Last week, in the middle of an extremely honest press tour for Titanic 3D (out today), Kate Winslet gave an official voice to a sentiment that has been bubbling in the public consciousness for some time now. “My Heart Will Go On” makes Kate Winslet feel “like throwing up,” she told a U.K. talk show. “I shouldn’t say that,” she added, before immediately reversing course. “No, actually, I do feel like throwing up.” It has become fashionable — okay, in some circles, it was always fashionable — to hate on Celine Dion’s Oscar- and Grammy-winning love theme for Titanic, much in the same way that it has become hip to rag on Titanic the movie (once a Best Picture winner, now a cutesy joke in Love, Actually). “My Heart Will Go On” encapsulates most everything that once-enthusiastic moviegoers now dislike about Titanic: It’s outdated, cheesy, and overly dramatic. But once upon a time, “My Heart Will Go On” was a record-breaking smash hit. And more important, it’s actually pretty great.
Consider the hard facts first: “My Heart Will Go On” sold 15 million copies, and won Grammys for Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best Female Pop Performance. It dominated the airwaves for the better part of 1998. It won an Oscar. It got a Weird Al parody. Even if you did not personally enjoy “My Heart Will Go On,” you knew the words to “My Heart Will Go On” and you could probably even quote the Titanic dialogue that was spliced into certain radio edits. As a movie theme song, its legacy is eclipsed only by Whitney Houston’s (admittedly far superior) “I Will Always Love You,” and this is a remarkable achievement when you consider the competition that “My Heart Will Go On” faced even in its own era. (Think “Men in Black” or Armageddon’s “Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.”)
But let’s talk about the song itself. Never before or since has a recorder played so pivotal a role in pop music; surely, an entire generation of elementary schoolers now learn to perform “My Heart Will Go On” instead of “Hot Cross Buns.” From those first tinny notes, you know exactly what you are in for, which is a saccharine, Divas Live–ready love anthem. The honesty is key here. “My Heart Will Go On” isn’t trying to be anything other than a means for Celine Dion to wail about lost love for three minutes, and by declaring its intentions up front, the song gets the gag factor out of the way early. If you can make it past the words, “Far across the distance and spaces between us / you have come to show you go on,” then you can survive anything.
If you do, you will be rewarded with a slow build to one of the most glorious key changes in recorded music history. Again, Whitney holds the No. 1 spot, and no one is trying to argue with “I Will Always Love You.” We’re not crazy. But Celine performs the “My Heart Will Go On” modulation on a boat (in the video, anyway). Surely that counts for something! And the key change comes after two minutes of particularly breathy vocalizing on the part of Dion, who usually lets it rip a bit earlier in her ballads. Celine knows to save it all for the “Youuuuuu’re heeeerrre / there’s noooooothing I fear,” by far the most palatable lyrics of the song (and the most conducive to car or shower screaming). It’s so exciting, that key change! It’s almost impossible not to stick your hand out, mock-Celine-style, and extend your heart into space or time or wherever the hell it is going on to.
I observed this phenomenon in the wild, recently, at a concert where Celine’s Vegas show was being projected on a giant screen for a generally uninterested audience. (They just wanted to see Diddy dance to LMFAO. It was a weird night.) For the first two minutes, everyone was cracking jokes, whooping for the recorder player — who was given a special place onstage, with her own spotlight — and generally pretending not to care about the remarkable spectacle unfolding before us. Then the strings swelled, and Celine began to rise up over the stage on a shiny platform; as she hit the “You’re here,” a giant fountain shot up over her head and framed her in engine-powered tears. It was ridiculous, and hokey, and the crowd cheered, because that is all you can do when Celine Dion is towering over you singing about the enduring power of below-decks love while pounding her chest into a new register. You just give in. So why keep fighting against the laws of God and Love Ballads? “My Heart Will Go On” is a powerful song; don’t be ashamed to admit it.