Global Pop Dominatrix
Already, Shania Twain has the sixth-best-selling album in history. With the release of "Up!", can she beat Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and the Eagles in the battle for world pop supremacy?
After dark, with the temperature fit only for polar bears and Canadians, Shania Twain climbs onto a stage. The following day, she'll be surrounded by hundreds of dancers and tens of thousands of spectators, but tonight it's just empty seats, some stagehands and her band, trying to ignore the thick layer of ice on their instruments as they mime her latest hit single.
Tomorrow the Canadian Football League will be playing the Grey Cup, its championship, in this stadium in Edmonton, Alberta. Twain, the star of the halftime show, runs gamely through a two-song set of country-flavored pop music, wearing faded bell- bottom jeans, a maroon baseball cap and, most important, a white down jacket. As she lip-syncs to "I'm Gonna Getcha Good!," she does a pogo dance -- mostly to keep warm, it seems.
Inside the stadium lobby, a production assistant mans the telephone, speaking in the urgent tones of a military commandant: "I'm calling from Commonwealth Stadium to order a burrito for Shania Twain. It's a bean-and-cheese burrito with nothing else inside. Salsa, guacamole and sour cream on the side. We'll send someone over now." They make your burrito a little faster when your last record sold 34 million copies worldwide, the most ever by a female artist. In the United States, that album, Come On Over, sold 19 million, tying it with AC/DC's Back in Black and the Beatles' White Album for sixth place on the all-time chart. The thirty-seven-year-old Twain has many pop-star assets: a sweet voice, good looks, a gift for melody and lyrical sass, and a compelling rags-to-riches biography. (Born Eileen Regina Edwards, she grew up poor in rural Timmins, Ontario. When she was twenty-two, her parents died in a car crash and she had to take care of her younger siblings.) As is so often the case, the public image and the private person don't match. Although Twain is famous for bringing sexy, midriff-baring outfits to country music, she has said that she is not really a sexual person. And although her lyrics depict a spontaneous, fun-loving gal, she's focused on her career with total tunnel vision. She married a fellow workaholic, producer Robert John "Mutt" Lange, who introduced her to the ascetic spiritual path of Sant Mat: vegetarianism, no alcohol, lots of meditation.
In person, Twain is polite but brisk. Whether she's glad-handing retailers, doing interviews or making music, Twain is relentless, filling every minute of the workday, with barely a moment to relax. Her younger sister Carrie-Ann Brown says, "She's a perfectionist and always has been." Her brother Darryl has put it less kindly, calling her "a robot." Asked to describe herself, the first word Twain chooses is "impatient." When new security guards are hired for her, they're warned to be swift: As soon as the car stops, she's halfway down the block before anybody else has left the vehicle. "I calculate things quickly, and I tend to be ahead of everybody," she says. "I just wish people could read my mind a lot of the time." She sighs. "It's not a great quality."
The music Twain and Lange write and make together is as finely tooled as a Rolex, with every drumbeat and backing vocal perfectly in place. Twain's fourth record, Up! (her third with Lange), is a testament to their ceaseless toil. Each of its nineteen tracks was recorded in two versions: one with banjos and fiddles for country fans (the "green" mix) and a synth-heavy pop version (the "red" mix), both included in one jewel box. Partially, this reflects Twain's sensibilities: She grew up listening to pop radio, dreaming of being Stevie Wonder's backup singer and loving Supertramp as much as Dolly Parton. It also indicates how huge she's become worldwide: There were actually two versions of 1997's Come On Over, although the de-Nashville-ized "international" version wasn't sold in the States until several of its mixes became pop hits. It's also a canny way to make a pop record without a backlash from her country fans. "Country artists have resisted putting out remixes of the same song," points out Lon Helton, host of the Country Countdown USA radio show. "But it's harder for country radio to generate as much mass appeal as it used to." Many country stations are now expected to bring in women forty years and older, instead of men and women from twenty-five to fifty-four -- which means that country is gradually sounding more like adult-contemporary.
There's even a third version, a "blue" Bollywood remix, produced in Mumbai, India, with lots of sitar and tabla: It's fun for a few songs but hurts your brain after seventy-three minutes. (The blue record replaces the green one in Asia and Europe; American fans can download a few blue tracks from Twain's Web site.) "It's a rhythm record," Twain says of the blue disc, noting that her favorite version of the ballad "When You Kiss Me" is the blue mix. "It's so unfair to categorize songs," she protests, in a way that makes you feel like she's talking about herself. "You don't know what that song's capable of."
Some things you might want to know about Up!: Fully forty-seven percent of the songs have exclamation points in the title. The song that sounds the most like Def Leppard, in a contest with close competition, is "Nah!" The record's hookier than a fishing-supply store. It piles vocal hooks on top of guitar hooks on top of bass hooks -- with some keyboard hooks thrown in for good measure. The viewpoint of most of the songs is that of a feisty, independent woman with a tender side -- a girl who wants to hose her man down when he ogles someone else in a restaurant ("Waiter! Bring Me Water!"), who presses on despite a bad day when she forgets to gas up the tank ("Up!") and who's sexually forthright ("I'm Not in the Mood [To Say No]!"). It's a fun-loving persona that doesn't have much to do with Twain herself. The songs that reflect Twain's real emotions: She puts those away in a box and sometimes doesn't even let Lange listen to them. "They're musical thoughts or musical emotions," she says. "Sometimes it's even gibberish." Lange and Twain often bring half-finished songs to each other, but she ends up writing most of the lyrics and melodies.
"The only credit I take for anything is that I work very hard," Twain says. "Mutt does, too. I think I'm capable of doing a lot more -- I don't even think what I do is my best. But I don't want to make light of it, because the fans like it. I do music that I think can do best on a commercial level." So why not put out her best and see what happens? She grimaces at the suggestion. "I don't have confidence in what I think is my best. Maybe my artistic best wouldn't be considered valid commercially. But I'm not looking for recognition on it. I don't even really care if anybody ever hears it."
Shania twain is yelling. "Good! Good! Good! Go back around! They're not going to get anything! All right! It's all yours! Whoooo!" An hour after the Grey Cup rehearsal ends, the Edmonton Oilers are playing the Detroit Red Wings on the other side of town, and while the Oilers try to score on a power play, Twain hangs on the railing of the skybox, oblivious to the twenty other people milling around behind her. "Who was he passing to?" she complains, and sits back down, continuing to eat from a huge bowl of popcorn she keeps in her lap. "It's changed a lot since I was a kid," she says. "They used not to wear helmets, and there was more fighting, always some blood. But there's still enough action." Twain never played hockey herself -- she preferred to ride horses. She helped a friend who worked at a stable and got to ride in return. She now owns five horses: Chief, Shadow, Slick, Queenie and Tango. A couple of years ago, Twain went to Portugal for two weeks to learn to play "horseball," a cross between rugby and basketball on horseback. It's popular in Europe; Twain says France has more than 700 teams. "From what the Portuguese explained to me, it's an old Asian game that they used to play with heads," she says cheerfully. "One of those barbaric games with body parts. It's very hard -- you have to stand up in the stirrups at all times. To pick up the ball, you have to be upside-down and hold on with one leg while the horse is running."
(Excerpted from Rolling Stone, February 6, 2003)