The Shania Shuffle
On the surface, there was nothing terribly revealing about Shania Twain's final trip to the podium in September at the Canadian Country Music Awards in Calgary.
She won, she wept. Again.
But for those watching closely, there was something more than patriotic pride in the Timmins, Ont., superstar's grateful tears. For a few fleeting moments, Twain was overcome with a kind of anguish as she tried in halting words to explain what it's like to undergo such an intense bout of fame.
Then, quickly realizing this was no place for Workaholics Anonymous-style confessions, Twain steeled herself, blurting out some generous thoughts about Canada before bidding a hasty retreat.
Three months later, in a cellphone interview from her tour bus in Little Rock, Ark., Twain confirms our suspicions. After four ambitious, exhaustive years of career-building, that onstage moment in Calgary was our first real glimpse at the vulnerablly stressed singer behind the bouncing belly-button image.
Stress by choice, mind you. If a new threshold of pressure has come this year with her broadening beyond country to find favor with the mainstream pop masses, it's entirely by design. And though twain has always carefully bottled up her laurels for future reflection, she admits the genie jumped out on stage that night in Calgary. She wasn't expecting it.
"That night... it was like a big exhale. It's like I'd spent all these years building up to this peak and that was the first moment I felt like I could allow myself to relax and let it our a little bit. It really hit me." Since then, business as usual, with Shania ticking off date after date on a sell-out tour likely to continue through next June. This telephone interview, in fact, is among a handful she's doing to help direct eyeballs toward Sunday's CBC broadcast of Shania Live. Airing at 9, the one-hour special of almost continuous hit songs is culled from a Dallas concert that was aired live on US pay-per-view in September.
Whatever else she may be, Twain is no prima donna. She will dutifully fulfill all work that presents itself as her management team - Jon Landau, who steered Bruce Springsteen to iconic renown, now presents her - continues to exploit her increasingly uncountry image internationally.
"This tour is long, really, really long," she sighs. "I'm happy to do that, but when it's over I'm going to take - I wouldn't call it a sabbatical - but I'm really going to slow down and relax."
With sales approaching 20 million for her two albums, 1995's The Woman In Me, and the presciently titled crossover brakthrough Come On Over, Twain is operating on the healthy assumption her peak, if it hasn't yet arrived, is inevitable.
"I know my career will quiet down and I'm looking forward to it very much," she laughs. "Everything peaks. I'm not going to fight it."
"That's why I'm allowing myself to be overworked now. I don't want to be one of those people who regrets it later and says 'hey, I missed all these opportunities because I was too busy celebrating my success.' I want to do as much as I possibly can while I have the chance. There will be lots of time later to look back on it and reflect."
That reflection will happen in Switzerland, where Twain and her husband, producer Robert "Mutt" Lange, are seeking refuge from North America's particular brand of celebrity obsession. The overseas relocation means saying goodbye to their 20-quare-mile estate new lake Placid, New York, which apparently wasn't expansive enough to insulate the couple from the heat of fame.
"We loved it there, but Lake Placid isn't an option right now, nor is any other place in the US or Canada. Mutt and I have been getting little breaks in Switzerland, and it's been great. Small country but many different cultures, amazing history, clean air. And it's very low key. Many famous people who live there just blend in. Nobody makes a big fuss about it.
For now, Switzerland will be a studio lab for Twain and Lange. later, they plan to build a permanent residence. Meanwhile, Twain is intent on keeping a small house in Florida and soon she'll be shopping for waterfront property near Huntsville as a Canadian home.
"I don't want to become a hermit. It feels too long since I've had a real connection to Ontario, so having a cottage where I can be with my family, it's a treat, my bonus to myself," she says.
It's surprising, in fact, how tenacious twain remains in her support for Canadian music, particlularly in light of the fact that her career breaks have come exclusively on the American side of the border. She maintains that if Cancon had no direct bearing on her success, a Canadian approach to music certainly did.
"I thank Canada for the fact that my music is original enough to have its own place, so much so that it doesn't really fit anywhere. It just doesn't really fit anywhere. It just doesn't fir totally in country or pop. And doesn't that make me very Canadian? Because that's what happens to all of us - Anne Murray, Blue Rodeo, Susan Aglukark, The Rankins, Leahy.
"Joni Mitchell, fallin between folk and pop, is another good example. What is she? We all somehow connect to a tradition that doesn't quite square with America's musical categories. it makes us different."
Twain, of course, has something else that sets her apart: a marketing plan withour rival. With remarkably produced songs like "You're Still the One" come a remarkably produced array of images - videos, magazine covers, lots of television hits - that maximize her remarkable bodily charms. The voice is good, though less than remarkable, but such trifling details are of no concern to a growing audience seduced by the whole package.
She is the girl next door, if you happen to live next door to Baywatch. And millions want to be her neighbour.
Twain makes no apologies for her use of image, despite fairly harsh and occasional vivid criticism. Three years ago, for examle, I choked on a coffee during an interview with singer/songwriter Steven Earle when he came up with this spontaneous pronouncement on Twain: "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure it out. She's America's best-paid lap-dancer."
That particular quote had an afterlife, making it into a number of year-end lists. Last year a European publisher borrowed it for an anthology title Steve Earle in Quotes.
And yes, Twain herself heard about it.
"Some people can't figure out or duplicate our success and they get bitter about it," she says.
"But I have to take it in good humour. I'm not about to say anything nasty back to Steve Earle. It's just really cheap for artists to criticise other artists. I know Steve makes fun of himself and his own trouble, but that's not an excuse for what he says about other people.
"But as far as the criticism of my use of image," Twain continues, "the irony is that my record company begged me not to make videos when we first released The Woman In Me.
"They felt it was a waste of money because very few country fans watch Country Music Television. It really doesn't have a big impact on record sales. But I insisted on it because doing all these things together is something I enjoy. I like creating the image, I like creating the music.
"I like being young and energetic. And I really want to have a visual representation of these songs. Because that way, when I'm 60 years old I can laugh as I look back and remember when I had a flat stomach."
by Mitch Potter, StarWeek (Toronto Star), Dec. 5-12/98 issue, cover feature