In the world of country and western, fresh new dudes are allowed to become good ol’ boys, George Strait turning out the same record every couple years, Garth keeping pace, and Alan Jackson maintaining a freakin’ concept career about the ethical virtues of going nowhere. But for women, the typical trajectory is quite the opposite. It’s a working strategy to show up all showy: “young slatterns . . . tricked out that night with gauds from imaginations which have no peasant tradition to give them character but flutter and flaunt sheer rags,” as the good doctor Bill C. Williams put it. But darlin’, you’d better get off that dime if you want to stick around; the pressure on women to convert from good-time girl to the good wife is immense. Excepting endlessly self-ironizing Dolly Parton, nobody likes an old slattern—at least not the faux-upright middle-aged guys with their trigger fingers on the playlists.
The forces in play push women either toward the peasant tradition or away from it. They can retreat to a revanchist classicism, à la Patty Loveless or the Dixie Chicks. Or they can ambitiously sidle away from Nashville in quest of the MOR audience, like most of the popular country chanteuses of the last two decades: K.T. Oslin, Roseanne Cash, Mary-Chapin Carpenter, Trisha Yearwood, Wynonna, Lee Ann Womack, and Faith Hill. The goes-both-ways exception to this rule is Dolly Parton, who is the exception to every rule and that’s why she has her own theme park. For everyone else, well, it’s a conundrum that’s been fucking with women since long before c&w became one of the great indigenous musics of these United States.
By “these United States” I mean Canada too, which if you throw out Quebec is as American as Avril Lavigne. Now, the best Quebecois band ever was Banlieue Rouge, which means “Red Suburb” in American, and they will rock you like a Communist hurricane. But the rest of Canada, apologies to Joni Mitchell and Avril Wine, is country country—as in Calgary has the world’s biggest rodeo, as in the survival of handlebar mustaches north of the border, and especially as in the nation’s easy way with the Nashville sound: Terri Clark, Michelle Wright, and k.d. lang, to name just a few. You might even argue that such immigrants are, far more than you or I, profoundly American—not the birth certificate, but the dream. They buy into what we’re born into; they’re true believers. No one is more American than a Canadian country singer. And that goes double for Shania Twain.
Shania Twain (by which I really mean Shania Twain and Mutt Lange) has already had an astonishing career, born of one necessity and one insight. The former lies in the choice largely to forego ballads, better left to technically accomplished singers with jeu d’esprit deficiencies; the latter lies in the recognition that “New Country” could easily encompass robo-nerf metal—hell, the hairdos are the same, and doesn’t “pour some sugar on me” sound like the idiom of a Nashville waitress anyways? Quicker than you could say Tanya Tucker, Shania’s the queen of the good-time girls, with a def leopard-print catsuit and enough aerobics-core smashes on the two Twain/Lange records that when she tosses off an album cut in concert it seems like noblesse oblige. And these haven’t just been hits, they’ve mostly been terrific songs—in the way of much great immigrant art, she saw clearly what historical baggage and which baroque regulations had become irrelevant and slashed them away to intensify the form, bugging a few traditionalists and selling billions. Over the course of The Woman in Me and Come On Over, Shania Twain was it: the pure product.
“The pure products of America go crazy,” as the aforementioned Doctor Williams announced. It would be easy to say that her new record Up! is simply lousy, but that wouldn’t get to the heart of the matter. It’s loco, in an uncomfortable and depressing way—a zenith of freak-out over what to do next.
Critic Jon Dolan, speculating on what the new record would look like, given the last one’s imperious and bountiful 16 tracks and seemingly endless hits, proposed “a 14-CD box set co-produced by Irv Gotti, Mutt Lange, and George Soros, with remixes by Squarepusher and a disc called Shania’s Moods on which each track emits a different scent.” Close. If only the crazy excess of Up! was about something as interesting as self-indulgence; instead, it’s conditioned by the Nashville narratives, none of which suit her talents or tastes.
Up! sports 38 tunes—sort of. A stealth twofer, the same 19 songs appear on both the red and green discs, but . . . well . . . supposedly, red is for pop and green for country. It would be quippy to say that one can scarcely tell the difference, but the coding is fairly straightforward: Pop has shinier guitars and more multitracking, while country means, as ever, banjos. One could even distinguish, if one were getting paid to pay overclose attention, how some songs seem to benefit more from one treatment than the other: The title track (one of nine that take an exclamation point!) breathes better in the open spaces of “green,” while lead single “I’m Gonna Getcha Good!” and “Ka-Ching!” depend on pushing you along with the “red” wave of sound. And so on. And yet . . . everything sounds pretty much the same.
The problem isn’t so much telling disc from disc as song from song. Up! Is a kind of hysterical paralysis brought on by an untenable choice. The two discs, pretty straightforwardly, represent the two moves Nashville offers the good-time girl: red the MOR embrace, green the traditionalist retreat. Shania Twain saw her choices—she made a critical reading of her field, like every intelligent artist—and froze. Or maybe she thought that choosing both was a way out. But accepting all the terms is no more nervy than failing to select among them; it is, finally, dutiful in the way always asked of country women. And that inescapable call to duty is what makes you crazy, makes you unable to exercise your own gifts. Not a single song has the wildly dense hooks; no hearts kick-started here. The issue isn’t whether MOR and NashTrad are bright or dull poles—but that, magnetized between the two, the songs are one after the next lacking the nerve and verve that made Shania great. And no amount of exclamation points will bring them back. Score another one for the dull ol’ boys, and wave goodbye to another pure product of America.
“Shania Twain’s Up: The Blue Version Caters to Electro-Rockin’ Bollywood Enthusiasts” by Kembrew McLeod