That sinking feeling: the Titanic's titanic musical legacy
One hundred years after the sinking of the Titanic, the event’s principal tragedy – the more than 1,500 people who died that icy night notwithstanding – is the boat’s cultural legacy. In particular, the song that closed the James Cameron movie of the same name. The ship did not go on, but that song sure has. RICHARD POPLAK is still haunted by it.
The interesting thing about the sinking of the Titanic by iceberg (or alien weapon blast, or early act of Islamist terror, depending on your blog-reading proclivities) is that it changed nothing.
Every last news outlet in the world worth the name – this one included – has dutifully filed numerous Titanic features, commemorating the watery debacle. The boilerplate explanation is that the sinking, and our subsequent century-long obsession with it, is the perfect example of the human distaste for technology and the hubris that comes with it. Unsinkable? Oh, really? We treat everything new and shiny like a North Korean satellite launch. We wait for it to break up and fall into the sea.
So, the Titanic languishes in its underwater grave, and all the fancy crockery and fish knives and dinner suits along with it. The death of an era; the end of glamour and pageantry and champagne on the deck at sunset. It was the final act for Old World charm, the dawn of the age of mechanised war: the cusp of the time when machines would finally take over and we’d turn murder into an assembly-line operation. Technology, technology: What hath thou wrought?
Among other things, it turns out, the eleventh-best-selling song of all time.
I said that the sinking of the Titanic didn’t change anything, but that’s not entirely true. I meant that the death of the ship itself (and those that perished along with it) changed nothing. It didn’t slow the pace of the 20the century one iota. More ships were built, then passenger planes, then spaceships.
Culturally, however, the ship changed everything. Not how we see culture, or how we experience it, or how we produce it. It did none of those things. It literally changed culture because of sheer ubiquity – a phenomenon that has no equal.
Star Wars has been carbon-copied on numerous occasions, the latest being the Disney bomb John Carter. Nobody has dared try to knock-off Cameron’s Titanic. This might be because they are physically afraid of Angry Jim. Or it might be because the film’s success cannot be reproduced. It just sits there, like a monolith, taking up cultural space without contributing to it.
And if that’s true of the movie, it is even truer of the song that accompanied it. My Heart Will Go On, sung by Celine Dion over the closing credits, has wormed its way into every single social situation imaginable since we first heard those faux Celtic strains way back in 1997. Weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs, mixers – Christ, there isn’t a human act, sex and bowel movements included, in which that song hasn’t been a focal point, a climax, the threading together and coalescing of the sentimental worth of what has just been celebrated or mourned.
Listen to My Heart Will Go On by Celine Dion:
The leading expert on Celine Dion’s cultural cache, Globe and Mail writer and editor Carl Wilson, has spent the last five years obsessing over Celine Dion and what she means (and doesn’t mean). His book, Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, uses Dion as the focal point in a discussion about the nature of schmaltz.
He places Dion in context: he claims that she cannot be understood if you don’t acknowledge her North American outsider status as a French-Canadian. You can’t understand her if you don’t acknowledge the history and development of parlour music, and you certainly can’t understand her if you don’t acknowledge that punk is basically anger schmaltz: unalloyed sentiment, delivered by steel-tipped boot to the noggin. In other words, we have to be careful when we rip Dion, because she represents class and caste and education level and a whole bunch of other icky stuff that musical taste encompasses.
MHWGO is obviously Dion’s greatest (or darkest) moment, the song that catapulted her beyond fame into a greater/lesser category that has no definition. The song exists, like matter. It has no corollaries, no peers, no sequels. We cannot know what the song will mean on the sinking’s second centennial, but we can be pretty sure it will not have faded. Sonic tastebuds don’t pay any attention to history: our great-great grandchildren may one day come to see the song as the finest musical moment our species has ever produced. They will play it as their pods rocket into space, leaving desiccated Earth behind them. In fact, nothing will sound better as an accompaniment to end of days.
“If history is any guide, though,” writes Wilson in The Atlantic, “a rather different fate awaits its theme song: What happens to the most enormous hits is that they become folk music. How many kids today know that Bing Crosby's version of Irving Berlin's White Christmas was the biggest commercial smash of the 20th century? They're less likely to think of that World War II-era recording than of their moms and dads singing it, or the local choir. Likewise, This Land is Your Land is no longer Woody Guthrie's dustbowl-socialist polemic but a classroom staple and an unofficial national anthem.”
Until then, the true legacy of the Titanic, its one lasting contribution, is MHWGO. You will hear it today, you will hear it tomorrow, you will hear it 30 years from now. It’s no longer the soundtrack to a film. It’s the soundtrack to being alive on Earth in the 21st century. Truly, utterly and completely unsinkable. DM
- Can My Heart Will Go On be resuscitated? in The Atlantic.
Photo: Singer Celine Dion poses with the two Grammy Awards she won for Record of the Year and for Best Female Pop vocal Performance for My Heart Will Go On, which was featured in the motion picture Titanic at the 1999 Grammy Awards on 24 February at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. (REUTERS)