Honky-Tonk Angel No. 638

Nashville's newest cover girl Shania Twain hits the showroom floor.

Shania turns the tables on country's rules for female characters. Then she hauls off and appears on the CD's liner notes wearing nothing but a cleavage-bearing evening dress made out of what looks like a dozen chamois cloths stitched to a couple feet of shag carpeting. She's soft-core porn for TNN.

The gender mishmash that comes to the fore in Shania the Phenomena is a frustrating one. In Nashville, where women are given restrictive roles to work within, Twain's leathercentric feminism both plays by the rules and busts them wide open. One writer I know (a fan) is amazed at how Twain "plays with Nashville's notions of authenticity." Another writer (a skeptic) calls her "a T&A snowjob." Both are right. Shania Twain's brilliance lies in her ability to blur the lines between the two until they are one and the same. T&A snowjob becomes liberation manifesto.

In the alt.rock hemisphere this kind of thing has been rendered meaningless. Male rock critics have beat this notion to death, mainly as a way to ameliorate their own liberalism and the fact that they serve an industry that markets women like meat. A Spin cover treatment of, say, PJ Harvey, will throw her on the cover in her undies, and wrap her up in an essay centered around a discussion of how our heroine "plays with her sexuality" as a means to subvert the rock hegemony held up by, well, magazines like Spin. Cynicism abounds. Country doesn't know this cynicism, not yet.

My favorite Shania Twain song is another much-publicized number, a sultry bar-blues tune called "If You Wanna Touch Her, Ask!" Like a number of the songs on Come On Over it speaks directly to a man: a beer drinkin', pick-up wranglin', New Country man. Or one of the 8 million versions thereof in small towns all over North America, who may or may not own her record by the time you read this.

Curdling soft-sell sexuality, Shania--nearly slithering out of her sleeveless blouse and size-6 leather pants--sings with confrontational sweetness: "You must start with her heart/If you wanna touch her/Really wanna touch her/If you wanna touch her/Ask!"

Consider this hunk of analysis from the Los Angeles Times, written by rock critic Elysa Gardner: "Talking to her, it is clear that Twain enjoys being a girl--even a babe. In contrast to singers like Fiona Apple and Sheryl Crow--who also wear provocative garb and affect come-hither poses but then act surprised or even offended when emphasis is placed on their appearance--Twain is refreshingly candid about and comfortable with the role her sex appeal plays in her public image:

'I refuse to play down the way I look in order to be taken seriously as an artist.'" What do you think about that?

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