Shania Twain’s Comeback Makes Her the Ultimate Symbol of Strength
The Kelly Alexander Show
By Jeffrey Davies
August 10, 2018
I fondly recall a time when the world, let alone myself, could not get enough of Shania Twain. Not only was she a gifted vocalist from the very beginning, but almost immediately became a crossover star (conquering the worlds of country, pop, and rock music) and skyrocketed to the top of music charts worldwide. Three of her albums have been certified diamond in the United States (having each sold over 10 million copies), with her third studio album Come On Over becoming the best-selling album by any female artist in any genre in history which, as anyone can figure, is a pretty big deal. Having been born a late ‘90s child, I arrived on the scene right in the middle of Shania Mania and fell deeply in love with her music from a young age. Deeply in love doesn’t even justify it. I was obsessed. I knew all the words to every song and never stopped singing. But as I grew, Shania didn’t follow me: the hits stayed with us, but Twain held back. I never would have guessed that I would have been above legal drinking age before I heard new Shania Twain music again.
Raised in Timmins, Ontario, Shania Twain (born Eilleen) endured a notoriously rough childhood. Her mother and biological father divorced when she was two, and her mother remarried to Jerry Twain, who adopted Shania and her sisters, Jill and Carrie Ann. The household also included their younger half-brother Mark as well as Jerry’s nephew Darryl, whom the family took in. The family’s struggles seemed never-ending: their parents earned very little money, food was very often scarce, and their household was riddled with domestic violence at the hands of their father. Shania was scared to confide to anyone outside of her family about their poverty, fearing the children might be separated. Around 1979, at age 14, Shania insisted that her mother pack up the car with the kids while Jerry was at work, and they drove over 400 miles to a homeless shelter in Toronto for assistance. While her mother would return to Jerry in Timmins two years later, the abuse and poverty never withered. Shania pursued singing and songwriting from an early age, often describing it as her only escape from a world where she experienced too much too young. Her mother would even encourage her daughter’s talents, often spending money the family didn’t have on talent competitions or lessons (which only intensified her father’s abuse), appearing on The Tommy Hunter Show on CBC when she was 13 and performing in bars in Timmins for money as early as 8. She left home after high school and began performing in several bands, but when her parents were both killed in a car accident in 1987, Shania was left as the only person to care for her remaining younger siblings. She returned home and moved her family to Huntsville, Ontario, where she earned a living performing at the Deerhurst Resort. It was there that she found a manager and assembled a demo to send to record labels, gaining the attention of Mercury Nashville Records with whom she would sign in the early ‘90s.
Twain’s self-titled debut studio album, released in 1993, didn’t meet sales expectations and saw little success on the charts, and it didn’t help that several of the album’s tracks had already been released by other artists. Twain later expressed disappointment with her first album, revealing that she had very little creative control and expressed frustration over not being able to showcase her songwriting ability. As she and her management worked tirelessly to promote the underperforming album, Twain met Robert John “Mutt” Lange, a record producer who, at the time, was only known for producing rock songs. They developed a fast connection; not only did they begin working together immediately but they were married in December 1993, six months after first meeting. Record executives were weary of the material they started making, fearing it would deviate too far away from the Nashville sound of their label. Twain’s second studio album The Woman in Me (1995), written entirely by her and Lange, quickly became Shania’s breakthrough: selling over 20 million copies worldwide, the album saw the widespread success of now iconic singles such as “Any Man of Mine,” “Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under,” and “(If You’re Not In It For Love) I’m Outta Here.” The Woman in Mealso brought Twain countless accolades, most notably the Grammy Award for Best Country Album, and solidified what we now know to be true: Shania was here to stay. While the album explored pop undertones, it would be her follow-up album Come On Over (1997) that would redefine our contemporary definition of pop crossover star, with the album becoming the highest-selling album by any female act in all of history, and the best-selling country album of all-time. Produced and written entirely again by Lange and Twain, Come On Over generated a massive 12 singles released over three years (you surely know them all: “You’re Still the One,” “From This Moment On,” “That Don’t Impress Me Much,” and “Man! I Feel Like a Woman,” among others), and launched Shania to the top of the world (literally). Twain didn’t tour for The Woman in Me, leading to the launch of the Come On Over Tour as her debut concert tour, which sold out worldwide and was one of the highest-grossing concert tours of the decade. By the late ‘90s, you could not discuss country music nor pop music without Shania Twain’s name coming up at least once: she was a country/pop crossover icon and a global superstar. Thus, the phrase: Shania Mania was in full swing.
Twain’s self-titled debut studio album, released in 1993, didn’t meet sales expectations and saw little success on the charts, and it didn’t help that several of the album’s tracks had already been released by other artists. Twain later expressed disappointment with her first album, revealing that she had very little creative control and expressed frustration over not being able to showcase her songwriting ability. As she and her management worked tirelessly to promote the underperforming album, Twain met Robert John “Mutt” Lange, a record producer who, at the time, was only known for producing rock songs. They developed a fast connection; not only did they begin working together immediately but they were married in December 1993, six months after first meeting. Record executives were weary of the material they started making, fearing it would deviate too far away from the Nashville sound of their label. Twain’s second studio album The Woman in Me (1995), written entirely by her and Lange, quickly became Shania’s breakthrough: selling over 20 million copies worldwide, the album saw the widespread success of now iconic singles such as “Any Man of Mine,” “Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under,” and “(If You’re Not In It For Love) I’m Outta Here.” The Woman in Me also brought Twain countless accolades, most notably the Grammy Award for Best Country Album, and solidified what we now know to be true: Shania was here to stay. While the album explored pop undertones, it would be her follow-up album Come On Over (1997) that would redefine our contemporary definition of pop crossover star, with the album becoming the highest-selling album by any female act in all of history, and the best-selling country album of all-time. Produced and written entirely again by Lange and Twain, Come On Over generated a massive 12 singles released over three years (you surely know them all: “You’re Still the One,” “From This Moment On,” “That Don’t Impress Me Much,” and “Man! I Feel Like a Woman,” among others), and launched Shania to the top of the world (literally). Twain didn’t tour for The Woman in Me, leading to the launch of the Come On Over Tour as her debut concert tour, which sold out worldwide and was one of the highest-grossing concert tours of the decade. By the late ‘90s, you could not discuss country music nor pop music without Shania Twain’s name coming up at least once: she was a country/pop crossover icon and a global superstar. Thus, the phrase: Shania Mania was in full swing.
Five years would pass before Twain’s next album, Up!, would appear. Released in 2002 and once again produced and written entirely by Twain and her husband, they recorded three versions of the album, color coded: pop (red version), country (green version), and world (blue version). Up! excelled because it combined the successful elements from both The Woman in Me and Come On Over: up-tempo crossover songs with a gentle mix of down to earth and honest country ballads. The album is 19 songs long (an extraordinary length for a country or a pop album, both then and now), and after the conclusion of her Up! Tour in 2004, Twain confirmed that she would take a well-deserved break from making music and, at the time, announced her retirement from performing, citing a weakened singing voice. It marked the beginning of her indefinite hiatus from music: in her autobiography, she wrote that she pushed herself too hard during the Come On Over and Up! eras, being unaccustomed to the rigors and demands of stardom, which caused her singing voice to be severely affected after a certain point. Twain and Lange retired to a quiet life at their home in Switzerland with their son, Eja (pronounced Asia, who was born in 2001), which was a nice existence for Twain, but she felt her husband growing increasingly distant from her (tracing it back to her last tour), and in 2008, she discovered Lange’s affair with his assistant and her best friend, Marie-Anne Thiebaud. Still suffering from the weakened singing voice that caused her to retire from performing years prior, the pain of her husband’s affair led her to fall into a depression that only worsened her vocal condition. “I lost control of my voice and by 2008 I couldn’t project – I couldn’t even call out to the dog,” she said later. “I saw dozens of voice specialists but no one could help me. I initially put it down to exhaustion, thinking, ‘I’m a mother, I’m on the road, I’ve been doing this nonstop for all these years – who wouldn’t be tired?’ But I wasn’t physically tired of the lifestyle, I just couldn’t sing. It was like a part of me had died. I was grieving for the loss of the one thing I really enjoyed. The way I expressed myself was gone. It was devastating.” In 2009, Twain released a letter to her fans, citing personal pains as the reason for her lack of musical output, and a spokesperson from her label later commented that a new album from the singer was “nowhere in sight.” Regardless of the fact that she wasn’t performing or releasing music, Shania had re-entered the pop cultural conversation not only as a victim of heartbreak and betrayal, but as someone whom everyone knew was strong enough to eventually come out clean on the other side.
Twain returned to the limelight in 2011, publishing her autobiography From This Moment On, marrying the ex-husband of her best friend, and revealing that she had a vocal condition called dysphonia (which she also attributes to a previous battle with Lyme disease), and at one point, she believed she would never sing again. In her autobiography, Twain attributes the severe depression she experienced not only to the breakdown of her marriage, but to unresolved issues she had from the domestic violence and extreme poverty she experienced in her childhood (she recently alluded to being a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of her father), the death of her parents, stress from stardom, and then her ultimate divorce. Twain said the divorce caused her to lose her voice, literally and figuratively, and re-open wounds she had never fully healed. “I started peeling back the layers of pain I was in and all the other griefs and disappointments and challenges came to the surface,” she said. “And I thought: ‘I’ve been through worse and it’s time to put it all into perspective.’ When my parents died, I experienced a much deeper grief than even the betrayal. I was just out of myself. When you add shock to grief, it does crazy things to your mind. And that really helped me through – this was not nearly as bad as my parents dying. I survived that and I don’t want to give this so much credit.” She chronicled her vocal rehabilitation on the OWN miniseries Why Not? with Shania Twain, and released her first single in 6 years, “Today Is Your Day,” which she wrote to cheer herself up. By 2012, Shania was ready to return to the concert stage in a Las Vegas residency show, Shania: Still the One, which ran until 2014 for a total of 105 shows. For many, it appeared as though Twain’s time as a recording artist had come to an end, and she was living out her final glory days in Vegas and later on what was billed as her farewell tour in 2015, the North American Rock This Country Tour. But loyal fans (such as myself) held out hope that this wasn’t all Shania had left for us—she teased about writing new material on social media for ages—and in 2017, fifteen years since her last studio release, a new album from Shania Twain finally became a reality: Now.
While the urge to jump for joy was rightly justified, there were important things to acknowledge on Shania’s road to releasing new music. Not only had she finally recovered her voice after years of vocal issues, but several key factors in what catapulted the Shania Twain the world fell in love with to worldwide superstardom were now gone. Not only had she dealt with a multitude of vocal issues, but she had to learn and accept that she was never going to be able to sing like she used to. “I’ve had to accept that my voice will never be the same again. I will never sing my old hits like I used to,” she said. “I’ve had to relearn how to use my voice. When I sing a powerful note, it’s in a different place. It wasn’t until Vegas that I thought about a real comeback. It would have been comfortable to stick with old material, but I had something to say.” As if that wasn’t enough, one key difference in the Shania Twain of today is the absence of her longtime producer—her cheating ex-husband, Mutt Lange. What is important to note is that Lange practically invented the Shania Twain that would go on to sell 75 million albums worldwide and become the highest-selling country music artist of all-time. Before Twain collaborated with Lange, she was just a talented young girl with a label that didn’t know how to use her. Mutt Lange played a large part in Shania’s evolution as an artist, and Now is the first of her albums to not be produced by him since her practically unknown and forgotten 1993 debut album. “Mutt was incredible with the feel and groove of a song,” she wrote in her autobiography, “and my challenge was to write lyrics and melody to his phrasing. As much as I loved Mutt as my husband, it’s possible I admired him even more for the unique way his musical mind worked. It was as though the only person who really had the whole thing in his head all at one time was Mutt.” Still, Twain persevered—she accepted the fact that her voice wasn’t what it once was, found herself some new producers to collaborate with, and wrote her new album entirely by herself. “My new songs are the most personal I have ever shared,” she said. “I’ve written about feeling unappreciated in my marriage and about fighting back against pain. I’ve done my fair share of self-pitying and that’s in there, too. Writing has helped me come to terms with things emotionally. The album is about going from feeling lost to found, from feeling sad to happy. I have learned how vulnerable I can be.” She also acknowledged the anxiety of returning to the music landscape after so long, saying that she had to be emotionally, physically and psychologically prepared: “My biggest fear wasn’t being exposed, it was my voice. I can get away with more when I perform because I can improvise. An album is a bigger commitment because people can analyse it. I had to be sure I was ready.”
Not only was there the pressure of returning to music after fifteen years, but there was the fact that, at one time, Shania Twain was one of the biggest stars in the world, both on the charts and in people’s hearts. No doubt that people would be watching and listening, but she was now having to find her footing in a different aspect of the pop music landscape. Any other pop star who had fifteen years between albums would surely not survive, just based on the politics that demand constant output to keep up with a fickle, youth-obsessed industry. But Shania isn’t just any pop star—she’s Shania freaking Twain, and the popularity of her tours prior to the release of Now let alone her ridiculously endearing greatest hits gave her a different angle to play: nostalgia. But for her loyal fans, the release of a new studio album after so long was nothing short of extraordinary, regardless of the album’s overall quality.
Now was released to mixed reviews, which I can’t say are completely unjustified. As much we can acknowledge that the release of a new album after so long and after enduring more than her fair share of personal and professional pains is transcendent on paper, what our ears hear isn’t always as easy to fall in love with, at least at first. But one thing among critics remained clear: Shania Twain’s artistry did not live and die with Mutt Lange. Not only did she write the album entirely by herself, she co-produced every track on Now, proving that she can still hold her own without her longtime producer and husband who once helped her revolutionize country and pop music. While many applauded her long-awaited return to music, the recurring complaint was Twain’s vocals: the Los Angeles Times said she sounded “flat and robotic” in the up-tempo songs, The Wall Street Journal (who praised the album overall) criticized Twain’s “singing in a somewhat lower register,” and The Guardian wrote that the album is a “strong comeback that plays to Twain’s strengths, but it could have done with some more of her feisty, Brad Pitt-skewering self, and fewer inspirational metaphors.” But that’s just the thing—the feisty, Brad Pitt-skewering Shania is a thing of the past, and despite that being a known fact, listeners (myself included) couldn’t help but go into the new album with those tunes in mind, because it’s really all we’ve ever known of her. Twain told Rolling Stone that she told anyone involved to forget about all her previous material while making Now, saying she didn’t want it to be related to her ex-husband’s productions. “I wanted a more organic approach,” she said. “I was reflecting on the darkness.” The resulting material introduced a new Shania Twain who had been through enough hell that she was ready to sing about it, but also with enough upbeat pop-influenced tracks to balance it all out, because that’s what Shania has always done best. Now also generated its fair share of positive reviews that capitalized on how big a deal her first album in fifteen years was; Pitchfork stated that Twain’s return to public life and performance is “the foundation of one of this decade’s most remarkable comeback stories,” reminding everyone that as much as Shania Twain doesn’t have anything left to prove, Now embodies the power of creative risks when a masterclass songwriter is left to her own devices.
As far as my relationship with Now goes, I was underwhelmed by the album at first, merely because it introduced me to a Shania Twain that I had never experienced, and there were a few lackluster moments. But that didn’t stop me from listening to the album over and over again, even when I wasn’t really in the mood, because the novelty of having a new Shania Twain album after so long just never seemed to wear off. And, in listening a few thousand more times, I began to like more than a few tracks, even if I could still acknowledge that, vocally, Shania isn’t what she used to be. But deep down I knew the quality of the album didn’t matter, because a global icon such as herself truly doesn’t have anything left to prove. The fact that the album even got made and was released at all is the miracle here, and in some backwards way, I think that’s what made me fall in love with it. The following winter after Now came out, I was going through a rough patch with anxiety and depression, and listening to music even when I didn’t feel like it was practically the only thing that got me through it. Since I was young, Shania Twain’s music has always cheered me up in some way, even when I didn’t feel like it. After making my way through all of the old stuff, I listened to Now from start to finish one more time, and it resonated with me in new ways I didn’t understand at the time. I was weary of songs like “Poor Me” and “Who’s Gonna Be Your Girl” when the album came out, but now they were calming me down. Shania singing “life’s about joy, life’s about pain, it’s all about forgiving, and the will to walk away” was suddenly making me feel better when I had pretty much convinced myself that wasn’t possible. Listening to the album didn’t solve my problems, but it sure made them a hell of a lot easier to face. It was only when I saw Twain on her latest arena tour in support of Now, the Shania Now Tour, did I realize that I had listened to songs like “I’m Alright” an embarrassing amount of times. Seeing Shania back in full swing was nothing short of a religious experience for me, given that there was a time where I never thought I would get to see her performing new songs. The Now Tour may have shown a lack of commitment towards her previously announced retirement (listen to more on that here), but it showed Twain is living proof that an artist can fall down and lose everything (what goes Up! must come down, after all) and come back again and again with the vocals, costumes, and performance ability to prove it. I think it took myself going through my own darkness to finally experience the darker, somber, and more emotional material on Now the way Shania intended it, and for that I’m grateful. Going from singing “That Don’t Impress Me Much” at the top of my lungs from the backseat as a child to having her darker, more somber material help me through a tough time as an adult truly feels like a full-circle moment in my evolution as a person. I love and admire Shania Twain very much, and she will always be The One.