I saw you flinch! Shania Twain, you say? Well, yes, I acknowledge the cringe factor, but let’s not forget that around 1997 Shania Twain was an unstoppable force, bringing country to the masses, and From This Moment On to TTfm and wedding chapels the world over. Come on Over sold 34 million, and established Twain as one of the world’s top artists, and a byword for dependable, no-nonsense country spirit (even though she was, umm, Canadian). But what happened next? By the time Come on Over was stomping over the globe, Shania was living a very un-country vegan life holed up in her Swiss chateau, with her hubby/producer John ‘Mutt’ Lange. We didn’t hear much for a while, but in 2002 the Shania machine was back in gear with Up! which was, arguably, music’s first ‘world album’ and, arguably, a complete disaster.
This wasn’t a world album in the sense of later-years Peter Gabriel oddity, or Readings ‘world’ section, but in the production line sense of population-specific tinkering of the same product to suit distinct markets. This was the plan: each population would receive the same ‘Pop’ disc, but in the US this would also come with a ‘Country’ disc in which the same songs were recorded according to US country tradition. In the ‘International’ markets (defined in classic US imperialist terms as everywhere not in the US), the album would come with a ‘World’ disc, in which the same songs were recorded with, wait for it, a Pop-Bollywood style. I cannot convey how hideous this disc was, which, unfortunately was lumped on the Australian market (by this point I must confess that I bought the thing back in ’02.) Just imagine the country sass of I’m Gonna Get You Good recorded with a Bollywood beat… So impossibly awful, you must listen here. Apparently this Pop-Bollywood travesty was intended to ‘crack’ the Indian market.
Not surprisingly the album did not fare well (although Wikipedia tells me it was huge in Germany). As with any lofty album strategy, people got confused: why was a country-pop artist releasing Bollywood tracks? And for a country market already suspicious of Twain’s country cred, a token trad-country disc was not enough to appease concerns triggered by her dabbling in threatening ‘World’ music (was this… ANTI-AMERICAN?? Even though she’s Canadian). While Shania had big plans of conquering the globe with a little bit of what everyone wanted (as seems so inevitable in retrospect) the results were spread too thin, and only produced one hit single (I’m Gonna Getcha Good). And Shania hasn’t really done much since, apart from a lazy Greatest Hits album.
But what of the music itself? While for the most part it’s catchy in a kitchen-sink kind of way, and produced from the same comforting formula as Come on Over, it remains very hard to connect its sketches of average-Joe American life with the Shania Twain vegan living in a Swiss chateau. Which means it all seems a bit mannered. Note the too-eager use of exclamation marks: Nah!; (Wanna Get to Know You) That Good!; Ka-Ching!; Waiter! Bring Me Water!; What a Way to Wanna Be!; Thank You Baby!; I’m Not in the Mood (to Say No!)…
In a systematic fashion, all the average Joe boxes were ticked. There was a song about a brave young mum deciding to keep her baby (‘I had a baby at 15, Daddy never did forgive me, never heard from the guy again…’), an everyday gal havin’ a bad day (‘even my skin is acting weird, I wish that I could grow a beard, then I could cover up my spots…’), and a stab at the hypocrisy of the beauty industry (‘Why be perfect, no, it’s not worth it… don’t be so obsessed’). As was pointed out in a particularly prickly interview, Shania as of course modelling for Revlon at the time.
The problem’s not so much that Shania was sketching characters – if I knew anything about the country tradition I’d assume that was part of it – but rather that the characters being sketched were a bit two dimensional. In contrast, Taylor Swift, for example, manages to put together a concept album about the schoolyard that, through its wit, detail and humour seems much fuller (although, to be fair, Taylor was barely out of school when she wrote it). But this two-dimensionality wasn’t new for Twain – Come on Over’s similarly full of faux-down-home vignettes. The difference, perhaps, is that during the Come on Over period Twain was maintaining the fiction that she was a country artist. When it came to Up! however, she was holed up in her Chateau with her eyes on India. Here’s another hideous ‘World’ version. And another. Got the point? This needs to be remembered.