No matter what she sings, Celine Dion makes it her own. Toward the end of her show at Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Friday night, she performed a megamix that included the ultra-recognizable likes of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust,” Prince’s “Kiss,” Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High” and “Lady Marmalade,” made famous by Labelle.
Each of these songs is a calling card for its original performer, and each had been thoroughly Dionized.
The metamorphosis involved more than singing most of the Labelle song in French — “Je suis Lady Marmalade!” — instead of just that one line everybody knows. Dion turned the medley into a sleek vehicle for herself, confidently strutting across the stage knowing she could take any hit she wants, bite a piece of it, belt it back out with a trill and a shimmy, and move on to the next one.
This could easily have been pandering, yet it somehow wasn’t. Perhaps because it reflected the overall vibe of a show — the first of a series of arena dates in New York and New Jersey, as part of Dion’s current world tour — in which the singer managed to maintain a paradoxical mix of “who, me?” humility and inexorable poise, well-rehearsed professionalism and occasional seemingly uncontrollable facial expressions and dance moves.
Dion acted as a benevolent queen, always making it sound as if audience members were the one doing her a favor — by basking in her glow. She kept encouraging us to sing along, only to drown everyone out by belting just that much better over us. And she praised and thanked the crowd profusely for letting her and her “extended family” share the evening with us, “singing about love, about hope … about courage.”
What a coincidence: That last quality is the title of both her latest album, which topped the Billboard chart last fall, and her tour. The record itself felt like an afterthought and Dion sang only two cuts from it, the pensive, fairly restrained title track and the mildly dancey “Imperfections.” The rest of the set covered her entire catalog.
Dion is not someone who thinks she is too good for her hits, so she did most of them, including “Beauty and the Beast” with the backup singer Barnev Valsaint, “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” and, of course, an encore of “My Heart Will Go On,” during which a battery of drones circled her as if she were a sorcerer in a batty science-fiction film. Sadly she skipped “I Drove All Night,” though she nodded at her fruitful French-language career with the bilingual “Tous les Blues Sont Écrits Pour Toi.” This was the kind of blues that includes scat-singing followed by some air punches, and makes you question the whole concept of authenticity — a trademark of the Dionizing process in general.
Another Dion signature is transforming vulnerability into a show of strength. Eric Carmen’s “All by Myself” is written as a wretched admission of need but Dion turns it into the exact opposite: a cry of independence. When she sang the line “Sometimes I’m frightened” from “The Power of Love,” she held up a defiantly clenched fist.
The effect could be goofy — fine, it was often goofy — but it was also irresistible because Dion has the uncanny ability to make the most rehearsed note, banter or high kick feel absolutely heartfelt. Does it matter if an emotion is real if it sounds real?
Her utter lack of self-consciousness, irrepressible good nature and delirious ad-libbing have long made Dion an eccentric outlier in the often cynical world of pop stardom. The last was, unfortunately, mostly kept under control at Barclays, save for a glorious moment when she mused that she was talking to the audience in her “dog voice” (the voice with which she speaks to her pet) and let out a bark. This restraint — a relative term for someone touring with a 17-piece band — may be the product of Dion’s decade-plus, 1,141-show Las Vegas residency, a grind that could have demanded her to tamp down her well-known ebullience in favor of a more polished efficiency.
Dion used to be mocked by the critical establishment but is now fairly accepted as a sui generis phenomenon. It’s hard to tell when the perception began to change, but a good place to start would be Carl Wilson’s 2007 book “‘Let’s Talk About Love’ — A Journey to the End of Taste,” an essay by a critic who set out to write about the singer because he despised her, only to emerge from the research process as, well, maybe not a convert but at least someone less reflexively judgmental about her music and her fans.
In the meantime, Dion herself has not changed. She may have recently emerged as a toned fashion diva, but her musical approach remains the same. No unplugged shows for her, no Bon Iver covers or dallying with avant-garde producers: David Guetta and Sia will do, thank you very much.
At her best, Dion projects a sense of bigness — besides fairly simple graphics, the background videos in her show often showed cosmic images, as if they were the only thing measuring up on the Dion scale — while still sounding accessible, like a working musician doing her best for the crowd. Yet her secret sauce is not power but precision, the way she remains in control on every single note, like a sniper locked in on a target.
The Barclays concert was a well-oiled machine, and satisfying as such, but it was hard not to miss, just a little bit, the ebullient Celine from a Madison Square Garden gig back in 2008. Maybe she should set herself an actual challenge next, and do an intimate Broadway residency à la Springsteen — with wiggle room for improv.
At Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Saturday and Thursday; NYCB Live Home of the Nassau Veterans Coliseum on Tuesday; and Prudential Center in Newark on March 7 and 8.