Honky-Tonk Angel No. 638

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

The whole expression is a celebration of being a woman these days. I think we're kind of spoiled in a lot of ways, with the advantages we have. Feminists may not feel that way, but I do. It's pretty fun to be a woman these days.

--Shania Twain

Here's a two-dollar chump with a thirty-dollar style. Pity but style was marketable.

--Mark Twain

Pity but Shania Twain is not a chump. Last year when The Woman in Me, the second album by the Canadian country singer, seemed to finally be peaking out at 8 million units sold--it's since gone on to sell 2 million more, making it the third-biggest seller ever by a female artist--the American music establishment exploded in unison with one befuddled question: Uh, who's Shania Twain? No one had been looking in 1995 when the 29-year-old nobody married former AC/DC and Def Leppard producer Robert John "Mutt" Lange and co-wrote a heap of "rock hybrid" songs straight out of kitsch-heaven that today seem as if they're destined to redefine country music, possibly forever.

Today Shania's leather-clad backside and always-exposed midriff are the only things that matter in American country's nth generation. She is Nashville's newest industry, with her own trademark style and a slew of store-brand imitators. This year's mission: crossover.

Right now there are many pictures of Twain currently in circulation, via her label and through numerous "Shania galleries" on the Web: down-home Cowgirl Shania by a haystack; Freewheelin' Shania on the beach; and Playful Shania near a waterfall. There isn't a clunker in the bunch.

There is, however, one picture of her that you can't gaze upon, not if you call her Nashville record label or her Brooklyn publicist (I tried both). They are officially "out of circulation." The picture in question is a publicity still that appeared in the Journal of Country Music last year. It was taken in 1993 to accompany her rarely discussed debut Shania Twain. I call this picture Beautician Shania.

There she stands in black and white, dully facing the camera, her entire figure--midriff certainly included--demurred by a black evening gown, her hair in a post-Reba McEntire perm. Shania's lone fashion accessory: an obtrusive pair of dangling silver earrings. She is as typical of Nashville conservative feminine as the boring Music Row receptionists who now do her low-level publicity. The music she made on her first album, the 100,000-selling, no-hit-producing, mindlessly Nashvillian Shania Twain, is equally conservative. This Shania is as far from realizing the "Expression" (my capital "E") she mentions in the quote that begins this piece as Memphis, Tennessee, is from Memphis, Egypt.

Shania comes to express herself--with only the faintest echoes of Madonna--in the anthem called "Man! I Feel Like a Woman!" from her new brighter-and-larger-than-life-itself album, Come On Over. "I Feel Like a Woman!" starts with synthesizers. They come out of the speakers like steroid-engorged Olympic torchbearers. Next, a guitar. Not a steel guitar--there is little or no twang in Twain, thank you ma'am--but a rock guitar. A big, dumb, indestructible rock guitar. Then dunderhead drums. Then lips. Lips in your ears: Smooch!

And those lips--or whatever ugly gristle of muscle and chords is down below them--can sing. Imagine an alto stuffed with textbook sass: "The best thing about being a woman is the prerogative to have a little fun," they announce (with only the faintest echo of Bobby Brown). "Oh, oh, oh," they sing with more sass, salient sass. Then a big buildup. More synths. Power chord! Angus Young is in the motherfuckin' house! Then the chorus: "Go totally crazy!/Forget I'm a lady!/Men's shirts/Short skirts, Oh! Oh! Oh!" To put it simply, this is music so over-the-top accessible it could make a Sunkist commercial read like a Godard film.

The record it comes on is ferociously vapid, maddeningly singable, glowingly inauthentic, and, taken altogether--undeniable. Before the Christmas season has passed it will sell 5 million copies--which, if you're keeping score at home, is about 4.9 million more than my five favorite drum'n'bass records of 1997 combined. It will peak out at 20 million before 1998 is out. I hear at least six #1 hits.

And guess what: It's complex. And it's complex in a way most pop records don't have the guts to be these days. Unlike, say, Stereolab, Come On Over's wrinkles don't "work within" or "subvert" its sheen. They are ingrained in it; they are its sheen.

Come On Over immediately sets out to make anything pre-Garth Brooks seem pre-Micean. And so it does. There is no Kitty Wells in Shania Country's rewrite of honky-tonk angelicism, no Patsy, no Loretta, and certainly no Rosanne Cash--fuckin' hippy. Lucinda Williams? Fuckin' punk.

Here New Country's fiddles sound like AOR rock's synths; and vice versa. Twain sings a Bryan Adamsonian anthem called "Rock This Country." An insipid "Love Lift Us Up"-derived duet with wooden Nashville heartthrob Bryan White that bellows Prom Theme '98! bumps up against a beautiful "techno-Caribbean" tune that directs the listener to: "Be a winner/Be a star/Be happy with who you are."

Country Carribean? you ask. Who took the "W" out of C&W? Shania, did, cowpoke, and that's just the beginning of the contradictions. A much-publicized anti-domestic-violence anthem, "Black Eyes, Blue Tears" ("I'd rather die standin' than live on my knees"), begs to be read against the song "Whatever You Do! Don't!" ("I'm such a sucker for your eyes/They permanently paralyze"). In "Honey, I'm Home" she sings about PMS (a riot-grrl revolution by Nashville standards), and proceeds to order her hubby: "Rub my feet gimme somethin' to eat."

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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