It’s All Coming Back to Me Now: Music, Memory and Celine Dion

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In May, Celine Dion announced that she will be unable to perform at any of her upcoming shows for the 2023 World Tour. She has been battling a diagnosis of Stiff Person Syndrome – a neurological condition where severe muscle spasms trigger pain and impair mobility. Even in chronic pain, she summoned the grace to apologize to her fans for disappointing them while promising to get better and stronger. 

Seeing Celine perform in Vegas has been on my bucket list for long and so the selfish, demanding fan in me feels robbed of something that was never going to be hers anyway. I will never witness the brilliant Celine on stage, clad in a glittering pant suit, swaying her muscled arms about in fits of passion, arching her upper body backwards with such agility, you’re sure she’s going to fall but she doesn’t, she never does as she belts those trademark high and low notes. Her music was an essential part of the soundtrack to my adolescence; it nourished me with daydreams of love, romance, and the kind of heartbreak that looks good. At the time, I wasn’t lost, but like most girls my age, was looking for answers in places that couldn’t hurt us. 

This Celine phase began at the age of twelve. I was turning thirteen soon; books and music related to romantic love clouded my hormone addled brain and body. We had a massive JVC 6-CD player in the living room and amongst the four of us, managed to stake claim to a slot each, with two to spare. I still bought cassettes because listening to my Walkman was a private experience. 

When my father took us on our monthly visit to the audio and video store, I grabbed Celine’s cassette album ‘Falling Into You’ – the cover depicted her sporting short, burgundy hair, wearing a white crop top and jeans, bearing just a little midriff. For a fortnight, I listened to it on loop, till I knew all the lyrics. Her voice transported me to a gauzy realm of candles and roses.

Celine’s songs, not just from this album, became special to me. I dedicated ‘Because You Loved Me’ to my best friend via a music show that accepted requests. The lyrics ‘I see us inside of each other from ‘Falling Into You’ made me blush and think of all the great sex I was hoping to have someday. I belted ‘Where Does My Heart Best Now’ after my shower, all teenage inhibitions shed in the confines of my own room. Each time Celine got to the iconic bit ‘You’re here… there’s nothing I fear,’ I swelled with goosebumps, imagining finding a naive, handsome Jack for myself, sans the freezing to death and sinking. 

My obsession, although transient, would make its lasting impact. Twenty-five years later, I still recall the words and feeling of being a lovestruck – with no one in particular but love itself – teenage girl.

I can’t remember the last song I committed to – really took the effort to pay attention to and master the words. It seems that music has become something bigger now, where I am thinking about what it means, the political correctness of artists, their ideals and fashion statements. I listen, analyze, enjoy, and move on. Because there is apparently so much more to see, read, hear now: the three monkeys in my head are always busy. Somewhere, the music is getting drowned by noise. When I was thirteen, I never cared about the implications of a barely adult Celine dating and marrying her manager, over two decades older than her or about the rumours of her having an eating disorder. I simply loved her music for what it meant to me.

There appears to be a science behind my attachment to Celine, as neuroscientists call it the reminiscence bump – the phenomenon of our strongest memories formed in the period between adolescence and early 20s. These experiences and influences literally stay with us for life. Celine’s music and words have become a part of my autobiographical memories. This intense correlation between music and memory is shown in neuroimaging studies where the brain’s visual cortex lights up when we hear tunes from our past. Funnily enough: It’s all coming back to me now.

There is comfort in knowing that even amidst the days when I spend far too much time searching for keys, glasses, mobile phone, and important notebooks, there is a stack of music and memories tucked away safely in my mind, retrievable with little effort.

If I heard Celine’s music today for the first time, I am unsure if I would like it as much as I did back then. My taste in music, along with the definition of what I find meaningful in songs and musicians, has evolved. Now when I listen to a love song, I am searching for nuance and truth, scraping the surface of melody and voice for the ache that reflects the reality of my own encounters with falling (and staying) in love. Celine told me only one part of the story and now that I know better, I seek pieces of the whole truth to create a new, ever-changing soundtrack.

The word ‘nostalgia’ is derived from the Greek words ‘return’ and ‘pain’. Celine makes me nostalgic: her music fills me with longing for my youth, the faded belief that finding and falling in love is a straightforward affair, a time when life revolved around friends and playlists. And then there’s the more selfish thought – Celine’s ageing and slow disappearance from the scene is a reminder of my own mortality. The wish to someday see Celine perform live must be discarded along with my rose-tinted glasses.

As we age, acquire hurt and wisdom, the songs of our past serve as both haunting ghosts and time machines. Is it possible to escape this feeling that everything was simpler and better once? Was it truly better or do our memories trick us? Even if I am being fooled, it doesn’t matter if I can find refuge in the archives of my temporal lobe. A song, feeling, daydream – all compounded into iridescent memories. 

For such respite, my heart will always go on for Celine Dion.

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Sangeetha Bhaskaran

Sangeetha is a writer, mother, birdwatcher, always learning. She is a blahcksheep that can fit in and stand out where it matters. Her fiction and non-fiction works have been published in Out of Print, Kitaab, Arre, Himal Southasian, Livewire and Women’s Web. She lives in Dubai and Bengaluru. You can follow her on Instagram @simple_sangee_writes 


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