‘A stallion is a horse’ and other things we learned at Shania Twain’s Xcel concert
By Keith Harris
May 16, 2018
Shania Twain wants you to know that everything is going to be OK.
Now clearly, everything is not going to be OK. In fact, nothing is going to be OK. If we’re even going to use the word “OK” again we need to redefine it to mean something more like “not OK at all.” But for two booming hours at the Xcel last night, a good-heartedly out-of-touch, glamorously tasteless, pathologically optimistic rich lady with a killer pop-country songbook convinced us that there was no crisis through which we could not blithely shimmy, shake, kick, turn, stomp, stomp through, consequence-free, even as she grappled (well, tussled gingerly) with demons of her own.
The old Nashville standard “We Will Rock You” boomed through the room as the lights came up on the mid-arena b-stage, where Shania’s drummer, her blonde hair flying, beat out a rhythm I can’t say for certain wasn’t inspired by Faith No More’s “Epic.” Shania herself entered from the stands, striding down the stairs of the 100 level in silver gown and matching cowboy hat, high-fiving fans and making her way slowly through the crowd and toward the stage. Everything at a Shania show, you see, happens on Shania time. (No, I’m not gonna call her “Twain”—what is this, the New Yorker? Here is a superstar who demands we meet her as pretend equals on a ground of false intimacy, and I’ll sure as hell oblige.)
Shania eased the show ill-advisedly into motion with her recent, adequate single “Life’s About to Get Good,” shuffling as nimbly as her heels and floor length hemline permitted, then continued to hold back with “Come On Over,” the most mildly upbeat of her hits. For the early part of the show, performances of weak new material seemed perfectly timed to deflate the room. Shania would dole out a pair of the oldies the crowd craved, then foist something new on us that wasn’t just uninspired, but fundamentally clashed with our conception of Shania-ness—and, more importantly, hers.
One reason Shania upset country sticklers in the ‘90s isn’t just that her sound was pop, fusing ’80s rock excess with synthetic simulations of country signifiers. It’s that her outlook was pop too. Shania wasn’t one for barroom weepers or cheatin’ songs. Her songs recounted a series of modest setbacks, from bad hair days to PMS, but nothing that a connubial foot rub and a flurry of exclamation points and a gated snare drum couldn’t fix. At the height of her powers, Shania Twain was a Redbook article about a Def Leppard song (or vice versa) come to life.
Shania’s latest album, Now, is not good. It’s also her most personal album. In fact, it’s not good because it’s her most personal album. No pop star has ever been so sheepish about admitting to heartbreak. She apologized at length before the Now track, “Poor Me,” which she called a “pity party.” “I kinda think that it’s OK to be down every once in a while,” she insisted, as though this was a controversial statement that would be met with heated protests from the crowd rather than something every sane human adult believes.
But in Shanialand, sadness is a gruesome aberration to be quashed. Other new songs included “I’m Alright,” an anthem of denial disguised as a journey of healing and acceptance, and “Let’s Kiss and Make Up,” which she said was inspired by an argument with her husband. She was pissed and ready to vent, she said, but she wrote a song of reconciliation instead. After all, why be angry when you can cram those feelings deep inside where they couldn’t possibly cause you any long-term psychological harm?
But to paraphrase myself, from long ago, complaining that Shania Twain lacks depth is saying a roller coaster doesn’t have much of a plot. Her dotty stage patter felt charmingly unscripted. She explained that a stallion was a horse. She told fans to “get out their selfies.” She said “sometimes you just gotta look on the bright side” and explained that life was about “taking the good with the bad” and saw “a light at the end of the tunnel” as though she sensed something was amiss with the world but she couldn't ascertain exactly what.
And throughout, she was consistently true to her own garish aesthetic. I mean, I look like I got dressed in the dark most days and even I feel confident critiquing Shania’s wardrobe. At times she resembled a first-grader who’d been allowed to pick out her own outfit for school. One of her looks could be best described as “cowgirl ballerina Fonzie,” but she could also impersonate an eccentric gender fluid doweress known for solving crimes in Victorian London when the mood struck. A snug bodysuit seemed to magically change color as she moved.
More than once I glanced away from her for mere seconds and she’d somehow changed outfits before I looked back. But she outdid herself during “That Don’t Impress Me Much,” not only because some designer had created a unique kind of garment forthat was simultaneously both a dress and a housecoat and also neither a dress nor a housecoat, but because its pattern clashed gloriously with the leopard print designs glowing on the cubes behind her.
For “Up!” her dancers’ backs sprouted tree-like apparatuses from which silver Warholian balloons bloomed. During “Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under,” maybe the perkiest song ever recorded about dating a serially unfaithful jackass, her male dancers were paired off with humanoid springs in cowboy hats. And if every country concert has its obligatory patriotic moment, only Shania Twain would sing “Soldier” as she floated inappropriately above the crowd on a perch shaped like a guitar case. Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” is basically a Shania Twain concert review. (Especially the part where she says “pure Camp is always naive.”)
As is customary in these parts, Shania mourned Prince. She told us, “We were actually planning to work together.”  She introduced “You’re Still the One” by mention that Prince recorded it, and indeed he did, with Marva King, in the late ‘90s, when he was in his Lilith Fair phase and covering Joan Osborne and Sheryl Crow.
So much happened. Shania brought three audience members onstage, two women and a man. They said they were from Bismark and we booed them. During a flirty bit where the guy was supposed to lift Shania onto a piano, one of the women upstaged her by shouting a Cardi B lyric. Shania made us watch a montage of her old videos while she sat grooving in silhouette off to the side nursing a flute of wine. Every dancer was given a drum to slam during the punctuated chorus of “If You’re Not In It For Love (I’m Outta Here)” and a rainforest’s worth of streamers were launched into the crowd.
The encore began, predictably, with “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!,” an anthem so femininity-obsessed it was just begging to be queered upon arrival. And she closed with “Rock This Country!” which was the closest thing she’d made to a political statement until she cluelessly praised Trump in a recent interview. Personally, I’d sooner ask Shania what the lyric “We’re gonna rock this country right out of this world” could possibly mean than inquire how she’d have voted. Then again, I don’t think rich people should be allowed to vote in the first place.
After this, there was confetti. Then more streamers. All of our bad feelings had been rocked right out of this world. Yes, this morning they all came back. But I kinda think that it’s OK not to be down every once in a while too.
Life's About To Get Good
Come on Over
Don't Be Stupid (You Know I Love You)
That Don't Impress Me Much
Let’s Kiss and Make Up
Any Man of Mine
Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under?
Honey, I'm Home
You're Still The One
From This Moment On
I'm Gonna Getcha Good!
Party for Two
Swingin' With My Eyes Closed
(If You're Not in It for Love) I'm Outta Here!
Man! I Feel Like a Woman!
Rock This Country!