’90s No. 1s Revisited: “My Heart Will Go On”
The one hundred sixteenth No. 1 song of the 1990s was “My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion. This single was Dion’s third of four U.S. No. 1 hits, all of which were acquired in the ’90s, and it was one of the biggest smashes of the year in countries all over the world. As of this writing, it is the 10th best-selling single globally in history, and the third best-selling of the ’90s. The sales achievements of “My Heart Will Go On” are particularly impressive given that it had a limited run in the U.S., a strategy that successfully drove album sales but resulted in an underwhelming performance on the Hot 100 singles chart, where it reigned for only two weeks despite ruling the Airplay tally for 10. (Billboard would, at long last, update some of these ridiculous rules later in 1998.)
“My Heart Will Go On” is, as you are no doubt aware, the love theme from the blockbuster film Titanic. Twenty years after the fact, it is sometimes implied that “My Heart Will Go On” rode the coattails of the film’s record-breaking success, as if it’s not a worthy offering in its own right, but we consider that to be fallacious revisionist history based on bad logic. For example, Avatar was an even more successful film than Titanic, but its equivalent Pop release, “I See You” by Leona Lewis, was a flop. And some of the decade’s most successful singles were from movies that generated little enthusiasm from audiences, like Dion’s “Because You Loved Me” (from Up Close and Personal), and from TV shows nobody watched, like The Heights’ “How Do You Talk To An Angel” (from The Heights). So although Titanic mania may have enabled broader exposure to “My Heart Will Go On,” love for a film doesn’t mean love for the soundtrack material, or vice versa.
Composer James Horner had written the music for “My Heart Will Go On” as an instrumental score, which appears throughout Titanic in scenes such as when Jack and Rose watch the sunset from the bow of the ship (“Rose“), and when Jack draws Rose on
the bed the couch (“The Portrait“). Legend has it that Horner commissioned a Pop demo of the song with Dion’s vocals behind director James Cameron’s back, Cameron liked it despite his earlier objections to such a treatment, and that it is Dion’s first-take version that appears over the credits of the film. Regardless of how true that legend is, the song does feature an atypical structure, lacking either a pre-chorus or a chorus, depending on how you classify the “near, far, wherever you are” section.
Dim the lights, grab a tissue, and re-immerse yourself in “My Heart Will Go On”:
“My Heart Will Go On” is a heavenly masterpiece in contemporary balladry. The chord progression and melody are transcendent, and Dion’s vocals are otherworldly. The lyrics might be heavy-handed for some people, but what’s brilliant about them is that they refer to the movie without including any explicit references to it, so it’s applicable to any situation involving loss. Dion released a lot of wonderful material in the ’90s and beyond, but this one stands out as a fan favorite, her best work, and deserved of being considered her signature song.
Does it hold up? It does. As a piece of music, with no context, it’s a timeless arrangement portraying a universal sentiment. Within the context of Titanic and Dion’s still-going performance career, we continue to see new generations discover and love “My Heart Will Go On.” It was performed to much praise less than a year ago by Dion at the Billboard Music Awards, and as one would expect, it’s been an anchor of her Las Vegas residency set list since the show’s 2012 inception. It’s also regularly covered on singing competition shows, although generally such renditions only serve to remind us of Dion’s exceptional gifts.
Dopeness: 5 out of 5 Birkenstocks
’90s No. 1s Revisited is a regular feature on “Was It Dope?” where we walk through every No. 1 song of the 1990s on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in order, give it another listen, and answer two critical questions: Was it dope? And does it hold up?