Mush Beloved: Celine Dion's Power Pap

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Celine Dion was deep into her first power ballad of the night Monday at Verizon Center, singing a windswept hit about a powerful love that she could not forsake, when she began to get into position for her trademark: the Vocal Flyover.

The twiggy Quebecoise diva in the strapless and very much bejeweled fuchsia minidress spread her silver stilettos one shoulder length apart and bent her knees just slightly as she sang, "Sometimes I am frightened/But I'm ready to learn/Of the power of . . ."

And then, arriving at the word "love," Dion -- who knows from bombast -- thrust her right hand into the air as her crystalline voice shot skyward like an F-14 Tomcat at takeoff.

The crowd exploded approvingly.

All hail the queen of the middle of the road!

The middle of the road is, in fact, a populous place, which is why you can always find Dion standing squarely in its center, belting her mawkish ballads and faceless dance-pop songs in that soaring, technically impressive voice of hers.

The 40-year-old artist specializes in FM-lite pop (or pap, depending on your perspective) designed to appeal to the broadest audience possible. Clearly, her mass-appeal formula works: Though her sales pace has slowed in recent years, Dion has sold more than 200 million albums over the past two decades.

That's made her one the world's most popular singers while reconfirming what anybody who's ever gone to an uncool cousin's wedding or accidentally hit the adult-contemporary preset on his mother-in-law's car radio already knew: There's still a robust market for sentimental MOR mush.

Naturally, it was the featured attraction during Monday's sold-out show.

Several dance-pop numbers were sprinkled throughout the set (the not very lively "I'm Alive," the lightly funky "Love Can Move Mountains," the Shakira rip-off "Eyes on Me"), and there were more than a few covers -- including a fine karaoke version of James Brown's "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" and, for some reason, toothless and totally un-rocking covers of the Queen songs "We Will Rock You" and "The Show Must Go On."

But the big and bigger ballads dominated as Dion emoted -- and over-emoted -- her way through some of her best-known Hallmark-style epics, from "It's All Coming Back to Me Now" and "Because You Loved Me" to the churchy "I'm Your Angel" and an encore performance of "My Heart Will Go On," the drippy theme from "Titanic," which she may or may not have lip-synced (the vocals didn't quite match up with the live video close-up of Dion's visage).

Even the songs performed on a smaller scale aimed big, at least emotionally: "My Love," a song from Dion's latest album, "Taking Chances," began and ended with the diva singing a cappella. But as Dion brought the song to a climax, her voice spiraling ever higher, she dropped to her knees and pretended to cry. Apparently, subtlety is not in Dion's arsenal. (How else to explain the bitter beer face she made at the conclusion of "All by Myself"?)

Touring for the first time in nearly a decade -- a period during which she retired, then unretired and decamped to Caesars Palace in Las Vegas for a five-year run that netted her north of $100 million -- Dion brought some of those Vegas production values with her to Washington.

The nearly two-hour show was performed on a center stage with multiple moving parts (elevator platforms, conveyor belts, etc.) and featured four costume changes, eight dancers and more high-def video screens than a Best Buy showroom.

Looking Pilates-fit as she worked every section of the stage -- and, thus, played to every side of the room -- Dion performed with a natural charm and was downright beguiling at times.

She was also bilingual, introducing "Pour que tu m'aimes encore" as "the biggest song of my French career" and then performing it in her native tongue, complete with the Vocal Flyover en fran├žais. If nothing else, the overwhelmingly insipid song proved that Dion is fluent in the international language of treacle.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company