In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
It took a long time, but I think I finally get Céline Dion. In the late ’90s, when my teenage-punk snark levels were at their peak, no singer was a bigger snark-target than Céline; it was as if we were all competing to see who could enjoy the lady’s work the least. I think that snark-attraction to Céline Dion also had something to do with her appeal. Alone among the adult-contemporary divas of her generation, Céline always seemed to feel things with every iota of her soul. On every single song, Céline sounded like she was banging at her chest, rending her garments, displaying the sheer force of her emotion for all the world to see. There is great power in that kind of gesture, and there is great vulnerability, too. Maybe that vulnerability, combined with the woman’s ability to stomp all over the pop charts, was the reason that jerks like me made so many jokes.
Céline Dion has been part of the American pop landscape for so long that it can be easy to forget that she does not come from that landscape. When her records first started landing on the American charts, Céline Dion barely spoke English. She was a stranger in a strange land, and she found ways to convey emotion that went far beyond language. Her cathartic emotion-bomb ballads spoke to universal drama. A Céline Dion song could make people around the world feel things, whether or not those people understood the language that Céline was using — partly because Céline herself wasn’t fully comfortable with that language. That strange universality is all over Céline Dion’s first American #1 hit, a song with its own long and tangled history.
Before we talk about “The Power Of Love,” we should get into the beginnings of Céline’s own long and tangled history. Céline Dion grew up in a gigantic working-class French Canadian family in the Montreal suburb of Charlemagne. (When Céline was born, the #1 song in America was Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay.”) Céline was the youngest of 14 kids, which is, in my opinion, too many kids.
Céline Dion started out singing when she was young; her first performance was at her brother’s wedding, when she was five. Dion’s parents owned a piano bar, and she sang there as a kid. When she was 12, Céline got together with her mother and her brother Jacques to write “Ce N’était Qu’un Rêve,” her first song. Jacques sent a tape of the song to René Angélil, a former singer who’d become a manager for the Montreal artists René Simard and Ginette Reno. Angélil loved Céline’s demo, and he immediately signed on as her manager, mortgaging his house to fund the recording of her 1981 debut album La Voix Du Bon Dieu.
“Ce N’était Qu’un Rêve” was a top-10 hit in Quebec, which apparently has its own singles chart. A year later, a 14-year-old Céline went to Tokyo to compete in something called the Yamaha World Popular Song Festival. There, she sang “D’amour Ou D’amitié,” which became her first #1 hit in Quebec, and she won all the festival’s big prizes. All through the ’80s, Céline was a huge child star in Quebec. When she was 16, the Pope visited Montreal, and Céline sang for him.
Céline’s next look on the international stage came from another song competition. In 1988, Céline Dion represented Switzerland in the Eurovision Song Contest. The song that she sang, “Ne Partez Pas Sans Moi,” won Eurovision, and it became a minor hit in a few French-speaking European countries. But Eurovision hadn’t exactly launched a ton of global superstars, ABBA notwithstanding. The massive success in Céline’s future was not assured.
Céline Dion’s Eurovision experience got her considering what it would take to become a real international star, and she and Angélil took steps to make that happen. Céline started studying English, and she signed with CBS in America. The Canadian super-producer David Foster, a guy who’s been in this column a bunch of times, was impressed with one of Céline’s performances at the Juno Awards, and he made a project out of breaking her in the US. Unison, Céline Dion’s first English-language album, came out in 1990, and her song “Where Does My Heart Beat Now” became her first real American hit, peaking at #4. (It’s a 5.)
In the early ’90s, Céline Dion made a whole lot of records, and she went back and forth between English and French. In that time, she landed a few more top-10 hits. In 1991, Céline and former Number Ones artist Peabo Bryson sang the end-credits version of “Beauty And The Beast,” the theme from the Disney movie, and their rendition of the song peaked at #9. (It’s a 6.) A year later, Céline covered “If You Asked Me To,” a Diane Warren-written song that former Number Ones artist Patti LaBelle had sung on soundtrack of the 1989 James Bond movie License To Kill. The Patti LaBelle version of “If You Asked Me To” stalled out at #79, but Céline’s cover went all the way to #4. (It’s a 5.)
When Céline Dion first topped the Billboard Hot 100, she did it with a song that had been around for almost a decade. Queens-born singer Jennifer Rush was the Juilliard-trained daughter of two opera singers. In an attempt to get her own singing career going, Rush moved to Germany, where her father was living. Rush found a recording contract in Germany, and her first two singles were minor hits over there. Then, in 1984, Rush released “The Power Of Love,” a vast and dramatic single that she co-wrote with the German songwriters Gunther Mende and Candy DeRouge and with Mary Susan Applegate, another American songwriter living in Frankfurt.
Jennifer Rush’s “The Power Of Love” became a chart-topping smash in Germany and then throughout Europe. In the UK, “The Power Of Love” was the biggest-selling single of 1985. In her homeland, though, Rush had a harder time on the charts. Before she released “The Power Of Love” in the US, former Number Ones artists Air Supply came out with their own version of the song. (It was pretty easy to gender flip Rush’s whole “I’m your layyy-dayyyy” chorus.) Air Supply changed the title to “The Power Of Love (You Are My Lady)” so that people wouldn’t confuse it with the Huey Lewis “Power Of Love.” The competing Jennifer Rush and Air Supply versions cancelled each other out. The Air Supply cover peaked at #68, and the Jennifer Rush original peaked at #57. (In the US, Jennifer Rush’s highest-charting single is the 1987 Elton John duet “Flames Of Paradise,” which peaked at #36.)
“The Power Of Love” didn’t resonate in America the same way it did in Europe, but the song’s appeal wasn’t hard to figure out. It’s a big, bold back-row wailer of a song. “The Power Of Love” starts off small and moody, and then this giant fucking boulder of a chorus crashes through the window. It makes sense that Jennifer Rush had a background in opera, a genre that’s built to transcend language, and that she had her greatest success in a country where English isn’t anyone’s first language. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Rush says that she wrote “The Power Of Love” about her boyfriend but that she also adapted the song to fit the place where she recorded it: “I was working with people who didn’t speak English, so I was fitting my poetry to their melodies.”
In 1987, two years after the Jennifer Rush and Air Supply versions of “The Power Of Love” came out in the US, another power-belter recorded the song. Laura Branigan really sank her teeth into “The Power Of Love,” and her version made it to #26 on the Hot 100, a whole lot better than the Jennifer Rush and Air Supply versions had done. Maybe America needed time to warm up to “The Power Of Love.” (Laura Branigan’s highest-charting single, 1982’s “Gloria,” peaked at #2. It’s a 9.)
In November of 1993, Céline Dion released The Colour Of My Love, her third English-language album. By that time, she and her manager René Angélil had fallen in love, and she announced their relationship in that album’s liner notes. Céline and Angélil had kept their relationship secret for years because they knew that it might seem creepy. Angélil was 26 years older than Céline, and he’d been managing her since she was 12. By 1993, Céline was 25, and she knew that she was serious. She and Angélil got married in 1994, and they stayed together until Angélil died in 2016.
The first single from The Colour Of My Love was a cover of the old Doris Day number “When I Fall In Love.” Céline recorded it as a duet with the British singer Clive Griffin, and their version showed up on the Sleepless In Seattle soundtrack and peaked at #23. Céline followed that song with her version of “The Power Of Love.” She recorded her cover with David Foster, who was coming off of the world-historical success of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You,” and she used the track as a chance to show what her voice could do.
“The Power Of Love” is a very ’80s song, and Céline Dion’s cover sounds just as ’80s as the Jennifer Rush original. That’s a good thing. The record largely avoids the gooey excesses of so many show-stopping early-’90s ballads. Instead of puffy strings and seasick fake-piano keyboards, Foster surrounds Céline with shivery synths and big, thudding Phil Collins-ass drums. The guitars have almost Chris Isaak levels of sustain on them. The arrangement isn’t exactly revolutionary, but it’s smooth and polished, and it rocks just a tiny bit. More importantly, it leaves in space for lots of dramatic pauses, and Céline barges into those pauses with elbows flying in every direction.
Céline Dion just howls “The Power Of Love.” The song’s lyrics were always a little awkward and mysterious. Consider the opening line, which is more than a little tortured: “The whispers in the morning of lovers sleeping tight/ Are rolling by like thunder now as I look in your eyes.” A line like that is not a problem for Céline Dion. She doesn’t deploy language with anything resembling conversational ease. Instead, to Céline, words are simply vehicles for the soul-crushing emotion that she’s determined to get across. On “The Power Of Love,” that’s exactly what she does. She starts out quiet, gaining more steam with each chorus. By the time she hits the final drawn-out glory note, she’s a whole galactic supernova.
The cool thing about “The Power Of Love” — all versions of the song, really — is that it’s not really about two people existing together. Instead, it’s about the all-consuming need for someone who might fill up an implacable void within your own soul. It’s about submitting to the majesty of your own feelings, about letting sheer emotion shoot you into a state of being beyond space and time. It’s about being in love with love itself. For Céline Dion, this was fertile territory.
Céline Dion’s first two English-language albums had both gone platinum. On the strength of “The Power Of Love,” The Colour Of My Love went platinum six times over, and Céline truly became a global star. “The Power Of Love” is a big honking song, but it’s somehow not quite big enough for Céline Dion. In the years that followed, Céline would dial into that maximalism and take it even further. We’ll see her in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Jarvis Cocker covering “The Power Of Love” at Vice’s 20th-anniversary deal in 2014: