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Shania Twain: Global Pop Dominatrix

She already 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?

Shania Twain

Shania Twain during Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego, California on January 23rd, 2003.

KMazur/WireImage/Getty

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 lipsyncs 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 sky box, 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 “horse-ball,” 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.”

Twain grew up eating mustard sandwiches when the family food budget was tight but now takes horseball vacations and lives with Lange and their year-old son, Eja, in Château de Sully, a nineteenth-century mansion in La Tour-de-Peilz, Switzerland. “I enjoy my money,” she admits. When she first married Lange, she wouldn’t let him buy her anything pricey: “No jewelry, no vehicles, no expensive gifts, nothing.” It was the second time in her life she had thought about quitting music; the first was when her parents died and she no longer had to please her mother. Once she and Lange were wed, “All of a sudden, I’m completely provided for, for the rest of my life. It was too much change. I couldn’t cope. And I had a strong need and desire to do it myself.”

Her sister Carrie-Ann says that Twain shops at Gucci now — but also the Gap. “When she goes into a store, the first place she’ll go is the sales rack. Why not?” Carrie-Ann says. Every year, she buys Shania a new sweat suit for Christmas, which she’ll wear for her power-walking all year long.

At home, Twain has settled into being fully domestic: She’ll wake up early with Eja, start a fire in the kitchen fireplace and make fruit shakes for breakfast. (The family is vegetarian — Twain’s favorite European culinary discovery is the apple pastry tarte Tatin.) In the afternoon, if she and Lange aren’t working, they go hiking — or maybe skiing. She also tries to meditate for two and a half hours each day, as part of Sant Mat, an offshoot of Sikhism that she and Lange follow. But when she’s traveling, Twain’s meditation usually happens in the car, in five-minute bursts.

When Twain first moved to Nashville, she was surprised that everyone actually spoke with Southern accents: She thought that was just something Hollywood made up. As she blossomed into a star, the country-music industry generally considered her an outsider; looking for more privacy, she packed up and left for upstate New York. Not sufficiently isolated there, she moved all the way to Switzerland, where she enjoys tax advantages and takes French lessons.

“Mutt’s got an extra year on me, because I stopped traveling not that long ago,” Twain says. “He hit the books. I can hold a conversation in French, but not an intelligent one.” Eja’s primary language will be French: When Twain wants to know if he’s hungry, she asks, “Est-ce que tu as faim?”

Eja replies, “Yum-yum.”

TWO SONGS ON “UP!” ARE OVERT political messages: “Ka-Ching!” warns against the evils of materialism, and “What a Way to Wanna Be!” cautions against women buying into the standards of beauty found in magazines. They stand out like a Friends episode on campaign-finance reform would — and are even odder when you consider that Twain starred in a 1999 Revlon ad campaign. A cosmetics endorsement seems incongruent with lyrics such as “We don’t get no satisfaction/Living like a slave to fashion/No more thinking for yourself/Just get it off a shelf.” Asked about the conflict, Twain backpedals, saying she enjoys the convenience of advertising. “I’m just talking about where it becomes excessive,” she claims. “And I think as women we have to be more confident and not feel so intimidated by all these beautiful, perfect women.”

ROLLING STONE: But to most women, you are one of those beautiful, perfect women.
TWAIN: I’m just a singer. I just happen to have cheekbones that look good in photographs. A nice smile, I don’t know. That’s not why I’m famous.
RS: Sure, but if you had a big wart on the side of your face, you wouldn’t have been as successful.
TWAIN: I don’t think that’s true. Imagery can come in many different ways. If you’re nice-looking, that’s the image you can go with. If you’re not, then you have another way. Look at Pink Floyd album covers. There’s a lot of beautiful singers who don’t make it — when people are listening to your music, they’re not looking at you.

AFTER THE HOCKEY GAME ENDS in a 1-1 tie, Twain and her entourage (security, road manager, personal assistant) pile into two black SUVs. Although they avoid the traffic, after a few minutes it becomes clear they’ve been spotted by a couple of carloads of fans, who are following them.

“We’ve got to do an intercept,” one security guard tells the driver. The SUV without Twain slows down, letting Twain’s vehicle dart ahead, into a private basement entrance to her hotel. Just another day in the life of an international superstar.

“My intentions were never to be a celebrity,” Twain says. “It doesn’t fit my personality to be a star.” This isn’t down-home modesty; she means it. “I’m not an outward person. I was never Miss Congeniality. I can definitely be anti-social, sitting in a crowded place, reading a magazine.”

“So if it makes you so uncomfortable and you don’t need the money anymore —”

“Why do I continue?” Twain says. She nods and then begins an atypical monologue. Usually, her answers are not one word longer than they need to be, but this issue has clearly been preying on her mind. She recounts her musical history: She started performing in bars when she was eight, dragged there in the middle of the night by her mother. But as she got older, she says, she took classes in computers and assumed that she would just do music as a hobby. “I gave myself one last chance,” she says. “But it was never my dream — I only wanted to make a living at it. If it didn’t happen in Nashville, I would have gone back and sung in bars, and learned more about computers.

“People always label me as ambitious, and I think it’s a very negative word. My passion has always been for the music. I’m a music nut, not a fame nut. But I’m a hard worker, and when I say I’m gonna do something, I do it. When I was working in a jeans store, I stayed after hours and went out of my way for customers. I genuinely have an old-fashioned work ethic, and people think that’s ambition. If I was selling 100,000 records, I would be putting in the same effort — and they wouldn’t be calling me ambitious then. They would just call me dedicated.

“People see me in concert and they say, ‘How can she say she doesn’t want to be a star? Why is she out there with 30,000 people?’ Well, if I was only in front of 3,000 people, would I be considered more credible? How about 300 people? Would my efforts seem more honest then? Because it’s the same effort and the same passion.”

In This Article: Coverwall, Shania Twain

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