It is a loud July evening in the city of Las Vegas. Our temperature (recorded at the airport, close to the kinetic heat of the Strip) peaked a few hours ago at 40°C and has promised to climb in the coming weeks, the height of vacation season. Tourists are grateful for cover of darkness. Normally shy of desert heat in summertime, thousands seem to have decided against travelling abroad during a time of war and general displeasure with Americans-but then again, they shouldn't have to, given that both Venice and Paris have been replicated along Las Vegas Boulevard. The casino mini-cities are cute and clean and feature ongoing diverse entertainments the likes of which no one visiting for the first time can anticipate. Vegas is, after all, a city where one can be suddenly entertained against one's will; where indoor malls are happy to feature contortionists who shoot arrows into a target outside Pottery Barn; and where a third-rate magician can do well for himself attempting the Indian rope trick while singing "Gethsemane" from Jesus Christ Superstar. I've eaten a bowl of ice cream while standing and watching at least one of these.
Right now I'm watching palm trees hover above Caesars Palace. Pale brown fronds spill from their centres, like cinched belts. The trunks are serrated and peeling. These are not the palms of popular imagination, green and orderly and lining the streets of Beverly Hills. These are Vegas palms, a bit old and leathery, like Nancy Sinatra, dotting a random lawn, a Hawaiian café, a civic park with used condoms in the dirt. They do not look well. It's possible to stare at the palm trees above Vegas and feel as if you are experiencing a hangover. People who have not visited this place do not seem to understand any of the words I use in attempting to describe it. Perhaps the best description would be to point in the city's general direction from anywhere on the continent and bellow "Vegas," in a baritone Goulet. This would make for a level of understanding nicely suited to a city in its adolescence, ripening in the heat of America's unapologetically adolescent culture.
Two years ago, a petite, partially telegenic Québecoise pop singer named Céline Dion came to Vegas and installed herself as a permanent cultural attraction at Caesars Palace. The management was proud enough to build a brand-new theatre-the Colosseum-onto the casino, just for Céline. She would perform a classy show in a classy venue and deliver the goods. What were the goods? One hundred and seventy-five million albums sold worldwide. At least four Grammies. That song from Titanic. A blend of athletic showmanship and jaw-dropping sincerity of the kind one sees at talent shows involving children. After transforming herself into a global product of considerable value, Céline would now be trumpeted as the main attraction in one of the world's best-known resorts. She would design a high-tech, ninety-minute blast of all things Céline that ran like a diesel engine, barrelling along with radio hits and special effects and ambiguous sex appeal. She would banter with the audience. She would sing just one song in French. She would thank tourists for the privilege of singing for them and make each night a night to remember. She would not address rumors that her husband and manager René Angelil had amassed gigantic gambling debts at Caesars and that his wife's installation had something to do with bailing him out as well as making each night a night to remember. Most of all, she would perform a show, hopefully theshow to see in Vegas; in a manner of thinking, this show might be Céline's finest hour, cementing her position in the culture as a ubiquity, forcing all of us to acknowledge we know who she is and can hum at least one of the songs she has made famous.
Her installation would also be a chance for fans to feel a certain satisfaction in her continued success and for detractors to assign this petite woman with the monster voice to that special place where kitsch reigns-and where the dream known as Las Vegas lives with glittering irony. Singers as beloved as Tom Jones and Liza Minnelli and Debbie Reynolds all shared that same place over thirty years ago and, in a way, Céline is merely assuming her place in line, taking her turn now that someone's built her a theatre and handed her a wireless microphone.
I am not a fan of Céline Dion, although-and this feels important-I tend to believe my mother is. She is in her seventies and takes in the surrounding culture with a tremendous good nature. She will, for example, occasionally watch American Idoland ignore my comments about how uniform the performances seem to be, how void of surprise and unfeeling the whole enterprise is, with only outfits (and ethnicity) separating one contestant from the next. We are headed toward a future that doesn't seem to demand much of its singers and artists, really, except individuality and spunk, or simulations of. But such thoughts are lost to Mom and make me feel like a dick for thinking them. If she were with me at the Colosseum now, waiting for Céline to appear, she would not be complaining about the seven-dollar Bud Lights-perhaps I won't get drunk after all-or the fact that seating is as cramped as coach class on Northwest Airlines. Instead, she would take curious pleasure in the details, how the stage is enormous (twice that of a symphonic hall) or how the ceiling shoots above us like an aerial display. Or how, on either side of the stage, forty-foot murals in subtle tints depict some kind of a peasant girl, waifish and raven-haired, holding a lute.
A woman behind me has been speaking loudly to her male companion since I sat down. The topic is a date she went out on the night before. "Yeah well, for me, he's nobody. He's nobody good-looking, so ..." On the gargantuan scrim, live video of people in the crowd keeps the audience amused and angling for the camera. We are amused until curtain. The woman behind me has a voice loud enough to cut through a car's fender. Her companion mumbles an opinion. She speaks up, a bit huffy, saying, "She does not have a horse face," as the lights fade.
When Céline appears, hitting the first notes of "A New Day" to overwhelming applause, I feel a certain spirit galvanizing in me and choose to give into what is essentially professional entertainment of the sort that transcends kitsch, given enough time and effort-I mean, the show is underway, here we go, there's a bunch of dancers, a blaze of lights, a tall mime who will do something funny soon, Céline's hitting the notes, acoustics are good, this song's got a nice bounce to it, she moves gradually in a flowing red dress through the verses, upstage to downstage, and this is a smart and highly effective use of the space, not to mention audience expectations. It's a Thursday night in summertime, I am at Caesars Palace in freaking Las Vegas and I am seriously going to enjoy this...
A few nights earlier, a local had explained to me that Vegas is the embodiment of all things American, only exaggerated. Whatever's good (and whatever's bad) about the US intensifies exponentially throughout the city. Optimism? An unhealthy amount, six times as much as anywhere else. Luck? Both kinds, falling like sunlight. Immigrants in search of non-taxable work? Impulse shopping? Broken families? Disgusting heat? Meth addicts? Mormons? Personal-injury lawsuits? Fake boobs that one has to openly stare at to determine how fake (which, when I think of it, seems to be part of the overall point)? Put on a pair of shades and cover your ears. Las Vegas is where America goes to eleven.
Céline: A New Day is, like so much of our entertainments, in lockstep with shameless, optimistic exaggeration and seems not just to represent Vegas but the square root of Vegas, American popular culture in a nutshell. Perhaps it's the mime that won't go away. Or the long, aggressive medley of Frank Sinatra and Etta James and "classic hits of classic songwriters." Or the moment during "What A Wonderful World," when Céline thinks to herself, then points to her head. Or the song which has something to do with amnesia, wherein dancing couples chase one another in vain and Céline walks among them with a look on her face meant to suggest confusion but which in fact suggests a need to take a short nap. Perhaps she is exhausted. I am exhausted, and we still have an hour to go. I now understand two things: entertainment fatigue and that, perhaps, this style of entertainment will never fade away.
At one point, Céline speaks to the audience long enough to dedicate a song "to all the parents of the world." There is a pause in which she regards the audience thoughtfully. "And to all the children of the world." Either decorum or boredom restrains me from standing and shouting, "THAT'S EVERYBODY IN THE WORLD, YOU FREAKING ENGLISH-MANGLING IDIOT" Then the following items appear and render me completely mute: a twenty-four-member male chorus; that mime, now wearing a caftan; a black porter dressed in gold livery; projected video of a massive tree growing, flowering, yielding its leaves, then going up in flames; a floating piano; three female acrobats with massive headgear, on swings; a moon; some clouds; and Céline, eyes shut, leaning into her microphone with inhuman concentration and giving voice to a song, I think, about all the parents and all the children of the world. I have arrived at last in hangover delirium, for here is a show that makes no sense at all. Part of me understands the random imagery of a given song translating to a prop here or there, but a growing exhaustion and dislocation comes from sitting through an entire show in which not a single moment passes without emphasis.
During her one French song, the mime appears again, gazing balefully at Céline. Then a lamppost descends onto the cobblestones. Then another lamppost. Then a man tugging a stuffed dog alongside him in a pantomime of going for a walk. Then-I shit you not-an acrobat on wires, arm extended, flying on the lamppost. I have stumbled into someone's bad dream. I am trapped at the perfect show for people with everything but attention spans.
Gore Vidal once remarked that, in the modern age, artists have to announce themselves as Great Talents in order to reach the general public-mere talent cannot place itself on humble display; it needs a megaphone, perhaps several. Talent is not recognized so much as acceded to, as if it wears down the listener and declares itself the winner of a fight.
By the night's close-"My Heart Will Go On"-I am hoping Céline might perform alone, just once. I want to do some work as a member of the audience, seek the fine grains of this woman's talent instead of having the singer not trust me to understand the simple, charitable pleasures of a pop song. Of course, this does not happen. I'm like a child again, a child with a beer, watching a slow-motion projection of outer space on the enormous back scrim, yet another moon, a bunch of birds sailing after it-yes, birds are flying in outer space-then a bride floating across the stage without comment from anyone below while the gold-liveried porter and tall mime stand at attention, not looking at Céline. It is a curious moment of modesty, and hence the least believable moment of the whole evening. I nearly expect an iceberg to appear and smash into her, but the song is over and an ovation has risen. An elderly lady two rows up frets, gazes around fearfully, finds a cane and makes it to her bad feet as if she has followed a direct order. Mom, forgive me-I am sitting on my hands and ready to go home.
Picture a world in which Céline Dion remained a saloon singer in urban Montreal. Imagine that her tremendous, a-star-is-born voice brought her nothing but local respect; chorus work in tours passing through town; appearances at charity events, Christmas pageants, parades. Perhaps this Céline released an album in France that did better than expected, but not enough to inspire faith in her record company to warrant another. Her husband succumbed to gambling debts. She divorced him and wrote her own songs, solo piano things, some of which weren't bad. Her style, defiant and competitive, never caught on with the general public. A few devoted fans now speak of her with mild grief, feeling her poverty, wondering how soon after she died the culture would forsake her as an unsuccessful artist, or (as sometimes happens) search her out.
Not easy to picture, I know. Imagining this would require removing nearly all of the brash and ruthless noise that compels culture to become a marketplace, singers to become commodities and competition to somehow be a natural part of being entertained. What is easier to imagine, for me, is a time years from now, when my resistance has worn down to pleasant memories and "My Heart Will Go On" is regarded as something of a classic. The reign of kitsch will have emptied itself, its proponents exhausted at having to hold tense, contradictory opinions in the same space for so long. Las Vegas will have become a premier American city, gated and lush, seven million strong, a frenetic dispenser not only of tremendous capital and political influence but also of cultural consequence. The Colosseum will have been renamed in honor of Céline and I, an old man, will bring my grandchildren to the site and tell them a rambling story about seeing her at the height of her fame. What was it like? Sadly, it is like trying to recall a conversation that took place in a stadium full of screaming. The children look at me like I used to look at Mom. The palm trees are now nearly falling over. I am humming one of Céline's pop tunes and wondering where the accompanying visuals are, having reached the age of seventy, having wised up at last.