The Number Ones

March 23, 1996

The Number Ones: Céline Dion’s “Because You Loved Me”

Stayed at #1:

6 Weeks

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.

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At some point, the 1996 Robert Redford/Michelle Pfeiffer romance Up Close & Personal was supposed to be a serious Broadcast News-style film about the way the news media chews people up and spits them out. Joan Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunne wrote a script about the short, troubled life of Jessica Savitch, a news anchor who died young in a car crash. Touchstone, the Disney subsidiary that ultimately released the film, kept making Didion and Dunne rewrite that script; over eight years, they churned out 27 drafts until it became the dewy love story that finally opened in theaters. Soon afterwards, Dunne published Monster: Living Off The Big Screen, his memoir about trying to navigate Hollywood’s nutso development process.

When Up Close & Personal finally came out in March of 1996, it had virtually nothing to do with the story that Didion and Dunne had tried to tell. It had become a Star Is Born-style thing about a promising young reporter who falls in love with the veteran newsman who’s been serving as her mentor. Up Close & Personal did just-OK box-office business, but Disney evidently succeeded in its goal. It turned this Didion/Dunne script into the kind of film that could comfortably accommodate a Céline Dion soundtrack ballad.

In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Kathy Nelson, the head of Disney’s music division, says that she and her company “were looking for the perfect love song” for Up Close & Personal. Naturally, they turned to Diane Warren, a woman who’d become an institution by churning out love ballads, often for movies. Warren, who’d already written five #1 hits and landed one Oscar nomination for Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” gave Disney a love song, though it wasn’t necessarily a romantic love song. Director John Avnet showed Warren the movie, and he also played her a tape of a gospel singer, telling her that this was the kind of thing he wanted. Warren then went off and wrote a song for her father.

Diane Warren, a native of Van Nuys, had started writing songs as a teenager, and her father, an insurance salesman, had taken her around to different music publishers, supporting her chosen career from jump. In the Bronson book, Warren says that she wrote “Because You Loved Me” while thinking about her father: “It was my way of thanking my dad because he really believed in me, in my talent. And all those times I was discouraged when I was going to publishers, he’d always tell me to have faith in myself.”

On paper, “Because You Loved Me” could be a song about a parent or a lover or a deity. The song never really concerns itself with the nature of the relationship. What matters is that the narrator feels supported and uplifted by the generic “you” of the title. At one point, Warren comes close to quoting directly from the similarly-themed “Wind Beneath My Wings,” a #1 hit seven years earlier: “You gave me wings and made me fly/ You touched my hand, I could touch the sky.” The song becomes a whole lot more touching when you know its context, but even without that, the sentiment still lands: “Maybe I don’t know that much, but I know this much is true/ I was blessed because I was loved by you.”

As written, “Because You Loved Me” is a soul ballad with a clear gospel influence, and Warren wanted to find a singer who could sell its gravity. Her first choice for “Because You Loved Me” was Toni Braxton, an artist who will soon appear in this column. Braxton’s camp turned the song down. Warren didn’t even consider Céline Dion, even though Dion had already recorded some of her songs. Warren knew that Dion had recently finished work on her album Falling Into You, the follow-up to her big English-language breakthrough The Colour Of My Love. The new album already had its rollout planned out. But Céline heard “Because You Loved Me” and loved it, so she recorded it with producer David Foster, and her label changed its plans, making “Because You Loved Me” the first single from the album.

At least theoretically, “Because You Loved Me” could be what Michelle Pfeiffer’s character was feeling about Robert Redford’s character. (It’s pretty weird that two very different songs from Michelle Pfeiffer movies, “Gangsta’s Paradise” and “Because You Loved Me,” both landed at #1 a few months apart from each other. Maybe Michelle Pfeiffer just inspires musical feelings; she’ll get namechecked in a track that will appear in this column a long time from now.) In Up Close & Personal, Pfeiffer and Redford go off for a Caribbean vacation just before she takes a big job in Philadelphia, and that vacation may or may not be in the movie just so Disney would have something to put on the poster. That vacation part also gives the movie a montage for “Because You Loved Me” to soundtrack.

Falling Into You, the album that Céline Dion was gearing up to release, is a quietly insane record. It’s got Céline attempting a reggae song, a quasi-African hymn, an Aretha Franklin cover, a Tina Turner cover, and a maximalist Jim Steinman power ballad. The whole album is clearly aimed at easy-listening audiences, but it’s about as unhinged as an easy-listening album can possibly be. So maybe Céline Dion really needed a down-the-middle centrist ballad to send that LP out into the world, and “Because You Loved Me” fit the bill. Céline’s version of “Because You Loved Me” certainly isn’t weird, but you can really hear her trying things on the song. You can hear her attempting to become something resembling a soul singer.

“Because You Loved Me” unfolds at the same languid pace as a lot of ’90s R&B, and it’s got the same kind of production, with the echo all over the keyboards and drum machines. The backing vocals are pure R&B, too. Céline is an uber-dramatic belter by nature, but on “Because You Loved Me,” she tries to pace herself like a soul singer, not like a power balladeer. It doesn’t fully work. Céline can do melisma as well as anyone else, and she definitely puts a ton of gawky weirdo passion into her delivery. But there’s a sense of remove to “Because You Loved Me,” and I don’t think it’s got anything to do with Céline singing this heartfelt song in a language that wasn’t her own. I don’t even think the problem is Céline trying R&B runs without any background in Black American gospel, though I do think that Toni Braxton would’ve sold that stuff better. I think the problem is the production.

“Because You Loved Me” is a David Foster joint, and it sounds like a David Foster joint. Foster had been making huge hits for years, and he definitely understood the types of sounds that radio would embrace. But there’s a flatness to the sound of “Because You Loved Me.” Foster’s sweeping pianos and clicky guitars never grab me. There’s a lot of emotion in “Because You Loved Me.” Its lyrics are nice. Its sentiment is nice. Its vocal performance is messy but powerful and passionate. But the song itself hits my ears as filler. It’s just more boring than it has to be.

“Because You Loved Me” still did exactly what Céline Dion needed it to do. The song knocked Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s “One Sweet Day” out of the #1 spot after 16 long weeks, and it went on to top Billboard‘s Adult Contemporary chart for an insane and record-breaking 19 weeks. Céline Dion had already been to #1 with her version of “The Power Of Love,” and her album The Colour Of My Love had already gone triple platinum, but “Because You Loved Me,” is probably the song that really made her a superstar in the US.

Céline’s album Falling Into You came out a couple of weeks before “Because You Loved Me” reached #1, and the LP debuted at #2. It kept steadily selling, and its next two singles became hits, too. Céline followed “Because You Loved Me” with the song that’s easily my favorite of her singles, the howling and whirling and stomping Jim Steinman lung-crusher “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now,” originally released by the Steinman-assembled girl group Pandora’s Box in 1989. Céline’s version went all the way to #2. (It’s a 9.)

After that, Céline returned to the top 10 with another cover, her version of Eric Carmen’s 1975 weeper “All By Myself.” (Carmen’s original peaked at #2. It’s a 4.) Working again with David Foster, Céline dialed that song’s drama way up, and the money-note moment where the drums come booming in while she’s still screaming is probably better than anything on “Because You Loved Me.” (Céline’s version of “All By Myself.” peaked at #4. It’s a 6.) Eventually, those three mega-ballads pushed Falling Into You to sales of 12 million in the US alone. It’s still her biggest-selling LP.

“Because You Loved Me” became the second Diane Warren joint to be nominated for Best Original Song at the Oscars. More would follow. Diane Warren has become the Susan Lucci of the Best Original Song category — nominated 13 times, never won once. (She just lost for the 13th time a few weeks ago.) Talking to Stereogum a few months ago, Warren said that it was “disappointing” when “Because You Loved Me” didn’t take home the award. Instead, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice won that year for “You Must Love Me,” the new song that they’d written for Madonna to sing in Evita. (“You Must Love Me” peaked at #18.) For my money, the Oscar should’ve gone to the late Fountains Of Wayne co-leader Adam Schlesinger, nominated for writing the genuinely awesome title song from That Thing You Do!, but Oscar voters never seem too worried about what I want. (“That Thing You Do!” peaked at #41.)

At the Oscars that year, Céline Dion sang “Because You Loved Me” and another nominated song, Barbra Streisand and Bryan Adams’ “I Finally Found Someone.” (“I Finally Found Someone” peaked at #8. It’s a 3.) I guess Streisand and Adams didn’t feel like singing that one, so Céline sang it as a duet with a very overwhelmed-looking trumpet player. It would not be her last time singing at the Oscars.

“Because You Loved Me” was a huge hit, but you don’t need me to tell you that Céline Dion had an even bigger movie ballad left in her. We’ll see her in this column again. We’ll see more of Diane Warren and David Foster, too.

GRADE: 5/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Oscar-worthy scene from the 2016 film Dirty Grandpa where Zac Efron and Zoey Deutch sing a karaoke rendition of “Because You Loved Me”:

(Zac Efron’s highest-charting single, the 2006 Vanessa Hudgens duet “Breaking Free,” peaked at #4. It’s a 7.)

THE NUMBER TWOS: The Tony Rich Project’s elegantly shattered R&B lament “Nobody Knows” peaked at #2 behind “Because You Loved Me.” It’s an 8.

THE 10S: Busta Rhymes’ gloriously unhinged neckbreaker anthem “Woo Hah!! Got You All In Check” peaked at #8 behind “Because You Loved Me.” You know it comes through to wreck the discotheque. It’s a 10.

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