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A few weeks ago, when Celine Dion was spotted leaving her hotel during Paris Couture Week, the Canadian Queen showcased an $800+ Vetements hoodie dedicated entirely to Titanic. It served as an important reminder: For most of the 1990s, Celine Dion ruled the world. And, reassuringly, Celine is back.
Hot off the momentum of “Because You Loved Me” (1996), the Canadian songstress soundtracked the greatest movie of all time (Titanic, duh) and delivered unto us “My Heart Will Go On.” And then, as Titanic’s novelty wore off and the musical landscape transitioned (shout-out to Napster), younger, poppier artists emerged and replaced ’90s ballad titans (shout-out to Michael Bolton). Young teen phenoms like Britney or Christina (along with Kelly Clarkson, Mandy Moore, Alicia Keys, Beyoncé, Pink) seeded pop’s median age down a generation — young girls were soundtracking the lives of young girls.
Basically, Celine Dion was cool until we grew out of her. But that didn’t mean she stopped being cool.
As the 2000s progressed, Celine Dion embraced her more eccentric self, posing for Anne Geddes calendars and releasing music largely centred around being a wife and mother. She wore fedoras, cut her hair short and bleached it (we see you, Taylor Swift), moved into a castle, and took a hiatus. All before booking herself a Vegas residency and evolving into the fashion show staple we know her as now.
In short, she let her freak flag fly and became increasingly badass in the process. Meanwhile, we all had to grow up a bit to understand how refreshing that is: which is why we’ve tapped into her all over again, going so far as to want to buy that hoodie for ourselves. (Spoiler: It’s sold out. Also, I have bills to pay.)
But Celine Dion has always been bravely individualistic. While her songs have consistently followed a super heteronormative and OTT formula (girlfriend’s idea of love is be all/end all/holy shit), she was still always in charge of her own narrative, opening up about her all-encompassing relationship with her late husband, René, about her quest to have kids, and about her ideas of love. In fact, to pose for Anne Geddes in general takes a true visionary. (Think of a single artist now who’d pose alongside a bunch of babies dressed up as flowers. YOU CAN’T.) Plus, she wore a backward tuxedo to the Oscars before anybody thought that was fine. Celine Dion didn’t get cool; she’s always been cool. We just had to grow into realizing it.
Unfortunately, that’s something we seem to do a lot with “older” (see: not teenage) artists. From 1998 to 2004, VH1 Divas was an important and celebratory statement on the status of women in music, but then after a five-year hiatus, it returned in 2009 and targeted youth. By the late 2000s, the “adult contemporary” section of most music stores was MIA (as were, admittedly, many music stores). And artists like Bette Midler, Mariah Carey, and Cher were heralded less as relevant musicians and more as women with a pass to say what they liked (despite Mariah and Cher having consistently released music over the last decade). But now they were cool again. And also older than 40.
A woman’s age has typically defined her role in the music industry. With noticeable exceptions (our Lord and Savior, Beyoncé), teens and twentysomethings tend to dominate the pop conversation, while artists in their thirties have been expected to either stay grounded in the look/sound that defined their youth or ride the wave of nostalgia (like Britney Spears). But then they turn 40 and all bets are off. Artists like Gwen Stefani speak unflinchingly about their divorce. Mariah Carey throws consistent shade. Cher and Bette Midler offer political commentary on Twitter. Celine Dion wears an oversize Titanic sweatshirt. Jennifer Lopez jokingly texts Leonardo DiCaprio about all things club-wise (boo-boo). They fuel GIFs and our dreams, reminding us that at some point, we too can grow up to do what we want and to “tell it like it is.” Honesty comes with age, etc., etc.
But that’s not necessarily the case. Just like Celine Dion has always been an unequivocal badass, everyone (even you) has had the ability to say “I don’t know her” in response to J.Lo. It’s already the way Rihanna lives, the way Nicki Minaj lives, the way Demi Lovato acts, and the way Alessia Cara seems to be leaning. In the 2000s, we expected pop stars to act a certain way and to abide by the ageist template we felt comfortable with them following. Women who branched away from that seemed a little too old or grown-up for us. Arguably, because they leaned out of the formula we were too young to question. But then we matured a bit, began looking behind the curtain, and realized — with the help of social media and increased accessibility — how uniqueness and authenticity are a win for all.
Which is changing the game. And here’s why: Now that Twitter’s provided a direct connection to artists (which has helped make us cynical about Swift-like publicity stunts), we’ve started to celebrate the phenomenon of being one’s self regardless of age. We’ve also started to realize that the women we’re celebrating now have always been worthy of our respect — and that’s largely because of our zest for nostalgia. I mean, sure, listicles about the ’90s may have us seeing the decade through rose-colored glasses, but at the same time, those lists force us to take a closer look at the artists we dismissed and our reasons for doing so.
They also prevent us from doing the same thing again. While the ’90s once kept “diva” limited to a particular genre and type of singer, the definition has evolved to include women who don’t give a fuck what you think. They may sing about love, loss, or lemonade, but they share the ethos of living by their own set of rules, erasing the age requirement which gives female artists more breathing room to do what they want at all stages of their career.
Being one’s self carries a currency. And if there’s anything to take away from Celine Dion’s triumphant return to the spotlight, it’s that life (and art) are just better when the artist doesn’t care what you think.