There was a moment in 1998, somewhere between the release of the chart-topping singles “You’re Still The One” and “That Don’t Impress Me Much”, when Shania Twain became the sexiest woman on the face of the Earth, a heart of Aphrodite, its mixture of country girl charm, haute couture glamor and assumed sexuality makes it the object of all worldly desires. Like Dolly Parton and Madonna before her, and Jennifer Lopez, Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj after, the moment will pass but lives on in our fantasies, the image of her hitchhiking through the desert in a leopard print cape forever imprinted in our amygdala.
25 years after the release of his record third album, 1997 Come here, Shania Twain no longer attracts our attention as it once did, but her impact on pop and country music remains colossal. Known as “the queen of country pop”, she is the mother of contemporary country, making it safe for rock instrumentation, pop-cultural references and pop production. Netflix’s new documentary Shania Twain: Not just a girl finds her looking back at her past and looking to the future.
Born in 1965, Twain grew up 1,000 miles from Nashville in the Canadian mining town of Timmins, Ontario. Her family was struggling financially and there was violence at home. Music was a refuge. As a child, her mother took her to local bars to sing after hours, much to her stepfather’s dismay. At a young age, she had a repertoire of 100 songs, and footage from her performances shows a mastery of country vocal techniques well beyond her years. As a teenager, she started singing rock, which gave her confidence and a desire to write her own material.
In November 1987, Twain’s career aspirations came to a screeching halt when his parents were killed in a car accident. At just 22, she was now the legal guardian of three younger siblings. She considered quitting music and getting a “real job”, but with the encouragement of her mentor Mary Bailey, she got a singing gig at a Canadian seaside resort. The “Vegas-style show” would prepare her for her later endeavors, teaching her to “sing and wear high-heeled shoes.”
Twain signed her first recording contract in 1992 but despite her songwriting ambitions, she only received one co-writing credit on her 10-song debut. “I didn’t cry about it. I accepted it,” she said in a neutral tone. Bailey took over his leadership and says none of them were taken seriously by the country music establishment. “You have to work three times as hard as the average guy in country music to stand a chance. Being relentless was the only way,” says Twain.
As the norm-breaking masked gay country singer Orville Peck notes, women in country music are held to different standards than men, and in the 1990s they were still expected to embody “good Christian values”. Shut out of songwriting, Twain took control of her image. Her music video for 1993’s “What Made You Say That” looked far more contemporary than most of her contemporaries and would showcase her impressive midriff to the world. “I was a disruption to country music’s image,” she says, with fledgling CMT network initially reluctant to air the video.
Fortunately, the video caught the attention of famed AC/DC and Def Leppard producer Robert “Mutt” Lange. He and Twain began a songwriting collaboration that would lead to his smash hit, 1995’s The woman in me. The album set the stage for Come here, which remains the best-selling country album and best-selling album by a female solo artist of all time. His 2002 follow-up, At the top!would be Twain’s third consecutive album to sell over 10 million copies, making her one of the best-selling musical artists of all time.
Twain and Lange made great music together inside and outside the recording studio. Shortly after starting to collaborate, they fell in love and got married and in 2001 had a son, Eja. However, the couple would divorce in 2010 after Lange had an affair with Twain’s best friend, Marie-Anne Thiébaud. Neither Mutt nor Eja appear in the documentary and not mentioned is the fact that a year later Twain married Frédéric Thiébaud, Marie-Anne’s former husband.
Divorce and a bout with Lyme disease that weakened his singing voice almost completely derailed Twain’s multimillion-dollar career. Thanks to the encouragement of her friends and her innate confidence in herself, she overcame depression and fear and, in December 2012, began a multi-year residency at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. In 2017, she released her fifth studio album, Now, which debuted at number one. The documentary ends with Shania recording new material, finding new collaborators, and still excited about songwriting.
Shania Twain: Not just a girl is a good musical documentary, not a great one, that covers its professional highs and personal lows with workmanlike efficiency and skill. However, in a time when women are finally receiving some semblance of criticism, it’s vital to remind people how Shania Twain changed pop and country music forever. It’s hard to imagine that many of today’s greatest female artists would be where they are without her track record to follow.
Benjamin H. Smith is a New York-based writer, producer, and musician. Follow him on Twitter: @BHSmithNYC.