Grammys flashback: How Celine Dion’s ‘Falling Into You’ upset ‘Waiting to Exhale’ in 1997

If you’ve lurked on the internet in recent months, you might’ve noticed Celine Dion’s name more often than usual. First was the singer’s saddening news about an illness she’s been facing. Second was the discourse around Rolling Stone’s Greatest Vocalists of All Time list, which weirdly omitted Dion. Dion’s exclusion left many angry at the publication, especially given how storied her career has been. Throughout the decades, she has cemented herself as one of the biggest voices of her generation and has earned countless accolades. Perhaps the biggest of those was her Grammy win for Album of the Year in 1997 for her classic record “Falling into You.”

Calling “Falling into You” a classic is not an exaggeration. Before the album Dion had reached the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 a couple of times, but she hadn’t yet solidified her iconic pop status. That changed with “Falling into You.” It launched multiple big hits throughout ‘96 and ‘97, including the top-five singles “All By Myself,” “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now,” and the Oscar-nominated “Because You Loved Me” from “Up Close and Personal.” The songs helped the Canadian star reach massive heights in the United States and in the industry.

While the album’s success propelled Dion into the Grammy conversation, not everyone expected her to go all the way. “Falling Into You” wasn’t as acclaimed as its rivals, and the Grammys seemed to have moved past awarding big vocalists, leaning more towards musicians’ musicians with greater focus on live instrumentation and quality rather than just vocal power. Wins for albums like Alanis Morissette‘s “Jagged Little Pill” and Quincy Jones‘s “Back on the Block” also showed that voters were probably more in tune with songwriter-producers, which Dion isn’t. And Eric Clapton’s and Tony Bennett’s wins for their “Unplugged” records in that same decade might’ve indicated that voters were also fans of more stripped-down music. Of Dion’s more sentimental power-ballad approach, J.D. Considine of the Baltimore Sun wrote, “Dion’s big-voiced performance seems a tad too old-fashioned” and that “will likely work against it this year.”

The Album of the Year race also included some tough opponents. Beck’s “Odelay” was one of the most acclaimed albums of the year, and Beck was a star on the rise in the industry who fit the mold of a singer-songwriter/producer; it was predicted to win by some. Another major contender was the “Waiting to Exhale” soundtrack, mainly off its star power. The album was a huge commercial hit, topping the Billboard 200 for multiple weeks and launching five top 10 hits, including two number ones. For many, like the LA Times, it was the expected winner, especially with artists like Babyface and Whitney Houston, both Grammy favorites, being key players in the album’s success. However, it might’ve split some votes with “The Score,” the acclaimed album by The Fugees. It was also a big seller, but it likely took a lot of the R&B and rap votes that “Waiting to Exhale” needed to succeed. And the nomination for “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” by The Smashing Pumpkins, one of the most acclaimed alternative albums of the year, definitely caused a split with Beck.

So in the end, Dion’s win was a mixture of commercial and cultural success and some good ol’ vote-splitting between the other nominees. That said, it was no less deserved. “Falling into You” has become one of the most influential pop releases in modern history, inspiring myriad artists, giving power ballads a another run at the charts, and cementing Dion as a household name. And I’m sure Dion puts more weight into that than some Rolling Stone list anyways.

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