The Anniversary

“My Heart Will Go On” Turns 20

Once, while on a third date and watching the end of Titanic on the couch, my date leaned over and prepared to say something. There was a loose trajectory of dating then, in the late-teen college years: too poor to do much of anything extravagant, but still interested in getting to know a person, one might first go out for ice cream. And then, for a second date, you would do something free but beautiful, like walk through the topiary garden downtown. The third date, though, was when an apartment or dorm room could be introduced. While not placing any expectations on physical activity, it did raise the stakes. To be in a place where a couch must be shared (often due to a lack of furniture), or a place where the living room and bedroom are combined, can create a type of intimacy, even if it is just the intimacy of showing a person the places you think about them when they aren’t around.

I had never seen Titanic before, as it came out in theaters when I was 13 and not extremely interested. In the era before Netflix & Chill entered the cultural consciousness as a practice, having a movie night in with someone meant there was work involved. You would, for example, have to find a Blockbuster Video and then scour the racks for several exhausting minutes, picking out a film with a person who may have vastly different tastes than your own. You would pay to rent that VHS, which you then had to get into a car and drive to return 24 hours later — just enough labor to make watching a movie on a couch all the way through worth it. My date leaned over as the ship broke apart and bodies flailed from the ship’s freshly opened windows on the small TV screen in front of us. Expecting something romantic, I was surprised when she whispered in my ear, “You know, most of the people didn’t die from drowning. They froze to death. They had to thaw out some of the dead bodies to unstick them from each other.”

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There are a lot of reasons why the film Titanic works, but the reason the love story is so instantly attractive is because you know from the very beginning that one of the lovers is going to die. Perhaps you might even think that both will die, but that isn’t how to sell a love story in the movies. It is a fascinating thing, to have a constructed romance that relies entirely on that which can be taken from a person. It was always going to be Jack and never Rose. Titanic isn’t exactly about a ship sinking as much as it is about how much a narrative can convince a viewer to care about the trajectory of two people before the ship sinks.

Titanic is also a race to a crescendo, which so happens to rest on the instrumental soundscape of “My Heart Will Go On,” crafted by James Horner for Céline Dion. The song first popped up on Dion’s 1997 album Let’s Talk About Love about a month before the film’s release (the album turns 20 years old this weekend) but had already been pegged as Titanic’s theme song by director James Cameron. “My Heart Will Go On” is atmospheric, relying on thick and whimsical flutes to build the background. The instrumental presents beautifully in the film, as it plays while scanning the deepest parts of the Atlantic Ocean at the film’s opening, and as the camera whisks through the Titanic’s ruins being brought back to life in the dream sequence at the film’s closing.

But it is Dion’s vocals that really spring the song to life in a way that gave it an existence outside of, and even beyond the film. It is hard to make a single song as full and generous as one of the biggest films of all time based off of one of the biggest tragedies of all time. Dion sang the original version — the one that eventually ended up in the film — in one take. At the 3:25 minute mark, her voice swells, taking the orchestral elements along with it. This is the real payoff of the song. The reason I return to any ballad is this and this alone: to find the massive moment that the song’s tenderness is building towards. The climax of all its sentimental can-kicking. “My Heart Will Go On” invites a listener to a soft dance before swallowing them whole.

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There are a lot of scientific theories as to why the lookouts aboard the Titanic didn’t see the iceberg in time, and therefore couldn’t maneuver the massive ship away from its unfortunate destiny. The one I like most has to do with horizons. The Titanic was moving along the Labrador Current, which had air that cooled from the bottom up, creating a thermal inversion. A thermal inversion happens when layers of warm air settle over layers of cooler air, holding it down and preventing pollutants from rising upward, trapping the pollutants in the cool air.

A thermal inversion also bends light rays, refracting light abnormally and creating sensory illusions like a Superior Mirage, where objects appear higher and closer than they actually are, behind a false horizon. The false horizon then becomes the true horizon in your line of vision. Everything between it becomes hazy.

Because the sea was calm and the line between the true horizon and the false one was masked in a haze trapped within the cool air, the iceberg that would sink the Titanic was camouflaged until the ship was a mile away. Had the lookouts seen the iceberg just a minute or two earlier, the ship would have, perhaps, missed it. Or, at worst, had a brief brush with its surface.

People want to talk about the fact that an iceberg has a large, invisible body which stretches so far below the water that one might not be able to see the damage it is truly capable of inflicting from the water’s surface. But I am more fascinated by this idea that the Titanic was doomed by a trick of the eye, brought on by the night itself. Darkness as death’s shepherd. The line between a real horizon and a fake one. Something that is not there and then is. A waiting grave.

“My Heart Will Go On” plays most prominently in a dream sequence at the end of Titanic, when a young Rose sees a young Jack at the top of the ship’s winding staircase. She is wearing a flowing white dress and he is in his worker’s clothing. They kiss and the ship’s crew and passengers all applaud. This moment exists in the mind of an older version of Rose, sleeping in her bed. If we are to talk about darkness only by what it steals from our vision, then with enough darkness, we can all imagine ourselves into a type of peace. We all have our own horizons, true or not.

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Let’s Talk About Love sold millions of copies, especially once Titanic proved itself to be a box office success and the song became inextricably linked to the film. The album sold 334,000 copies the week it was released in the US, then surged to a 624,000 sales total in its sixth week, before finally reaching the top of the Billboard charts in January of 1998 and remaining in one of the top two slots until May. The album is a bit overdone with awkward duets, like “Treat Her Like A Lady,” where Dion teams up with both Diana King and Brownstone. It was an album that found Dion trying to cast as wide a net as possible to cash in on her rising fame in the States, and was at its best when it leaned into songs like “My Heart Will Go On” or “The Reason.”

For her entire career, Céline Dion has found a way to make a conventional song anything but. She’s one of those singers who understands the voice as both an instrument and a tool to extract emotion from its listener. It’s why her song works in a movie about the horrific demise of a cruise ship, but also works at a wedding, and also works at a funeral, and also works at an airport, played overhead in the parting moments between two people who might see each other again in a week, or in a month, or in a year, or perhaps never.

All of these situations play to the same small handful of feelings: love, loss, and fear. There is a saying about poets — how many of us are writing the same three poems over and over again, and just finding new ways to do it. Dion has been pulling emotions down from the same cloud for decades now, and singing her way into each of them differently. But “My Heart Will Go On” was one of the moments where she hit every single emotion at once. I want the feeling the end of that song gives me always. I want to unbox it on every birthday of every year. I want to sink into it when I am in love, and then not. Perhaps “sink” is not the word I am looking for here, in the context of this story. Perhaps to be consumed is what I am actually asking for. To be consumed by the feeling, as Rose was at the end of Titanic, with an axe in her hands and freezing water up to her waist, attempting to free her love from the pipe he was handcuffed to in the hull of a ship going under. Oh, what it must be like to love someone so fiercely that you refuse to die alone.

***

The Titanic sank in 28-degree water, and the freezing temperature of the ocean was the ultimate undoing of the passengers. Hypothermia is clinical, but it’s simply what happens when heat runs from a body faster that the body can produce it. In 28-degree water, some people were dead within 20 minutes, floating in life jackets until the cold overtook them.

I’m haunted by what it must be like to watch death come for everyone around you and know that your number is soon to be called. A night sky wrecked by screams as you wait for the inevitable. I don’t know if death is freedom, but I know that waiting for it isn’t always, and waiting for it while everyone around you dies can’t be.

In 28-degree water, as severe hypothermia sets in, the heart rate drops to the 30s. When singers sing about hearts in love songs, I can’t imagine that they’re singing of the clinical heart. It feels like they are singing of the imaginary heart — the one drawn by children, the one candy shapes are made out of. The one cartoon animals have bulging out of their chests as a sign of attraction.

“My Heart Will Go On” is one of those songs that makes me believe in the labor of the clinical heart. It feels like work, perhaps because it is not about falling in love, but instead about surviving once love has left all of its chambers and vessels. All of the space it has to make a home for someone else.

***

I would rather freeze than drown, but what I’m mostly saying is that I would rather not fight against the water in my final moments. I would rather suffer peacefully against the door of memory, behind which is everyone I’ll miss.

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I’ve seen the pictures and the memes and the tweets and the viral video and I am now willing to admit that maybe Jack could have fit on the door at the end of the movie, but then what would Céline even have to sing about? The heart needs something to go on from, and so yes, it seems a small sacrifice was made in the name of Jack, who could have fit on a door. Sacrifice the man for the timeless song — we’ve sacrificed others for far less.

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I wouldn’t watch Titanic on a third date now, and not just because I am blessed with the fortune of a bigger apartment and Netflix. It is a beautifully tedious movie that drags a bit towards its inevitability in a way that leads me to turn to it only when it unexpectedly arrives on my TV screen during the casual flipping of channels, which it did five months ago, when I had no furniture and I was sitting on the floor of an apartment I moved into, brokenhearted. I did have a television and a cable box, and I caught Titanic near its climax, once again, in the moments right before the ship collides with the iceberg. I watched the ship and its passengers drown again. I watched Rose wake up on the door to realize that Jack is frozen again. I watched her dream him back to life, and I heard Céline’s voice echo through the film’s credits. I would like to say that I was moved to tears by nostalgia, and maybe I was. But mostly I was just very plainly sad, and I needed to hear a loud, corny ballad about perseverance. “My Heart Will Go On” is good for that, too. It’s another type of life jacket for another kind of drowning.