Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Avoiding Céline Dion: The trouble with bilingualism is you can’t always hear what you want

Due to their proximity to the U.S. border, Canadian celebrities have always had an unusual place in the star system: on their home turf, no one except their compatriots knows who they are, but the minute they cross the frontier and reap a little bit of success, not only does the American celebrity machine embrace them…it claims them as its own.

As a result, there is an extensive list of famous Canadians who have been, figuratively at least, stripped of their nationality and granted a sort of informal U.S. citizenship: Alanis Morisette, Neil Young, Mike Myers, Dan Aykroyd, Carrie Anne Moss, Keanu Reeves and Pamela Anderson, to name a few. While some have sought U.S. citizenship out-and-out (a number of years ago, actor/comedian Jim Carrey was said to have applied for it), most of these stars remain Canadian to themselves and their fans up north, and American for the rest of the world.

Living in France, this becomes extremely apparent: the majority of the celebrities that the French identify as being Canadian come from Quebec, with their Anglophone Canadian counterparts being lumped in with the Americans. Perhaps this is poetic justice: many Anglophone Canadians have little insight on the who’s who of the Quebecois celebrity circuit, partly because it doesn’t heavily target English-speaking Canada, and partly because sadly, many Anglophone Canadians couldn’t care less. Even so, this identity theft tends to ruffle Canadian feathers, and the more cynical among us have been known to observe, fairly or not, that our cousins to the south are great at claiming the best for themselves.

Except when it comes to Céline Dion.

Near, far, wherever you are, it’s made clear that this internationally renowned diva is Canadian, through and through. Even with her immense fan base, enormous success in the United States, heavy radio rotation, and soaring, (some would say) over-produced, reverberating vibrato, no one ever makes the mistake of labeling her American. Blame it on her Quebecois roots (that accent just doesn’t exist anywhere else), or the singer’s defiant emphasis on her own heritage, but to the rest of the world, Céline Dion is as Canadian as igloos, maple syrup and Labatt 50 beer (that’s Labatt cinquante for you neophytes).

This is good or bad news, depending on your taste in music, but in France, one thing is for certain: if you think you can escape hearing sappy love songs à la canadienne, you’ve got it all wrong. Here, the radio stations don’t just broadcast the artist’s English catalog…thanks to her bilingualism, Dion records a significant number of tracks en français, and there isn’t a supermarket in Paris that refuses to air these chefs-d’oeuvres.

Makes one think twice before bragging about the nationality of one of Canada’s stars.