How Shania Twain Empowered an Unlikely Group of Female Artists

How Shania Twain Empowered an Unlikely Group of Female Artists

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Thursday, 12 October 2017
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It might be a surprise to some that, 15 years after releasing her last record, Shania Twain was able to beat out Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato for the coveted spot atop the all-genre Billboard 200 with her new LP Now. To others, it was evidence that Twain’s role as rule-breaker and rule-maker in an evolving country climate hasn’t waned; and that, in the world of popular music, youth isn’t the only serviceable commodity.

But what she meant, and still symbolizes, for a new generation of artists – including Lindi Ortega, Caitlin Rose, Caroline Spence, Kalie Shorr and Michael Anne – was something different. In Twain’s era – one that bred Trisha Yearwood, Faith Hill and Reba – women weren’t an uncommon sight in the upper echelon of the country radio chart. But what was absent was a woman who was fearless when it came to lyrical content, and who could embrace both love and independence; monogamy and carnal impulses; strength and softness. All in a way that was packaged for the mainstream.

“Reba’s brand was ‘somebody should leave,’ Trisha’s was a little ‘please don’t leave’ and Faith had ‘no one would ever leave me, obviously,'” says Rose, “but Shania’s brand was, ‘I will take no shit and all of your money, thanks!’ and it worked. Nobody stepped on Shania, especially not the men in her songs.”

Much has changed since the Canadian-born Twain first made her entrance, ready to prove that lineage didn’t really matter when it came to power and prowess on Music Row. In 1995, that moment was “Any Man of Mine,” which hit Number One on the country charts and burst through to the Billboard Hot 100, without the help of a Nelly-provided rap refrain or American Idol alumni status to shatter the pop ceiling. Layering a commanding fiddle undercurrent to producer and co-writer Mutt Lange’s mad-genius mix of Def Leppard vamps and her smartly twanged power vocals, the song broke boundaries not because it was inherently designed to do so – but because its sticky, melodic chorus was enough to make even the most diehard city-slicker contemplate buying a pair of Wranglers. Deep in the South, it prompted a generation of kids raised on Hank Williams to consider the genre of their birthright as more dimensional than they once thought: pop hooks, y’all.

While one of country’s most common cult complaints is to bemoan its genre dissolution (hello, Midland’s authenticity debate), Twain represented a period where transition was celebrated, and she used that platform to shake convention thematically too. Taking the reins from the outlaw rebels and Countrypolitan crooners, she co-wrote her own songs and molded her image, drawing more lines to Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton than history first gave her credit for. Twain gets plenty of credit for her groundbreaking success – 1997’s Come on Over is the biggest-selling album by a female of all-time (over 40 million copies worldwide) and its sonic pattern was a blueprint for future Taylor Swifts – but she isn’t always recognized for how she disrupted gender role convention and redefined the woman on country radio as much more complex than just homemaker or home-wrecker. “Shania was a catalyst for change and she was trendsetter,” says Ortega.

Twain’s lyrics were empowering, but they also took ownership. Listen to “Any Man of Mine”: in title, it sounds innocuous enough, but this isn’t some casual ode to a for-better-or-worse partner. Instead, she’s laying out the rules for anyone eager to court her attention – taking, as Rose put it, no shit from anyone. In the song’s video, she’s roping horses and hopping into a pick-up truck, motifs usually found in today’s waning bro-country playground – but here, Twain was driving. She represented the complexity of a woman not always afforded in mainstream country – just because she had the upper hand didn’t mean she couldn’t offer a gentle touch, too.

“Shania’s brand was, ‘I will take no shit and all of your money, thanks!'” – Caitlin Rose

“She was vulnerable and got hurt and was a ‘fool for love,’ but at the same time she was strong and stated what she wanted, what she expected, what she would or wouldn’t take,” says Michaela Anne. “It felt fierce while tender and honest. She was unapologetically sexy, but also fun and assertive. Culturally, I think we’ve generally had a hard time seeing women as multi-dimensional, complex, diverse beings. When I think back to the impression she left on me at the vital age of 13 when I loved her the most, it was that: that we as women could be all of it.”

Many of Twain’s songs, while sonically diverse, did just that by following the Loretta tradition of lacing an aggressive narrative in deceptively sweet (or in Twain’s case, catchy) ribbons: “Honey, I’m Home” flips the housewife on its head, with a tired working woman demanding care – and an, ahem, “bone” – from her doting husband; “I’m Not in the Mood (to Say No!)” is about not being afraid to do something (or someone, really); and her iconic video for “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” played with her freedom to be both stereotypically male and indulgently female, telling the story through a Robert Palmer “Addicted to Love”- esque theme where she both flirts with androgyny and cleavage-bearing ball gowns.

“The memory of dancing around to a tape of ‘Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under’ at a second-grade sleepover is among the earliest I have of testing out my own variety of ‘girl power,'” says Rose about Twain’s hit from The Woman in Me. “It was OK to be sassy with Shania even if you weren’t that kind of girl.”

Indeed, Spence recalls that Come On Over, Twain’s third record, was the first album she bought with her own money. When I would sing along to ‘That Don’t Impress Me Much,’ I felt like I deserved the world and nothing else would do,” she says. “When I would sing along to ‘Man! I Feel Like a Woman!’ I felt empowered and proud. She gave us anthems for the right kinds of things: feeling good about yourself, wanting to surround yourself with people who weren’t superficial, standing up for yourself. She made me feel wise beyond my years.”

For Shorr, who has tackled the unjust climate for women on the country charts in her own writing, Twain was and is a “feminist icon.” “In the country genre, owning the label ‘sex symbol’ has always been a little bit off-limits. Shania not only owned it but pioneered it; and opened doors for other women to do it too,” she says. “She created a brand that was sexy but never compromising, powerful but still feminine, and vulnerable but never weak. Now, she’s still proud of all those sides of her and even more multidimensional and honest than she was in the Nineties. Hearing Shania’s raw unfiltered attitude in her songs as a young girl made me more confident to show those sides of myself in my own music as an artist 15 years later.”

These messages of empowerment reached far beyond gender – Brandon Stansell, an openly gay country artist, found her to represent a sort of freedom to lead with individuality, not convention. “For the first time in my life, I got to see someone successfully pursuing country music without having to remain within the confines of what people expected of a country music singer. I know that story – that’s my story,” he says.

Decades since her debut, Twain’s story is still evolving – and Now is a tale of a woman in progress. She’s vulnerable and hurt, but as empowered as ever, turning turmoil, pain and the drag of aging into a wisdom that drives her forward. Artists like Ortega, Rose, Spence, Shorr, Stansell and Anne, along with scores of others, from Margo Price and Little Bandit to Maren Morris and Miranda Lambert, are doing the same. 

They may not sound like Twain, but they don’t sound like anyone else either, singing of complex characters that might not fit into the box at the top of Billboard‘s Country Airplay chart. But that don’t impress them much, anyway. 

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