Celine Dion A New Day Has Come

Ending Monoculture: Céline Dion’s ‘A New Day Has Come’ at 20

Céline Dion’s quintessential A New Day Has Come presents an interesting transition from the era of ’90s superstar divas to something more fractured and niched.

A New Day Has Come
Céline Dion
Columbia/Epic
22 March 2002

A New Day Has Come is the quintessential Céline Dion album. It follows a formula established with her English-language debut, 1990’s Unison: a mainstream pop record with tracks designed for top 40 radio. Her albums are dominated by melodramatic power ballads, with a sprinkling of dance-lite songs to seem hip and youthful. A New Day Has Come is a record constructed in the waning days of the monoculture, a product meant to sell truckloads of albums.

Journalist Touré lamented the end of monoculture, looking back fondly at what he called the “Massive Music Moment” when pop culture rallied behind a singular figure like Michael Jackson or Nirvana. Céline Dion was a significant figure in the monoculture, especially in the mid-1990s, when she released a pair of records—1996’s Falling into You and 1997’s Let’s Talk About Love—that sold over 30 million copies.

And Dion’s ubiquity was cemented by “My Heart Will Go On”, the theme of James Cameron’s 1997 historical disaster epic, Titanic. The single was a bombastic and cinematic pop ballad that sold over 18 million copies, topped numerous sales charts, and scored trips to shopping malls, department stores, and supermarkets. It became inescapable, practically wallpapering popular culture in 1998. It seemed as if anyone who had ears listened to Céline Dion.

As part of the pop landscape of the mid-to-late 1990s, Dion personified ’90s Diva Pop. More so than any of her peers, she put out a series of singles that defined mainstream pop music of the era. Along with artists like Whitney Houston, Toni Braxton, Shania Twain, Mariah Carey, and Faith Hill, Dion recorded the kind of pop song that dominated radio: sentimental and often melodramatic ballads conceived to:

  1. Sell millions of copies.
  2. Show off the impressive pipes of the headlining pop diva.
  3. Win lots of Grammys.
  4. Be played in the background, creating an inoffensive and unobtrusive ambience.

Since Dion’s music was devised to be radio-ready, her albums were essentially vehicles for hit singles. Critics have largely dismissed her artistry because of her broad, mainstream appeal and penchant for pop shlock. Much of this critical condescension can be attributed to sexism, as female-fronted pop music is primarily damned as trite. But judging Dion’s discography is tricky because her work can be seen as the result of a committee. Her collections were crafted with calculated skill to appeal to the widest audiences, be played on the biggest span of radio formats, and sell as many copies as possible. The other reason critics dismiss Céline Dion is because she’s a singer who doesn’t write or produce her music. After all, a female pop star who sells gazillions of records will always be eyed as mainstream pap.

When looking at Dion’s work critically, one cannot remove the music from the context of its time and success. Thus, A New Day Has Come isn’t important because it’s a groundbreaking or innovative record that signaled Dion’s sound’s major shift or maturation. Instead, what’s important about it—especially with 20 years of hindsight—is that it was released during a critical turn in the music industry: the movement away from the monoculture.

Though the album was successful, it sold a fraction of what its predecessors did, and none of its singles were massive hits on the pop charts. Why? Because pop radio had evolved, so by 2002, Dion was no longer a major presence on top 40. In fact, the album’s title track just missed the US top 20 and would be the last significant chart hit for the singer. A New Day Has Come followed the same template as Falling into You or Let’s Talk About Love, but pop culture and pop music had started to drift away from expensive, bloated diva superstar albums. MTV and VH1 were also looking to abandon music videos in favor of reality programming and the internet. Things like social media and YouTube were beginning to foster new talent.

Indeed, pop culture became splintered as new musical acts could explore new avenues to get their work out there. CD sales plummeted as file sharing—and eventually streaming—became the dominant way people listened to music. Veteran pop artists soon saw that their sales dwindled in the face of all this change. Understandably, a behemoth of a record like A New Day Has Come became weirdly quaint within all of this transformation.

Because “My Heart Will Go On” dominated Dion’s discography, A New Day Has Come has become a somewhat obscure entry in her oeuvre (as have all of her studio LPs issued after the 2000s). The album arrived three years after her successful greatest hits package signaled a brief hiatus in her career. Her last studio LP was a 1998 Christmas record, and before that, there was Let’s Talk About Love. From 1996 to 1999, she was considerably prolific at her peak, putting out an album a year to ensure that there wouldn’t be a significant lapse in releases for her buying public.

By the time she released a new album of original material after the four-year gap between 1998 and 2002, she’d already stepped away from the pop world when it saw critical shifts in industry and trends. Circling back to the Titanic tune, Dion was also graduating to a different kind of star by 2002. She was no longer a reliable hitmaker; instead, she was becoming an established career act, a singer whose appeal was now mainly due to a body of past work. Most tellingly, rather than embark on a stadium-filled world tour supporting the new LP, she set up camp in Las Vegas and established a residency at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace.

Since she was still an A-list talent, she removed some of the stigmas associated with a Vegas residency, such as the faint whiff of failure and has-beenism. Audiences flocked to see her, yet they were mostly there for gut-belting renditions of “My Heart Will Go On” or “All by Myself”. All the while, they tolerantly indulged her when she decided to sing a pop standard or a recent single. Sure, they cheered and clapped—this was Céline Dion, after all—but they were really there for “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now”.

Upon release in late March 2002, A New Day Has Come debuted at number one with huge sales (over 500,000 copies). Eventually, it would sell just over three million copies in the US and around 12 million copies worldwide. These are impressive numbers, especially when looking at record sales now and the notion that you’ll not see these kinds of commercial figures unless you’re named Adele or Taylor Swift. However, these numbers pale compared to the boffo business that Falling into You and Let’s Talk About Love did.

That said, the first-week sales of A New Day Has Come were massive, which could be chalked up to Dion’s fanbase lapping it up after waiting four years for it. Clearly, the pop landscape changed enough that the singer lost a considerable amount of her buying public. Radio was no longer supporting artists like her, she didn’t have a massive hit movie to shill her latest single, and MTV and VH1 were no longer lucrative and reliable ways to promote her music.

One could ask if audiences were (relatively) lukewarm to A New Day Has Come because the music just wasn’t as good? When assessing the album’s merits, it’s important to contrast it with her other works because Céline Dion isn’t an album artist. Instead, she shines brightest on her singles/pop ballads. These Broadway-style tunes are made for a singer with a gigantic voice like hers so that she can cram in as many notes as possible. It’s a way for her to show off those incredible pipes.

Despite Dion’s critical drubbing, she’s a fantastic singer with a ridiculously powerful voice. Her lung power is supersonic, and she doesn’t believe in subtly. Put another way, she’s Streisand on steroids, but she’s also very talented and underrated. Unfortunately, because she’s reliant on songwriters and producers, she’s only as good as the song she’s singing. Inevitably, there’s a lot of ho-hum filler in-between the hits, meaning that she sometimes squanders her immaculate gifts on nothing.

The first song on the album is a dance number, “I’m Alive”. Dion has a somewhat curious relationship with dance music: she has recorded dance-pop. Her albums usually have a couple of dance tunes to jazz up the sleepiness of the ballads, and DJs have remixed her music for the clubs. However, she will never be confused with Madonna or Janet Jackson. Her forays into dance music are primarily confined to album cuts (with good reason, as she’s somewhat awkward when trying to get in touch with her inner Donna Summer).

“I’m Alive” starts as a ballad. Its first few seconds feature Dion humming prettily before she croons in a hushed vocal, “I get wings to fly / Oh, I’m alive.” Then, a drum starts beating, and a synth begins to stutter. Next, we get studio frippery of windy laser effects, and she launches into the peppy, uplifting uptempo song about the joy of motherhood. The track was the theme of the family film Stuart Little 2. That association demonstrates a recurring feature of Dion’s recording career since movie themes have typically been lucrative successes for her. Specifically, she’s had four chart hits spun off of soundtrack albums.

Dion flirts with the dancefloor on another track, “Sorry for Love”, a song that was overtly patterned after Cher’s monster 1998 hit, “Believe”. Vocal samples compete for airspace with swirling synths and a bouncy dance-pop beat. This song isn’t flirting with house or New Jack Swing, as she has tried in the past; instead, it’s the popular Euro-dance music of the new millennium. Produced by a Swedish trio of musicians—Anders Bagge, Peer Åström, and Arnthor Birgisson—the tune followed the trend of European-based productions of bouncy, plastic dance music.

Of course, Max Martin was arguably the pioneer of this Scandinavian Invasion in mainstream pop music since he’s a producer with whom Dion has collaborated, too. “Sorry for Love” isn’t much a departure for Dion, as she fits into the sleek disco-pop fine. Halfway in, she even gifts her listeners with a ridiculously supersonic belt on the song’s crescendo, stretching the word “sorry” into a multi-octave mini-aria to provide her audience with the familiarity of her bombast.

But people buy a Céline Dion record for the ballads, and predictably, songs that could be described as the musical equivalents of Hallmark greeting cards laden the collection. With the title track, we get the album’s centerpiece, and as if Dion couldn’t trust in her audiences’ reaction to it, she includes two versions: a pop-radio remix and a slower, more ponderous orchestral version. The radio version is lusher with synths and drum machines, and studio effects.

Longtime Dion collaborator Ric Wake produced the pop version and created a sympathetic, sweeping soundscape for his muse to warble through. For example, the dynamite vocal pyrotechnics are (relatively) subdued. On the slower version, Dion is prone to a bit more showboating as she’s set into a grand ballad with echoes of Bryan Adams, Sting, or Richard Marx. It’s a self-consciously “mature” composition meant to speak to Dion’s motherhood and return to pop after a break as an elder stateswoman of Adult Contemporary radio.

Some critics accuse Dion of being showy, flashing her extravagant voice without really conveying much emotion. Her vocal prowess is rarely questioned, but her material and reliance on showboating often leave detractors cold. The collection of love ballads won’t alter her critics’ minds, but there is a willful doubling down on her signature sound on the album. By 2002, Céline Dion was a superstar and seemed to not care about the critics; she intended to give her fans what they wanted: more lachrymose piled on schmaltz piled on pop kitsch. She would bulldoze over the most cliched and banal lyric with her overpowering voice. Those skyscraper-high notes made even the most vulgar or crass musical choice moot.

Case in point: the gooey ballad “Goodbye’s (The Saddest Word)”. Written by Robert John “Mutt” Lange, it’s a maudlin country-pop-tinged dirge about losing a mother. One might assume that a subject as emotional and urgent would be handled with grace and restraint. Yet, Lange and Dion choose to make the painful topic into a show-tune showstopper crafted to wow listeners. The lyrics are hackneyed, like when Dion advises us that “there is no other love / Like a mother’s love for her child”. Lange ladles studio pop gloop with alarming abandon.

And yet it works. Why? Because she and Lange know that they’re making the song for the legions of fans who follow Dion’s career and who weep openly and unashamedly when she sings. Despite the critical swipes, she is very good at what she does, which is singing the hell out of anything set in front of her. Unlike someone such as Madonna, who saw pop music as a vehicle for her one-woman sexual revolution, Dion doesn’t really have a message or agenda. Plus, her raison d’etre is refreshingly simple: she must entertain while pulling at heartstrings. She is the pop equivalent of a warm embrace and the musical answer to emotional catharsis. Therefore, even though Lange gilts the lily with his tribute to a mother’s love, Dion invests the song with unabashed freedom to feel.

It’s no surprise that a singer like Céline Dion could sell tens of millions of albums, but what happens when pop culture starts to move on? A quick look at the credits on A New Day Has Come shows that her label spent a pretty penny on putting it together. It’s stretched to a pretty astounding 17 tracks (!), and because there are no big guest stars, it’s wall-to-wall Céline. The record is a colossus of a bygone era in which the apparent expense of a studio LP was integral to its charm.

But without the support of radio and the complete evolution of the music industry, albums like this no longer see the kinds of sales they enjoyed in the mid-1990s. A crop of younger divas, such as Ariana Grande (a prominent disciple of Dion’s, so much so that she even does a nifty impression of her), have also taken up space. It’s worth noting that in this post-millennial world of streaming, albums still don’t sell in the numbers they did in Dion’s salad days.

After the muted success of A New Day Has Come and the unqualified triumph of the Las Vegas residency, Dion returned with a series of albums. Sadly, each with majorly slow sales (both 2013’s Loved Me Back to Life and 2019’s Courage failed to earn certifications, not even going gold). Likewise, “A New Day Has Come” was her last US chart hit. But Dion has adapted into her new musical guise, that of a legendary artist with a great back catalog. She also seems to have adapted to a musical landscape that looks far more fragmented. Reality competition shows are now the NFL draft of pop music, and the internet has democratized pop music, with stars finding traction with viral videos on their YouTube channels.

When Touré longed for the monoculture, he talked about a time in pop culture when there was unity and a way to find a connection and kinship. I thought about the monoculture and how I engaged with it in junior high and remembered the easy bond I forged with new classmates over our shared love of Green Day‘s Dookie or Janet Jackson’s Janet. A shared favorite song meant everything; for instance, my first kiss was shared while listening to Boyz II Men’s blockbuster 1994 album II.

Céline Dion was an artist who owed much of her career to the monoculture. She became iconic because we all listened to “My Heart Will Go On” and saw Titanic. By 2002, that unity started to dissipate. As a result, A New Day Has Come is an exciting transition from the era of the ’90s superstar divas to something far more fractured and niched.

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