In the early 1990s, Canadian pop music gave questioning queer girls an icon who performed what they couldn’t yet express: angsty, apprehensive subtexts about the wrong kind of love sometimes being so, so right sung by a diva in is-she-or-isn’t-she pantsuits and short, sensible dark hair.
And then it gave them kd lang as well.
Before Titanic, before the backwards tuxedo, and before the Instagram videos and red-carpet triumphs that left Buzzfeed calling Celine Dion “the number one supermodel in the world,” Celine’s early 90s remarkably often had more in common with 20th-century lesbian aesthetics than her haute-couture camp today.
Flip popular culture’s buried queer aesthetic codes on to the surface, and many of Celine’s hesitant, regretful ballads sound approximately as gay as a glance over the glove counter of a New York department store.
But pre-Tumblr and pre-Livejournal, when most young lesbians and bi women were puzzling out queer aesthetic traditions on their own, queer and maybe-kinda-genderqueer teens could take years to understand — far less accept — why they identified with the lyrics and looks they did.
Which is why my several sublimated, self-destructive years before accepting I was queer began in 1994, when I was 12, wearing out a Celine Dion cassette that contained a track genuinely called “Refuse To Dance.”
It took three more years, some of the 1990s most accidentally lesbian pop songs, and certainly some of the 1990s most accidentally lesbian outfits, to understand what I’d been projecting into them — and even longer to understand how queer-coded they already were.
Refuse To Dance (1993)
This drama of evading compulsory heteronormativity and patriarchal relations could even have let me hear asexual representation before I knew what that was, never mind just queer. And had about as much femmephobia to work through as I did.
“See the cuties in their party clothes, it’s getting warm / Off the shoulder, cut into the hip, like a uniform” is a lot of attention given to other women and their outfits at a dance you didn’t even want to go to.
Any Other Way (1990)
Before The Colour Of My Love broke through in 1993, there was Celine Dion’s first English-language album, Unison.
Released in 1990, two years after Celine won Eurovision for Switzerland, Unison is the accidentally queer synthpop-soul album the decade didn’t know it had, where every song title could belong to a good Catholic girl in Québec City wondering why she can’t stop thinking about that cute biker chick.
Unison‘s glaringly ambiguous titles included “Where Does My Heart Beat Now?,” “If Love Is Out The Question,” “The Last To Know,” and this.
The aesthetics of queer women’s desire so often depend on women’s fleeting gazes, communicating exactly how much they don’t dare say.
Early 90s music videos, with their tentative, soft-focus glances to camera — putting the viewer where the other character should be — could have been designed for lesbian readings. (Sometimes they were.)
- There’s a deep secret she hasn’t admitted until now.
- Which she accepts was obvious all along.
- Those flyers must have at least three lesbian-flatshare ads.
- Who tucks a leather jacket into high-waisted jeans except as a disastrous novice-lesbian fashion experiment?
- And how sapphic is a pink scallop-shell chair?
…not as sapphic as 1920s Paris.
Je sais pas (1995)
The Colour Of My Love phenomenon saw Celine’s next album, the French-language D’eux, released to English-language markets in 1995, even if the US version called it The French Album. (D’eux was her tenth.)
A French-speaking neighbour who’d patiently listened to me fumbling irregular verbs and talking about Celine Dion ever since “The Power Of Love” first came on TV kindly brought D’eux back from a trip to France: now, there was more than one language for singing about not knowing what to do about attraction while frowning and turning dramatically away from sight.
I wouldn’t see this video for years. Set in a late 20s smoking-room, styled like an early 30s weepie, it consists entirely of Celine gazing at the camera looking confused, tired, upset, angry, determined, and all those other things you look when your movie-director girlfriend is leaving you for the choreographer she met at Alla Nazimova’s sewing-circle on Sunset Boulevard.
There are finger-waves and tuxedo jackets. There are satin shirts. A few months ago, I bought a book called Fashioning Sapphism about interwar Paris, and almost everyone in it looked like this.
Think Twice (1994)
After “The Power Of Love” (with such unreconstructed gender politics I blamed them, with fannish loyalty, on Jennifer Rush), “Think Twice” was the second UK single that confirmed Celine as a star.
Don’t ask how her boyfriend keeps his ice-sculptures frozen in a climate bathing their (constant) arguments with sunlight. Just admire their shared commitment to mid-length layered bobs and stonewashed denim.
I bought the only denim shirt I’ve ever owned in 1995.
River Deep, Mountain High (1996)
If Rachel Maddow ever hits Dinah Shore karaoke in a three-quarter-length leather coat and leather pants, it will look like every performance on this live album.
Every lesbian always knows a couple like this: “We stick together, we’re never apart / Everybody knows who we are / Cause we are one, we do it in unison.”
(Say the cute biker chick talked her round, and then they moved to Montréal. The biker chick takes Women’s Studies at UQAM. They have two cats.)
My Heart Will Go On (1997)
Let’s Talk About Love, the album containing the Titanic theme, famously inspired music critic Carl Taylor’s on-point book about sentimentality and the cultural politics of taste.
What really embeds this song further into lesbian and queer counter-history, though, is Leo.
Doubling as Titanic‘s highlight reel, this video contained at least as much Kate and Leo as it did — WILL SOMEBODY TURN THAT DAMN WIND MACHINE OFF.
Anyone who identified with white celebrities as a queer woman in the 90s quite possibly:
- Knew Leo pinged something to do with attraction, but not because he was a guy
- Wanted to look like Leo and didn’t know why
- Wanted to look like Leo and did know why
- Couldn’t explain yet how they could like Leo and Kate, when everything said you had to pick one
- Could hardly watch Leo, because too many girls looked like that too, and thinking about them would mean you were a lesbian
- Still said — or, at least, I still said — they were just really impressed by how well other girls looked like Celine Dion
Les derniers seront les premiers (1995)
“The last will be first,” goes another track from D’eux, “in another reality, and we will all be princes of eternity,” especially those of us who are women gazing theatrically into the distance while wearing apparently the top of a leather jacket over a pinstripe waistcoat, plus a haircut that should almost certainly belong to Kristen Stewart.
Tell Him (1997)
Let’s Talk About Love‘s first single confesses, “I’m scared… so afraid to show I care…” to the Queer Den Mother herself, Barbra Streisand.
See through the pronoun. Queer women growing up back then usually had to.
The Power Of Love (1994)
“Cause I’m your lady… and you are my man… Sometimes I am frightened but I’m ready to learn of the power of love,” made all the smart feminists around me wince if I explained this was who I listened to (and watched) non-stop. This is Westeros level patriarchy. I blame Jennifer Rush.
…or did, until a friend last winter mentioned certain infrequent whispers.
Which led to thinking, “Say she thinks she’s a lesbian, but now she’s met this guy, and how can she like a man?, but trusting him feels right — so then she’d mark the gender difference because she’s realising she’s bi”… and somehow, that maybe even queers “The Power Of Love.”
I think this was Celine’s first performance I saw on television, and MILITARY BUTTONS.
Only One Road (1995)
Do we need an unmistakeable and resolute coming-out song? I think we need an unmistakeable and resolute coming-out song — with lots of eyeliner and slicked-down hair.
Most of this video, being the 1990s, is literally set along a road.
Love Doesn’t Ask Why (1993)
Every line in this Colour Of My Love album track is a thought that, pre-queer-internet, you had to either ruminate over through years of confusion or ask Barbra Streisand…
Treat Her Like A Lady (1999)
…while buried on Let’s Talk About Love is this duet with (and originally by) lesbian reggae warrior Diana King, Jamaica’s first openly queer musician.
Although it took an ableist rhyme, Diana and Celine could have convinced us that treating her like a lady also makes a good girl crazy.
But that was the end of the decade, while…
I Feel Too Much (1990)
…growing up queer in the 90s meant repeating this song title most days.
90s lesbians were more visible than ever: on the cover of Vanity Fair; in blockbuster novels’ tragic, chaotic support roles; in psychodrama thrillers, which taught us one of the most threatening things a woman could do to another was want to wear the same clothes. Only one of those places might have persuaded people lesbian attraction wasn’t a one-way route to obsession, death, murder, or ruin. And most of us weren’t going to be in Vanity Fair.
Straight liberals were just starting to toy, magnanimously, with tolerating lesbians: “What Are The Limits Of Tolerance?” asked Newsweek’s lesbian cover-story in 1993.
But when it came to lesbians’ actual desires, women’s sexuality was still women’s sexuality, threatening even — or especially — when it wasn’t directed towards men.
We needed: relationships education that saw and heard queerness, (a)sexuality, and gender variance.
We got: nothing between Single White Female and this.
And then, sometimes, we found…
Le blues du businessman (1991)
“I always wanted to be a singer… an artist… an author,” Celine sang on Dion chante Plamondon, her album of a famous French-Canadian songwriter’s standards, in 1991.
What she said she wanted to be, I knew just enough French to understand, were all the nouns’ masculine forms, originally sung by a regretful billionaire in the cult French rock-opera Starmania.
(He lives on top of a skyscraper. He gets bored. He becomes world president. Let’s not talk about that part. This premiered in 1979.)
Their last line, explaining their aspirations, is queer representation’s cri du coeur: “so I could say why I exist.”
Today, Wikipedia tells us all about Starmania down to another character being “a young androgynous and mythomaniac record-dealer” named Ziggy. In 1996, my side of the English Channel, “Le blues du businessman” was simply Celine Dion in masculine linguistic drag, black leather and a butched-out pompadour, lit up like Freddie Mercury on a Paris stage, bragging about all her affairs and how often she changes her secretary.
I hope Francophones are kinging it up with this song every week.
(Dion chante Plamondon also has a track called “Ziggy,” subtitled: “Not Like The Other Boys.”)
If you were masculine-of-centre and queer, this is the essence of what you probably wanted to blurt out in French class.
Pour que tu m’aimes encore (1995)
I might as well have blurted this song out in French class.
I may very well have found new explanations for everything these songs made me think of, every time the last explanation came too close to seeming gay, until it felt easier to become the “too much” queers were destined to be.
I may very well have needed Barbra Streisand. I may very well have needed to know awkward, closeted lesbians were moving in already with biker chicks and their multiple cats, and Alla Nazimova had her sewing-circle when my grandmother was born. I may well have needed to know that one day there would be Rachel Maddow and there was already Dinah Shore; that this song’s sorcerous second half and America’s new teenage-witch fantasies could combine into one reclaimed tradition; that one day there would be Lena Waithe and Ruby Rose, celesbians, Laverne Cox, and Janelle Monae; that there’d start to be weddings, for those needing them, with Mary Lambert refrains; that a website like Autostraddle could frame the intermingling of fashion and attraction as a shared queer experience by advising them how to dress like Jodie Whittaker, Kat Sandoval or even Leo; and one day there’d have been Kristen Stewart and Alicia Cargile.
I only really needed to know why I couldn’t stop watching when Celine glances directly at you, turns away, pushes back her hair, strokes her neck downwards, promises she doesn’t know how to play games, and says she isn’t like other women.
I may very well have needed to know that four years before I even noticed Celine Dion…
Love By Another Name (1990)
…some women would have cast each other knowing looks instantly on hearing this synthpop number with its robot voice, “It’s still the same old love… love by another name… It doesn’t matter ’cause it’s still the same love.”
I’ve called these “accidentally” lesbian songs: but it couldn’t have been accidental in 1990 — amid a new, grief-fuelled queer activism — for songwriters to have Celine call love by another name “the same old love.”
I only really needed to learn how to look where the fashion was pointing, and hear how we already used to say why we exist.
edited by yvonne.