Shania Reigns

15 minute read
Josh Tyrangiel/Paris

Every once in a while, Shania Twain will munch on a carrot stick, whip her curly hair over her shoulder and issue a modest decree. It is worth paying attention to these pronouncements, even though Twain, who is Canadian and thus constitutionally averse to star trips, never quite means what she says. On a brisk October night, with the bleat of Paris traffic in her ears, the Twain fiat is this: she is going to stop singing in public. “I never burned to perform, and I don’t care if I ever perform again,” she says. “I have no need to do that.”

First in line among the things she has no need to do is Star Academy, a French reality game show in which marginally talented young aspirants live in a house and vote one another out on the basis of their progress in becoming slick professional singers. (Imagine the cheese factor of Big Brother, Survivor and American Idol–in French.) But just a few hours after her edict about performing, Twain, 37, is singing her signature ballad, You’re Still the One, in a duet with Jeremy, a young Frenchman whose penchant for accidental key changes augurs poorly for an extended stay at le Star Academy chateau. As Jeremy bludgeons the first verse, Twain closes her eyes and sways in a convincing facsimile of joy. Star Academy is wildly successful in France; Twain is only moderately successful in France. Yes, she really wants to stop performing, but what she wants more than anything is to have the biggest-selling album of all time, and she will do anything, including Star Academy, to get it.

“Overcoming any situation and performing at your best–that’s being a professional,” she says later of her battle with Jeremy’s howl. “It was an obstacle, and I overcame it.” Twain speaks in formal, syllogistic sentences, especially when the subject is her job. “I am a commercial singer. When I write a song, I’m thinking about the people who are going to be listening to it. The whole process is done with that in mind. I hear other singers say, ‘What I do is artistic, and I do it for myself.’ I don’t get that. If you’re making it just for yourself, why sell it?”

It is this unabashed commercialism (plus a great gift for pop hooks) that makes Twain the ruler of the vast collection of ears between Madonna and Garth Brooks. She began her career appealing to a country audience that was first scandalized and then hypnotized by her pop sensibilities–and her conspicuously bare midriff. Then in 1997 Twain recorded Come on Over, a brilliantly calculated mix of pop and country that has sold 19 million copies and is the most popular album by a female singer in American history. Twain and Whitney Houston are the only women to have two albums sell more than 10 million copies each. Twain’s newest, Up!, released Nov. 19, sold 874,000 copies in its first week, meaning it should be just a matter of months before she’s the only woman with three 10-million sellers.

Because her songs are aimed at a mass audience, they are built with the same focus on demographics and inoffensiveness as a political campaign. Twain will not record edgy, experimental or controversial songs. She will do universal ballads like You’re Still the One and exuberant up-tempo tunes like Man! I Feel Like a Woman! that start with synth fanfares and cowbells and end–usually 3 1/2 minutes later–with a giddy repetition of oooh-yeah!s and uh-huh!s over a cavatina of power chords, leaving listeners with the wonderfully woozy feeling of having just eaten a bale of cotton candy while watching a Jerry Bruckheimer movie during a roller-coaster ride.

Like all great cheap thrills, Up! is shamelessly produced and guiltlessly enjoyed; it’s easily the best pop album of the year. The contagious first single, I’m Gonna Getcha Good (“I’m gonna getcha while I gotcha you in sight/I’m gonna getcha if it takes all night”), is less a love song than Twain’s declaration of intent to consumers, while Up!’s 18 other tracks back her claim with the kind of energy that reminds you how much fun the genre can be. If there’s a weakness, it’s that Twain is too busy standing everywhere to stand anywhere. Only she could write a song, Juanita, about the independent goddess raging inside all women, include a line like “When someone tries to take away the freedom of your choice” and insist that it never occurred to her that it might be interpreted as a reference to abortion. “I wouldn’t even know what to say about that,” says Twain, “because my feelings about that have changed so much over the years. I go back and forth, and it’s such a difficult issue. So it wasn’t intended to–I mean, if people take it that way, it’s fine. I’m not saying, ‘Don’t take it that way …'” And so on.

She asserts, “The songs themselves, the attitude, the personality, is all from my personal character.” Yet none of the songs on Up! reveal anything specific about that character, such as the fact that Twain recently moved into a 100-room chateau in Switzerland or that she gave birth to a baby boy, Eja. “Who wants to hear about my kid? It’s private,” she says flatly, dropping the subject for a moment, only to pick it up again. “Who’s gonna relate to that, anyway? People are going to go out and pay for the record, and I want my music to relate to their lives, not vice versa.”

To ensure that Up! relates to as many lives as possible, Twain decided that it had to be a double CD. Both discs contain the same 19 tracks, but one was recorded with the snare hits and techno zooms preferred by pop fans, whereas the other is sprinkled with mandolin and slide guitar for the country folk who first made Twain a star. A third disc, with what she calls “an Asian, Indian vibe,” replaces the country disc in Europe and other parts, but everybody gets two CDs. She’s gonna getcha either way.

The irony of Twain’s reluctance to write personal, revealing songs is that her history is filled with examples of courage. If Loretta Lynn and Charles Dickens met while under contract to the Lifetime network, they might come up with the grim frontier tale that is Twain’s youth. She grew up in Timmins, Ont., a mining town in the heart of the Canadian bush. Her father ran off when she was 2. Her mother Sharon and her adoptive father Jerry Twain, a full-blooded Ojibwa Indian, continually struggled for work. The five Twain children considered themselves lucky to find a mustard sandwich in their school lunch boxes.

Twain’s vocal talent was discovered when she was 4 and still called by her birth name, Eilleen. “I was singing along with the jukebox in a diner,” she recalls. “These guys heard and asked my mom if I could sing louder. She put me up on the countertop, and from that moment on, she was convinced I was going to be a little performer.” In need of cash, Sharon booked Twain in front of every open microphone in northern Ontario. If there were no talent shows or telethons, Sharon was not above hauling Twain out of bed in her pajamas to sing Dolly Parton covers before last call at a local bar.

In high school Twain balanced homework and a counter job at McDonald’s–“I learned tons about the meaning of service there,” she says enthusiastically–with singing in an ’80s-rock cover band. After high school she moved to Toronto and worked as a secretary while hopping from band to band. Three years later, Twain was still struggling for a break when she received a phone call saying her parents were dead. Their car had collided head-on with a logging truck.

Her older sister was married, so it fell to Twain to take care of the three youngest Twains. She got a job as a revue singer at a resort 300 miles from Timmins and moved the whole family to a cabin with no running water. Once the siblings were adults and out of the house, Twain says she felt “very old.” With no idea of what she wanted from life, she nevertheless put together a demo tape, and in 1991 Mercury Nashville gave her a $20,000 advance and signed her to a contract.

After adopting the stage name Shania, an Ojibwa word meaning “I’m on my way,” Twain released her self-titled debut. It sold a respectable 100,000 copies, although no one, not even Twain, seemed to like it. She had visions of being a songwriter, but only one of her compositions made the album. Then her manager got a message from a man calling himself Mutt, who said he had seen one of Twain’s kittenish videos while exercising in his London home and was interested in writing songs with her. The manager sent Mutt an autographed photo with generic “Best wishes,” unaware that Mutt was Robert John (Mutt) Lange, producer of seven of the 100 best-selling albums of all time. After the mistake was realized, Twain and Mutt started writing songs together over the phone. A few months later, they met in person at a Nashville, Tenn., music festival; a few months after that, they were married. Together they have co-written and produced two Twain albums, which together have sold 50 million copies worldwide.

The journey from poverty to stardom is all the more notable because Twain would have you believe she was never intent on taking it. “If I hadn’t gotten signed, I would have done something else,” she says. “I always wanted to be a veterinarian.” In what must be a new achievement in both self-abnegation and repression, Twain swears that she harbors no resentment toward her mother: “My mother had a very difficult life, and when you’re a parent and you can’t feed your kids, it’s gonna bum you out. So she had this dream. I did it. But it was never really my dream.”

Twain and Lange now live in their chateau in Tour-de-Peilz, Switzerland, one of the more beautiful places in the world in which to bore yourself to tears. The food is great, the mountains are mountainous, and the people are impenetrable. “Hello” from a stranger is an embarrassing monologue. They moved there in part for tax purposes and in part because their 3,000-acre spread in upstate New York was no longer private enough. Twain has persuaded her record label not to promote her music in Switzerland. They really like their privacy.

At home, Twain and Lange hike, ride horses and eat at local restaurants. Every morning the world’s biggest commercial singer grabs an acoustic guitar and goes into a centuries-old wine cave to write songs–just for herself. “I write crazy things,” she says, “vulnerable things that I wouldn’t want to play for anybody.” She records these songs on a handheld cassette player and plays them only for her husband.

Twain’s desire for privacy is hardly discouraged by him. The Rhodesian-born Lange, 53, started out writing radio jingles before producing heavy metal for AC/DC, disco for Billy Ocean, arena rock for Foreigner and adult contemporary for Bryan Adams. Lange has also written or co-written 135 pop songs, including Do You Believe in Love for Huey Lewis & the News and I Finally Found Someone for Barbra Streisand. He has been honored with numerous awards from the American Society of Composers and Producers and has never accepted a single one. He has not done an interview for 30 years, rarely leaves his home and recently purchased the rights to nearly every extant photo of him. Luke Lewis, head of Twain’s record label and one of Lange’s few confidants, says, “I don’t think he’s an agoraphobe.” But he adds, “You wouldn’t be the first to call Mutt Lange a little strange.” And more than a little rich. He has an undisclosed stake in Zomba Music Group, which was purchased by BMG last week for $2.7 billion, and with his songwriting and production royalties, he is one of the wealthiest men in music.

“Mutt’s got absolutely no shame about being a commercial record producer,” says Joe Elliot, lead singer of Def Leppard. Lange produced Def Leppard’s 12 million–selling arena-rock classic, Hysteria, but his commercial sound works in almost any genre. His favorite trick is to pile layers of vocal takes–sometimes several dozen–on top of one another, giving his singers a lush, smooth sound. Then Lange uses key changes, drum fills, cowbells, chants, effects and spoken interludes to keep the listener’s attention. These devices make Lange’s music particularly popular with radio programmers; research shows that a song with numerous pace changes and interruptions, like those on Nah!, the herky-jerky sing-along on Up!, keeps listeners from turning the dial. “Lyrics,” says Elliot, “are secondary. Mutt would say, ‘When it comes to writing lyrics, it doesn’t matter whether they’re good or bad. They just have to be memorable.’ Sometimes I’d play him personal stuff, and he’d go, ‘I really like that.’ Then we’d play it in the studio, and he’d object. He’d say, ‘As your friend, I like it. But it’s not pop, and it’s not going to sell, so shut it.'”

Selling is apparently never far from Lange’s mind. “He’d love to have the top record of all time,” says Mercury’s Lewis. “Everybody’s trying to make a living, and it’s fun, but there is a scorecard. And if Shania thinks that that’s what he wants, she’ll help him get it.” Twain admits she has bought into the Lange program completely, although, she adds, they’re equal partners in her success. “Mutt alone has never had this much success in his career,” she says. “Never as consistently and never as big. It’s what we do together that makes it so great.” Since meeting Lange, Twain has become a strict vegetarian and a devotee of Sant Mat, a strain of Sikh mysticism that advocates hours of daily meditation, abstinence from sex and alcohol, and copious journal keeping as the path to self-realization. The whole picture has led some, including Twain’s brother Darryl, to conclude that she has become, as he put it in a 2000 magazine interview, “a robot.”

Whatever the confines of her marriage, Twain doesn’t seem to be chafing within them. She and Lange speak by cell phone constantly and communicate like husband and wife, not Svengali and subject. They talk about the baby, their reservations at vegetarian haute cuisine joints across Europe and sometimes about canceling those reservations. “Hey, lovey,” Twain says to Lange, who is a maniacal English-soccer fan. “Did you know there’s a game between England and Macedonia tonight? Did you want to watch that?” They end up staying in.

Twain seems somehow removed from her own success. “There’s no separating me and music,” she says, “but there’s a big separation between music and career. Sometimes I just think I belong in a bar, singing with my guitar. I don’t think I’m worthy of everything that’s happening now. I don’t think I’ll ever be my best commercially. I’m not sure if I will ever achieve that.”

Asked if she might find a way to integrate vulnerability and world domination, Twain thinks for a moment. “I’ve got dreams,” she says. “I’d like to do a duet album with all of my favorite artists–Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Stevie Wonder, Bonnie Raitt, Karen Carpenter if she were alive, Etta James.” Twain is laughing now. “These are impossibilities, but I’d love it. And I would want it to be originals. What would be really fantastic would be to write songs with all those people. That would be a dream album for me. One dream album.”

But her dream can never be realized. “I don’t feel free,” she says. “I think, I don’t feel free to do what I want. It’s not in my nature. I could never just do anything for fun. I mean, it’s such a waste of time to do something for fun. I feel like I’ve got to be productive. I can’t live the rest of my life like this, but for now I have to justify any pleasurable time that I have. But I do have dreams.” Those dreams will have to wait, because selling Up! will keep her performing on the road for a few years and thrust her right back into the swirl of another dream: being the world’s biggest pop singer. Just whose dream that is, only Shania Twain knows for sure.

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