Guilty Pleasures, Round One: Celine Dion (5) vs. Will Smith (12)
EW’s Music Mix is searching for the Greatest Guilty Pleasure Musical Act of All Time. With 32 seeded contestants (see all the matchups), this tournament is sure to change hearts, minds, and lives for weeks to come. Read/listen to the following, and then cast your vote in the poll after the jump; reader comments will be used in subsequent rounds, so we encourage you to also post a comment explaining why you chose the way you did. Note: In case of a tie, please select the artist you feel more ashamed to adore. Thank you.
I find it hard to even think about Celine Dion without hearing Ana Gasteyer, in character as post-Titanic Celine on SNL, proclaim herself “The greatest singer… IN THE WORLD!” The impersonation nailed everything, from the Evita hand gestures to the chest thumping to that uniquely weird accent in all its honking, French-Canadian glory. And best of all, it seemed to fake-confirm my sneaking suspicion that Celine really does believe that she’s the chosen one, the bearer of a heaven-sent larynx destined to change the world. It’s an opinion she could actually back up, too: With over 200 million albums sold, Dion is the most successful female artist of all time, a global phenomenon worth an estimated quarter billion, easy. Suffice it to say, she’s no underdog.
Still, it’s practically the duty of any serious music fan to brush off Celine Dion as a joke. And why not? She’s the blandest of divas, a milquetoast prima donna who can suck the sex and fire out of any song and leave it a glossy, Stepford version of its former self. When Cyndi Lauper sings “I Drove All Night,” she’s in that car, sweating with desire. When Celine does it, you suspect she probably took a limo. Or, more likely, a private jet. Her mind-boggling popularity only seems like proof of our darkest fears about the masses’ undiscerning appetite for freeze-dried hooks and lyrics packed with enough saccharine sentiment to warrant an FDA warning label.
But here’s the thing with Celine: The lady can sing. Even at 41, she’s still a world-class belter with a craftsman’s precision and a killer instinct for showmanship. She dazzles in her concerts — less song recitals than athletic exhibitions for the freakish agility of her voice. And her greatest hits — the syllabus of a master class in power balladry — show how a virtuoso performer can turn even the dopiest of songs into a thrilling epic. Just try listening to “All By Myself” without getting goosebumps, or “My Heart Will Go On” without feeling a little tug from the part of you deep inside that wants nothing more than to get swept away in the cornball majesty of it all and have a good cry. And it’s that skill, in the end, that makes Celine’s music a pleasure, guilty or otherwise. She might not be The Greatest Singer in the World. But I guarantee you that when that person — whoever she may be — feels like kicking back and losing herself to the power of a great sappy song, she listens to Celine. — Adam Markovitz
Will Smith’s work as the Fresh Prince was jokey nonsense, the sonic equivalent of one of those spinning lollipops with a toy in the middle that sit collecting dust on the candy shelves of gas stations. His four solo albums were mostly characterized by his unwillingness to cuss, and at least two of his biggest solo hits — “Men In Black” and “Wild Wild West” — were just movie commercials in rap form. One could compliment him for being a savvy cross-platform marketer. One could hate him for bringing “jiggy” into the lexicon, and want to stab chopsticks in one’s ears. Or one could just lighten up and admit he makes parties way more fun.
In 7th grade, I developed a complex dramaturgical understanding of “Nightmare on My Street,” had animated discussions about the pot/kettle nature of “Girls Ain’t Nothing but Trouble,” and knew every single word to “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” The ability to come up with the next line while sitting and rapping with my friends was a badge of honor at the time, but is there anything more mortifying than the memory of circling up with my fellow overprivileged white suburban pre-teens and throwing down a rhyme while an assortment of boys lamely attempted to beatbox? Perhaps — I also know all the words to “Ice Ice Baby.” And yet no matter the embarrassment I’d feel if someone were to dig up video of me engaged in such an activity, there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. After all, rap started essentially as a novelty — “Parents” won the first-ever hip-hop Grammy — and by the time the genre got harder, the Fresh Prince had already moved to Bel Air, and most of my friends were really into Wilson Phillips.
So here’s why I feel guilty: Because if you put on any Will Smith track, I will invariably light up like a chatty Christmas tree. If you play “Gettin’ Jiggy With It,” I will dance like a dope. But if you play me “real” hip-hop, I will get this very consternated look on my face as I vainly struggle to identify the artist and put them into the appropriate geographical/stylistic context, and then I will probably complain about the way hip-hop albums always have those annoying skits, and why is that? This is a problem, or at least I perceive it to be such. Will Smith (I don’t mean to forget you, DJ Jazzy Jeff!) was the perfect gateway drug for an entire genre of music, but I never walked all the way through that gate. I went to prom with the Beastie Boys, took half a kung-fu class with the Wu-Tang, caught a contact high off Snoop and Dr. Dre… and then more or less just hung outside with my spinning lollipop, laughing and smiling and ignoring the sounds of socio-political gunfire coming from behind the wall. You can say you’re not judging me right now, but you’d be lying. — WP
Photo Credit: Celine Dion: Everett Collection; Will Smith: Bureau L.A. Collection/Corbis