It’s the year 2017. You’re in the car, listening to the radio. The opening notes of “My Heart Will Go On” start to play. You:
(a) Scramble to change the station, turn down the volume or throw yourself out of the vehicle, because you would rather be a passenger on a doomed cruise ship than hear that gentle flute again.
(b) Crank up the volume and grab a fake microphone, because it’s your time to shine: “Near … far … whereEVER you are … I believe that the heart does go on …”
Even though some people (ahem) will happily admit to the second choice, it’s understandable that others can’t bear to hear the Céline Dion hit even one more time. The ubiquitous power ballad, better known as the “Titanic” theme song, has become a bit of a pop culture punchline since the record-shattering film’s release 20 years ago. With all the mockery (even Kate Winslet has said that hearing the song makes her feel like throwing up), it’s easy to overlook the iconic track’s unbelievably massive success.
First, the numbers: The single sold 1.7 million copies on its own and propelled Dion’s “Let’s Talk About Love” and the “Titanic: Music From the Motion Picture” soundtrack to each sell tens of millions of albums worldwide. The ballad, written by Will Jennings and James Horner, also won record of the year and song of the year at the 1999 Grammy Awards, in addition to best original song at the Oscars.
Plus, it played on the radio. Constantly.
“It was one of those records that just wouldn’t die,” said John Ivey, president of contemporary hits radio programming strategy for iHeartMedia.
When the song came out in 1997, Ivey was the program director at Kiss 108 in Boston, a Top 40 station. He remembers the phone lines blowing up with moviegoers requesting the song.
“I think it was a combination of the perfect artist in Céline – who sings it so powerfully, and her popularity was at a great peak anyway – and then the movie being on fire,” he said. “I don’t know we’ve seen much like it since.”
According to Billboard magazine’s oral history of “My Heart Will Go On,” the studio hoped to incorporate a hit song into the film for marketing purposes. Except “Titanic” director James Cameron was reluctant to have a ballad roll over the end credits. Dion also wasn’t thrilled about recording yet another movie song – especially when she already had so many, from “Beauty and the Beast” in 1991 to “Because You Loved Me” in 1996, which was on the “Up Close and Personal” soundtrack.
But after it was released, everyone was taken aback at the impact. “Titanic” co-star Billy Zane told Billboard about the weepy scene when the song played at the movie’s premiere.
“The most stoic and stalwart pillars of the industry … they were beside themselves,” Zane said. “When she hits the high note in ‘Near, far, wherever you are’ – bam! The floodgates open.”
News publications at the time marveled at the song’s sales, even as they also poked fun at the cheesiness factor. The Washington Post called it a tune that “starts off with Enya-like tenderness and Celtic melancholy before colliding with the iceberg of overproduction.”
Over the years, as with anything extremely popular, there was plenty of “My Heart Will Go On” backlash, particularly as it became overplayed. The Atlantic noted that it has been voted the most irritating song in history by the BBC, and Maxim wrote, “The second most tragic event ever to result from that fabled ocean liner continues to torment humanity years later.”
Still, that didn’t stop Dion from bringing down the house with her recent 20th anniversary performance of the song at the Billboard Music Awards in May. And it continues to be the rare hit that will be forever associated with a film that matches it in popularity.
“The interesting thing is that it’s so inextricably tied to the movie,” said Smokey Rivers, an operations manager at Scripps Radio who worked at pop stations in St. Louis when the ballad was released. “You could not use ‘My Heart Will Go On’ about something else … the song is clearly about ‘Titanic.’ They can’t be separated.”
To mark its 20th anniversary, “Titanic” is returning to select theaters for one week starting Friday.