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Shania Twain: 20 years of bad feelings, bare midriffs and breaking ground

Andrea Warner

It’s been 20 years since Shania Twain's self-titled debut was released, and over a decade since her last full-length studio release. In the space of just nine years, from 1993 to 2003, Twain hit the country music industry like a grenade, blowing it up from the inside out. She made women-centric pop crossovers a modern country staple (you’re welcome, Dixie Chicks, Taylor Swift) and her third album, Come On Over, is one of the biggest and best-selling country albums of all time.

But for me at least, her legacy is a complicated one. As a teenager, I couldn’t stand Twain. I felt her brand of coy, sexy country-pop pushed women back 10 or 15 years. I wrote her off as a construct of male fantasy: a girl who could ride a horse while showing off an impossibly toned bare midriff by day and slip into some sort of cleavage-baring cocktail dress at night, the emphasis always on her sex appeal first, relatability second, talent third.

In retrospect, I think my frustrations were warranted, but it was terribly un-feminist of me to ignore the ground she was breaking. I only saw what I felt were the shattered pieces of progress sacrificed by virtue of her success. I saw her success as reaffirming and congratulating patriarchy on making women conform to a specific set of ideals, of being rewarded for going along with the charade that one needs to be perceived as at least twice as sexy as they are talented in order to make it.

I couldn’t see Twain’s success as having value to all women, but it did and it does. I didn’t see her skillful manipulation of the surface to push her subversive, secret agenda — an agenda that would change country music, for a little while at least, and give rise to a new generation of women writing and producing their own material. On all of her albums, Twain asserted what she wanted as a woman, or at least what her female characters wanted, and not in service of the male gaze but in service of herself. Not that I can personally get behind every lyric, but from “Any Man of Mine” to “That Don’t Impress Me Much” to “She’s Not Just a Pretty Face,” Twain reiterated over and over again a woman’s power and independence. A number of her songs that didn’t chart reinforced feminist themes, such as "If You Wanna Touch Her, Ask!."

It’s particularly striking given the current prevalence of bro-country (Florida Georgia Line, Kenny Chesney, Luke Bryan) that’s taken over the airwaves, stadiums and even the recent CCMA Awards. Taylor Swift has moved entirely into pop at this point, leaving Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert as modern country’s two main solo female artists. Earlier this summer, Twain announced via Facebook that she’s finally working on her fifth studio release. It’s a comeback I never dreamed I wanted, but now I think it can’t come soon enough.

To celebrate Twain's 20 years in the music industry, we've put together the following list, highlighting some of her biggest moments, career benchmarks and surprising stories about the life and times of Shania Twain.

1. Though her major label career is just 20 years old, Twain told Oklahoma morning TV hosts the McCain Brothers how her mom would put her on top of restaurant counter tops to sing along to jukeboxes when she was just a tiny tot of three.

In the interview, below, she also admits that the name "Shania" doesn't actually mean anything, even though it's now part of her living legend that the name means "on my way" in Ojibwa.

2. If you're not quite sure of Twain's actual talent, check out this footage of her singing Dolly Parton's "To Daddy" at eight years old.

3. Twain and producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange married in 1993. As a team they wrote and composed almost every song on her three biggest albums: 1995’s The Woman in Me; 1997’s Come On Over and 2002’s Up!.

4. Flash forward: Twain and Lange separated in 2008 and divorced in 2010, following Lange’s alleged infidelity with their personal assistant, Marie-Anne Thiébaud, who was also Twain’s best friend. In 2011 Twain married Frederic Thiébaud (pictured), Marie-Anne’s ex-husband.

5. In the context of her career, Shania Twain's first album cover is like playing and winning the game of "one thing is not like the other."

6. The Woman in Me. The video for "Any Man of Mine," arguably the album's biggest hit, was the first big step toward Twain's sex symbol makeover.

7. The international album cover for The Woman in Me solidified her new look.

8. The North American album cover for Come On Over.

9. The alternate version of the North American album cover for Come On Over.

10. The Japanese album cover.

11. And finally North America just got in on the action.

12. But there was something interesting happening alongside the "skin and scandal" associated with Twain.

Come On Over was the biggest-selling studio album of all time by a female artist and the biggest-selling country music album ever. Twelve of the 16 tracks from Come On Over were released as singles and became huge hits, such as "That Don't Impress Me Much" (video screen grab pictured) and "Man! I Feel Like a Woman," both of which toyed with themes of empowerment but never quite felt empowering.

But, there were four tracks on the record that didn't chart, and two of those make a strong case for Twain's underlying feminism.

13. “If You Wanna Touch Her, Ask!”

A song articulating female desires and advocating consent? Crazy ahead of its time. No wonder people didn’t take a shine to it.

14. “Black Eyes, Blue Tears”

Country-rock songs about fleeing one’s abusive partner aren’t likely to be chart-toppers, but this one arguably makes for a better single than “Rock This Country.”

15. Twain cemented her country-pop crossover success in 1999 when "You've Got a Way," the last track on Come on Over, was featured prominently in Notting Hill, the romantic comedy featuring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts.

16. By 2001, Twain was such a global phenomenon that her hometown of Timmins, Ont., built what they hoped would be a surefire tourist attraction. The Shania Twain Centre opened to great fanfare but it never quite lived up to its expectations. On Feb. 1, 2013, the centre closed its doors for good and is now home to an open-pit gold mine. 

17. In 2003, Twain was inducted into Canada's Walk of Fame. She continued to tour and perform, but a new album never materialized. By 2008, when her private life became public knowledge and everybody knew that her marriage to Lange was over, it became hard to imagine what a new Twain album would sound like without Lange. Twain ignored the buzz and instead set about slowly returning to the spotlight.

18. She received her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2011.

19. That same year, she teamed up with Taylor Swift and Glee's Chord Overstreet for a Thelma & Louise spoof at the CMT Music Awards.

20. Twain kept the comeback going with a huge, splashy Las Vegas residency. The announcement featured a stampede of horses that shut down the Vegas strip.

21. The Vegas show, Shania Twain: She's the One, has kept Twain busy, but this past July she announced via Facebook that she was using her summer off from the show to work on her new album, the first of new material in 11 years.

Hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner

More to explore: 

Listen to CBC Music's Hot Country stream
Lindi Ortega and Kira Isabella on why we still need to talk about women in country music