When my parents immigrated to the United States, fresh faced and pink eyed (someone farted on my mom's airplane pillow) one of the things they came to embrace wholeheartedly — aside from Philly cheese steaks, blue jeans, and a tendency to laugh politely — was Las Vegas. This is a city whose entire economy hinges on a strip of hotels and is, like, maybe where the mafia was invented? It’s also the most Canadian place outside of Canada, because between Shania Twain’s residency at the Coliseum, Cirque Du Soleli’s desert-wide domination, and some woman named Véronic DiCaire, there is an unavoidable Canadian occupation taking place.
No Canadian queen rules this seventh circle of hell more readily than Celine Dion. Contrary to my my misplaced belief, Celine Dion is actually a thing, and not quite the one-hit-wonder I had positioned her to be in my head. Somehow I had a sense that I’d been convinced of Celine’s status rather than having ever come to that conclusion myself. Deep down, Inception-buried under layers of tissue and lobe, I knew that this woman — a member of the original class of VH1 DIVAS — had somehow earned her stripe. Yet there is something about Las Vegas that neutralizes everything you’ve done before you end up there.
The thing about Celine is that she is one of those undercover megastars whose name you know and songs you’ve heard, and who make like $30 million dollars every time you breathe. For instance, did you know that between 2000 and 2010, Celine Dion was the highest-grossing entertainer in the world? Between her record sales, merchandise, ticket sales, and something mysteriously marked “other sources of income” (underground heroin tunnels), Celine Dion grossed over $720 million in a decade. That means that from roughly the time we started panicking about Y2K until the moment we felt the full brunt of the economic collapse, Celine Dion was likely shitting onto a pile of hundred dollar bills because she didn’t know what else to do with them.
Of that total, $500 million came from worldwide ticket sales, and of that $500 million, $350 million came from her Las Vegas residency. A good chunk of that money may have come from the tab I opened shortly before the show, where I guzzled three gin and tonics like a white girl in Cabo. But still, how is this happening? Are those real numbers? Celine is the second residency show that Celine Dion has put up on the strip, and she is quick to remind us of it via a nearly 10-minute video montage beforehand. The video begins with a supercut of her shrieking different city names from her world tour like a blacked out high school geography teacher, culminating with Celine’s final show, and an emotional limo ride back to wherever she goes when she’s done performing (underground heroin tunnel). Her daughter asks when they will be back in Vegas. A tearful Celine says that she is going to take a short break stay at home with her family in order to better focus on being a mom.
The curtain finally lifts, and thanks to the ungodly amount of anticipation that she’s actively built, I find myself screaming like a banshee at the sight of Celine Dion in a tacky quinceanera dress. The room gives her a standing ovation, likely to thank her for her incredible contributions to iMovie, since she hasn’t actually sung anything yet. She launches into some of her classics, “Because You Love Me” and “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now,” and by the time my fourth gin and tonic kicks in, it’s clear the crown jewel of this night will undoubtedly be her ESL-level stage banter, which vacillates between charming (“You’re doing awesome and good!”) to mildly horrific (“Thank you for joining us tonight and giving us your souls”).
This degree of blissful ignorance is also her art. While Cher has found the perfect space for her flamboyance, and Donny and Marie have made a career out of casually flirting with the idea of incest, Celine is the true queen of Vegas because of a sincere love of camp, and the batshit ways she employs it. Nowhere was this more evident than when she did a duet with herself, via hologram, for “How Do You Keep The Music Playing?” I attempted to take a photo of her seemingly endless legwork during a confusing cover of “Goldfinger,” but one of the ushers at the Coliseum in Caesar’s Palace knocked my phone out of my hand using those weird traffic cone lightsabers they carry.
My mom and I both sobbed hysterically during “Lullaby (Goodnight, My Angel)” when she played home movies for no reason across six different screens. I choked on my next gin and tonic when a new hologram showed up, this time in the form of Stevie Wonder. After yet another insane digression, this time in the form of a Michael Jackson medley, Dion closed out the show with a high-energy performance of “River Deep, Mountain High,” the title of which sounds more like a World War II code than it does a pop song. Then, both unexpectedly and right on cue, the familiar notes of a pan-Irish flute infiltrated the room, and I screamed so loud that I burst a blood vessel in someone else’s eye. As a child of the late 1990s, I’ve always regarded Celine Dion as being the third character in James Cameron’s Titanic, arguably the seminal movie of my youth and one of my favourite films in the “Italian Stereotypes Drowning” subgenre. Her ethereal vocals layered atop the image of a gorgeous, expansive ocean full of frozen carcasses is a stunning concoction of pop at its most pure.
So the minute that I heard the beginnings of the tragic nautical death march that is “My Heart Will Go On”, I knew that my emotions would be on the highest alert. Her slow entrance in another piñata-inspired tulle dress lead her to center stage, where she was suddenly elevated into the air surrounded by cascading water droplets. Before I could even realize that I was shouting “WATER!” at the top of my lungs like an extra in Titanic, the curtains closed, the lights came up, and the show was over.
Turns out I could have been stone cold sober for the whole thing and still felt emotionally brutalized in the best way. I have many theories regarding the world of music, such as Aaliyah’s death being a conspiracy orchestrated by the airbrush t-shirt industry, but none are stronger than that the idea that you can in fact craft presence. There are people in the world who you know nobody else could ever hope to be. Beyoncé is the easy answer; Britney, a slightly more complicated one. There are also people in the world that genuinely anybody could be, like Fergie. Celine Dion is so crazy I want to kill myself, and much of her skill is that she seems like she’s right there in the middle. She is the product of incredible training and nurturing (her manger mortgaged his house to finance her first record, and then went on to marry her), and she’s such a polished product that of fucking course she would have a show in Las Vegas, where the hyper-polish of product is the entire point. What makes Celine Dion undeniably fascinating is how easily she straddles that line between sexy lounge singer and drunk aunt with the world’s most elaborate soapbox. That sort of divine contradiction comes through most once she’s done giving you everything, when she’s waving goodbye with genuine tears in her eyes as she’s lowered beneath the stage, sure to dry off, hug her daughter, and do it all again like it’s the first time.
Rod Bastanmehr's soul is made up of 80% gin and tonic - @rodb