Friday, April 17, 2020

Retrospective: Come on Over • Shania Twain

Released as the successor to the best-selling county album from a female artist, Shania Twain's third studio record, Come on Over, was destined to become a career-defining juggernaut. What unfolded, however, was a record campaign beyond belief – one that burned so brightly that its breakthrough predecessor, The Woman in Me, and its own eventual follow-up, the triple-disc, Diamond-certified Up!, often fall into the shadows when reviewing Shania Twain's decade in the direct spotlight. And it's not hard to see why: Challenging the perceived confines of the country record archetype, Twain and her then-husband, longtime rock music producer Robert "Mutt" Lange, crafted a record together that rewrote the rules to crossover appeal and made a pop megastar out of a country singer-songwriter.

If ever there were an ideal country lyricist, Twain comes damn close. Her by-the-minute thoughts create linear stories that if not put to song, may have been shared between friends on the front porch. It’s fitting, given Come on Over takes its title from a track that calls you as the listener over to her place, directing you to grab a chair and relax. Her conversationalist tendencies may best be displayed on "Honey, I’m Home," a playback of her dumpster fire day over a Queen-indebted stomp-stomp-clap beat pattern. "My car won’t start. It’s falling apart. I was late to work, and my boss got smart. My panty line shows, got a run in my 'hose. My hair went flat. Man, I hate that," she checks off a list.

Unlike many country artists, Twain carries impeccable humor and optimism regarding her daily blunders. "Don’t Be Stupid (You Know I Love You)" smacks back at a suspicious boyfriend ("Stop overreacting. You even get suspicious when I paint my nails.") but Twain breaks the tension before things can get too personal. "Don’t freak out until you know the facts. Relax, Max," she says, unleashing an incredible fiddle line to pull listeners away from the tension she just built. And c'mon, "That Don’t Impress Me Much" is one for the history books. The world changed forever the first time that radiating steel pan, guitar riff, and sharp drum beat cut away to an effortless two-line backhand with an implied wink: "Alright, so you’re Brad Pitt? That don’t impress me much."

Her equally sharp ability to craft and deliver a ballad gave her an edge, even if Twain and her critics alike have downplayed her abilities behind a microphone. ("I remember when I wrote 'From This Moment On,' I said to Mutt, 'You know, I don’t think I should sing this song. Let’s call up some great power singer and get her to record it,'" she recounted on her Facebook page.) While "From This Moment On" and "You're Still the One" are iron-clad competitors against any other adult-contemporary show-stoppers out there, the accordion-fused "I Won't Leave You Lonely" and "You've Got a Way" are criminally overlooked. Bringing the album to a close with a relaxing sway, the latter very well could have been a crowning jewel on any '90s pop record... that is, if Come on Over doesn't qualify as a pop record already.

• • •

Once a solely domestic act, Twain sunk when her label first threw her into international waters: The western honky-tonk appeal of The Woman In Me was a hit only with Canadians and Americans, where country airplay – both in the late ‘90s and today – is among the largest radio formats. And with Come on Over, initial performance indicated the same. Lead single "Love Gets Me Every Time" is a fiddle-slinging close cousin to the tracks on The Woman in Me, with a hook reliant on a mouthful of Southern drawl: "And I gol' darn gone and done it." The line almost became the song’s namesake – a line that surely would have been taken not as a representation of rural vernacular, but instead as a self-fulfilling country music parody if introduced to pop music audiences without context.

When Shania Twain's international stardom revealed itself with "You’re Still the One," her workload doubled to maintain a dual-faced brand. In a feat that is still a mystery to many, Twain kicked songs to the top of charts worldwide: It could be argued that no other country artist managed to break into the global market on this scale before her, and strangely, Twain's success didn't carry a significant residual effect for contemporaries who attempted to replicate the achievements of Come on Over. Shania Twain is among only a few North American country stars to have enjoyed such a global stardom burst, which came at a price.

Growing legs beyond imaginable, three-quarters of the album's tracks were pushed as radio singles in at least one market each; over half received music video treatments. But more significantly, the album remained intact and as intended for only its domestic release: Twain and Lange headed back to the production boards to rework the record for international markets, somewhat indiscriminately plucking instrument lines from mixes and splicing in subtle dance pulses. Though the pop-throttled Come on Over felt a bit emptier than its original draft, it certainly did the trick to make Twain the most malleable country artist of her time. By her own design, Shania Twain’s reality as an artist fractured into halves that were just different enough to merit the regional variations of Come on Over – and three versions of her following record.

It begged some to wonder which community got to claim Shania Twain: The one she had already dominated, or the one into which she just merged? More importantly, did either want to claim Shania Twain, who both refuted conservative country music norms and refused to drop the twang altogether for a full reclassification? After all, country-pop can be a campy bastardization of the two genres that both sides enjoy, but to which neither want to claim stake with confidence. As an early adopter in the hybrid genre, she enjoyed success from its novelty and straddled the divide with an innovator's intuition. Any credibility it cost her then should be restored retroactively by now, as the digital heartbeats and glitzy production she embraced on Come on Over are popular country music cornerstones today.

• • •

It's still a surprise Twain felt welcome in mainstream American country music at all, given that it remains a glaringly male-dominated and modest-minded territory. Her relationship with Lange, a man nearly 20 years her senior whom she married after a six-month relationship, caused suspicions that the producer planted her into success and shaped her public lifestyle of sass and moderate sex appeal. Amid the Come on Over firestorm, the couple moved into seclusion in Switzerland, where they adhered to a vegetarian lifestyle and – at least for some time – practiced Sant Mat, a spiritual derivative of Eastern religions. ("Shania joins no-sex cult," read a National Enquirer cover story in March 2000.) Taking Come on Over on the road, she required her touring band members to align with her own clean lifestyle: No drugs, no alcohol.

For country music entertainers, intersections with progressive views or counterculture have been dangerous to cross. Country music legend Dolly Parton refuses to talk politics; Twain's direct contemporaries, the Dixie Chicks, would go down in flames in the early 2000s over one infamous sentence about George W. Bush. History leads us to believe that anything deeper than casual feminism – a simple exclamation of "Girl power!" from a woman in a baby-doll tee – is too far for conservative country music and its finicky taste for simple storytelling, faith, emotions, and blind patriotism. Yet Twain certainly tested the waters with "Man! I Feel Like a Woman," another successful single release despite its rowdy feminine touch and gender-bending music video. Equal parts careless fun and self-assured sex appeal, it is so much more than the pinnacle chick anthem: It empowers a night out, shaking off insecurities and putting everyone in touch with their recklessness.

Buried under the record's hits, "If You Wanna Touch Her, Ask!" and "Black Eyes, Blue Tears" find Twain feeling even more gutsy. While she smooths over the former's blunt message with a casual guide to wine and dine a gal in its verses, "Black Eyes" feels even more liberating in hindsight, as we know that it very well could be autobiographic rather than theoretic. When probed about her childhood in poverty in 1998, she told Maclean's magazine, "I’ve revealed very little of the true hardship and intensity of my life, and that’s the way I’m going to keep it." In her 2011 memoir, Twain admitted that her step-father and mother regularly battered each other – and her – before their deaths in a car accident in the late ‘80s. A few years later, she also would reveal her step-father began to abuse her sexually as a child, not long before she began to sing in local bars while underage to help support her family.

Twain is among the last generation of women who made feminist power moves without slapping the label on it. (While she evaded the topic in interviews at the time she released tracks like "Man! I Feel Like a Woman," she finally did address her role in the feminist narrative with Maclean's magazine decades later.) Her responses to explosive tabloid headlines and intrusive rumors were through her actions. Too provocative, you say? She rocked a legendary two-piece leopard print suit for a music video and damn near made it the core of her brand identity. An unconventional relationship? She penned "You’re Still the One," her trademark ballad, in its defensive and managed to ride atop the international demand for adult contemporary ballads in the process. Too pop to be country, and too country to be pop? Clearly the formula was just right: She shipped over 40 million copies of Come on Over around the globe and still sent half the album's tracks to the top ten on the U.S. country airplay chart.

• • •

Now 20 years removed from Come On Over’s two-year reign over pop culture, Shania Twain is treated as a supporting cast member to the ‘90s pop cohort in the Las Vegas strip legacy line-up, right alongside Celine, Britney, and Mariah. While the sheer gravity of Come on Over has never been ignored, Twain's achievements have been misconstrued as more anomalous than ground-breaking. The idea that Twain's songwriting can produce great country songs and great pop songs by the same token almost gives it a unique sense of chintz, as if it doesn't take incredible skill to write full albums – not just a few fluke songs – that could attract droves from both sides.

The album primed pop audiences for a country spice, surely setting into motion a musical movement that gave Taylor Swift and Lady Antebellum a fighting chance on Top 40 charts from the moment they hit the ground a decade later. Likewise, it opened the door on the elusive country club: In fact, a female pop artist holds the title for the longest-running number one single on the U.S. Hot Country Songs chart, after Bebe Rexha and Florida-Georgia Line's "Meant To Be" spent 50 consecutive weeks atop the chart in 2018. A year later, rapper Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road" melded country and rap into a gimmicky SoundCloud song that accidentally took the crown for the most weeks at number one on the Billboard Hot 100.

Some for the better and some for the worse, the aftershocks of Come on Over can still be felt today. Uniting a diverse group with its widespread reach, the album used Shania's existing momentum to redefine country-pop's musical abilities and expand its emotional intelligence forever. And more importantly, Come on Over itself remains inescapable: Filled with sturdy, well-written songs that merit regular listening sessions, the album makes up over half her repertoire at a second Vegas residency and has provided her multiple popular medley opportunities on award show circuits. Shania still looks to be having a blast performing them, and we all keep coming back to sing along again and again: She was, still is, and always will be the one.

Come on Over was released on Nov. 4, 1997, under Mercury Records.

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