, helmed by Aldo Nova. Like the reggae-lite of “Make You Happy”, “Your Light” is added to inject some energy to break up the ballads. It’s notable because Dion doesn’t really sound like herself in the song. She’s affected an ‘alternative rock chick’ guise. No, Céline Dion doesn’t have an inner-Joan Jett trying to wrestle with an inner Barbra Streisand: but the gall that it takes for a singer like Céline Dion to agree to record stuff like “Make You Happy” and “Your Light” knowing, anticipating that serious rock critics will shred her for it is pretty brilliant.

What we hear when listening to Falling Into You is precisely the kind of album that Céline Dion wanted to release. So many of Dion’s detractors would slam Falling Into You for being too calculating and processed. I agree that the sequencing, song choice, and production are deliberate and strategic – there’s no room for improvisation. But it’s also a knowing, self-referential record. Falling Into You could only be made by an artist like Céline Dion: someone who knows that whatever she puts out will be dragged by critics but adored by her audiences. It’s that freedom that makes for such a fascinating listen.


  1. Brackett, Nathan with Christian Hoard. The New Rolling Stone Album Guide. Fourth Ed., 2004.
  2. Goldsmith, Mike. Review of Falling into You. New Music Review. 1996.
  3. Gardner, Elysa. “Making a List? Checking It Twice? Here Are Some Guidelines…” Los Angeles Times. 8 December 1996.
  4. Sontag, Susan. Notes on Camp. 1965.