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December 19, 2007

Surrealized Schmaltz-Bot

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Arts & Letters Daily scores again, tickling my linkage fancy with this New York Magazine book review by Sam Anderson.

Early in the review which deals with a book about singer Céline Dion, Anderson lets loose with the following:

Dion is the Antichrist of the indie sensibility, an overemoting schmaltz-bot who has somehow managed to convert the ethos of Wal-Mart into sine waves and broadcast them, at kidney-rupturingly high volume, directly into our internal soulPods. A book pondering the aesthetics of Céline risks going wrong in about 3,000 different ways. Most obviously, it could degenerate into one of those irritating hipster projects of strategic kitsch-retrieval, an ironic exercise in taste as anti-taste in which an uncool phenomenon is hoisted onto a pedestal of cool simply as a display of contrarian muscle power.

The rest of the piece is more sympathetic.

My interest has nothing to do with the book. It concerns Dion's long-running show that recently concluded its stay at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas and its Cirque du Soleil-style staging.

As long as I'm in stage-setting mode, let me mention that I lost interest in pop music in all its forms many, many years ago. Yes, I hear it now and then, and scanning newspapers, magazine and the web lets me know names of performers and groups even though I usually don't know what they or their songs sound like. Nevertheless, I knew who Dion was because her hit song from the movie Titanic was unavoidable at the hight of its popularity.

My wife Nancy is a Dion fan so, in November 2003, we took in Céline's show at Caesar's. She was disappointed.

It's possible that the show evolved and was different in its closing months from what we witnessed when it was about a year old. Regardless, all I can do is report what I saw. And what I saw was a fish out of water. Dion would have been better served if she had performed in a more intimate setting than the cavernous hall attached to the casino. An audience of, say, 350 people, a piano on stage for her to lean against from time to time and a backup quintet (much like the Tony Bennett performance we saw in November) would have worked better.

Instead, here was poor Céline on the huge stage, firmly planting her feet, twisting her torso and making those raised-arm gestures that are supposed to indicate that the singer is feeling powerful emotions. Poor lady: she seemed to lack the dancer-gene and her physicality was more pathetic than inspiring.

The staging by Cirque du Soleil alumnus Franco Dragone was even harder for Nancy to take. Besides the apparently mandatory Chaplinesque characters who repeatedly wander across the stage -- to provide "continuity"(?) -- in many Cirque performances, there were surrealistic effects such as a grand piano, bench and pianist slowly sailing across the stage a dozen feet or so above the floor. I suppose someone must have though that people paying on the order of $150 for a decent seat needed more than a chanteuse to feel that they got value for money. Besides the floating piano there were dancers and other stage-biz that kept the action going while Dion was warbling away.

Which bring us to Cirque du Soleil. Magician Penn Jillette of the Penn and Teller act said (in their show at the Rio hotel/casino a couple of years ago) approximately this: Cirque du Seleil has a dozen shows going here in Vegas and they are identical!

Jillette overstates, but not by much. Cirque does indeed have a lot of shows going on in Vegas. And most of them have similar elements -- the core circus acts, the wandering "continuity" characters and quick, smooth transitions between acts. The themes vary (Beatles, water, etc.) but after having seen one, I get the impression viewing others that I've somehow seen it before.

Their one "different" show -- though still circus-based -- is Zoomanity, playing at the New York New York. Zoomanity is the worst professionally-staged show I've ever seen. The concept is that it's supposed to glorify sex. But the voice-overs and other dialog was a crude, "sex is good! sex is good!" barrage. I was finally half expecting a character to say "You vill like sex ... or else!!" But the low point was the "comedy" that, so far as I could tell, was written by 13-year-old boys on a school playground. A big deal was a group of puritans (in 1620s costumes) who turned out to be obsessed with sex. What a concept! How stunningly original! For this we paid more than $100 a seat?

At least Céline was spared the Zoomanty treatment.



posted by Donald at December 19, 2007


Funny posting! Ah, the shows we've sat through as the years pile up ... Plus the whole going-to-a-Vegas-show thing has become its own ritual, hasn't it? I wonder if there are reviewers who specialize in them. I've only seen a few myself, but hey, one of them was Elvis, the year before he died. He was terrible -- sweaty, drugged to the gills, overproduced, wearing that one jumpsuit with the superhigh collars. He even forgot the words to "Hound Dog."

I'd heard that that Cirque du Soleil sex show was pretty awful. Too bad: there's a lot of beautiful bodies (and uninhibited people) in that troupe. It would fun to have a good excuse to enjoy them in a, ahem, sophisticated kind of way.

Posted by: MIchael Blowhard on December 19, 2007 2:08 PM

Forgive any insult to your wife's music preference, but I'm not even slightly surprised Celine is a schmalz-bot. I think her recordings are, too--all the overwrought vocal gymnastics. I am surprised someone who likes her records would be disappointed in this show. It sounds predictable to me.

Posted by: annette on December 19, 2007 2:16 PM

I try to refuse to attend any musical event in any venue where more than 500 people can be seated. What's the purpose of listening to music in large arenas or venues?

Although I really like the music of the Rolling Stones, I've never attended one of their concerts, for the above reasons.

Celine Dion is just awful, no matter where you are obliged to listen to her.

I know that I'm hopelessly old fashioned. My favorite places to hear music... some old bar or club on Halsted Street in Chicago, on the beach in Jersey, in the Village, or in a campus dive in Champaign, Illinois. And, I'd just as soon hear a bunch of old farts who don't even bother to move while they play.

I don't give a damn about production values. I don't want to see a song and dance man. I want to have a drink and listen to real people struggling to find the groove together. When it works, it's magic. I'd rather listen to my good friend, Nikki Armstrong, belt out torch songs in the small room at B.B. King's on 42nd Street. Nikki is everything that Celine Dion isn't.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on December 19, 2007 2:30 PM

Both CduS and Celine are from Quebec, whose kitschy, schmaltzy pop culture has embarrassed, puzzled and bored English Canadians for decades now. The degree to which Quebec culture is terra icognito to English Canada has surprised many of my American friends, who are startled to find that their knowledge of Quebec culture is as deep and broad as ours, and is summed up in a very short list: Celine Dion, Cirque du Soleil, and (maybe, maybe!) one or two movies by Denys Arcand.

So it's interesting to see your take, Donald, on how the two Quebec kitsch-mongers failed to gel, since they've run together in my Anglo mind as two examples of the same monoculture that's as alien to me as a Canadian as the throat-singers of Tuva.

Posted by: PatrickH on December 19, 2007 4:46 PM

CĂ©line who?

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on December 19, 2007 8:23 PM

i like penn jillette but he can get a little annoying if you pay too much attention to him. (i used to listen to his radio show).

Posted by: t. j. on December 19, 2007 8:33 PM

I have two friends who work for Cirque de Soleil and have met, on one occasion, many of the people who work on the "Ka" show. Nice people.

Although many of the shows are quite similar, most of the people there agreed that "O" is the best. And all of them dislike Zhumanity. Actually, those two friends have seen a few of the sex-themed shows in Vegas and think that they all stink.

The husband puts it this way, "They are sorta like Strippers, but you never get that excited, and you never get satsfaction".

Thomas, you said something that evoked a memory. You said that you don't go to see "Song and Dance" men, well, it reminded me of this interview with Bob Dylan back in the 60's when eveyone started hailing him as the Second Coming of Folk Music, a real revolutionary.

Well, they asked him if he considered himself a Folk Singer or an Artist, and he said, "Well, actually, I always thought of myself as a Song and Dance Man".

I always loved that answer. They always wanted him to be some religious figure, and he was just trying to throw curveballs.

Posted by: Ian Lewis on December 20, 2007 5:12 PM

Forgive me if I've said this here before, but it's worth pondering why Satchmo was such a good singer. It wasn't just the rhythm: he had a wonderful skill at turning the volume up and down. Few pop singers choose to do it.

Posted by: dearieme on December 20, 2007 5:21 PM

I can't get past Dion's strange froggie ugliness.

Posted by: ricpic on December 20, 2007 7:13 PM

Shouting Thomas, have you ever read Martin Amis's review of a Stones concert (from back in the late 1970s, I believe)? He talked about the horrible acoustics, the ugliness of the crowd, and wondered how he could be having such an awful time at a concert of a group he actually liked. He fled early - the review ends "I shouldn't have gone. I'm never going again."

And I actually didn't realize that CdS was from Quebec, but that makes a lot of sense. In Montreal some years ago, I recall an open-air concert from some blonde Quebecois pop singer, a sort of sub-Olivia Newton-John, and none of the English-speaking types I was with had any idea of who she was.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on December 21, 2007 8:42 AM

Although this is implicit in much of what is already being said, I think it's interesting to note that musicians and singers performing in very large venues (especially large arenas and stadiums) AS A REGULAR WAY TO DO BUSINESS may be a rather "recent" (at least for baby boomers) way of presenting music that dates from about the early 1970s. (I say "as a regular way to do business" because large musical venues for special events, especially in warm weather, have probably been around for a long, long time -- some examples being Lewisohn Stadium, in New York, the Hollywood Bowl and, maybe, the Newport Jazz Festival.)

Prior to that, regular venues for musicians and singers seemed to be ballrooms (e.g., swing), cabarets / nightclubs (e.g., swing, jazz, folk, rock), or old downtown movie theaters (e.g. early rock touring shows). It seems to me that it was first the Beatles (e.g., at Shea Stadium), then then the Rolling Stones (e.g., Madison Square Garden) that inaugurated the era of regular large-scale concerts / arena venues -- and lessened the influence of the other venues.

I say this because I remember when the Rolling Stones first played Madison Square Garden in the early 1970s, and various rock critics were discussing it as an innovation and experiment and evaluating how it was all working out (e.g., how best to use such a venue in terms of sightlines, amplification of music, etc.). Subsequent to that, it seems an entire arena / stadium touring industry evolved (e.g., sound technicians, lighting experts, choreographers, dancers, pyrotechnics, the stadiums themselves, etc.). (I once had a temporary job in a big talent agency that handled and there was a whole department devoted to getting passports and work visas for foreign entertainers, many of them musicians / singers.)

Now, of course, arena / stadium concerts are an American institution and, apparently, a much discussed "rite of passage" for young Americans all over the country.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on December 21, 2007 3:44 PM

it's nice to hear keith emerson is still able to find work.

Posted by: cjm on January 1, 2008 1:30 PM

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