Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? On our new show, 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s, Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla embarks on a quest to answer those questions, one track at a time. Follow and listen for free exclusively on Spotify. Below is an excerpt from Episode 20, which explores the music of Shania Twain and the state of country in the ’90s with help from Nashville writer Marissa R. Moss.
Let’s be reductive and say that a truly great country song either makes you burst into tears in a crowded bar or gets you to scream along to the chorus in a crowded bar. “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” is a scream-along song with just the faintest aura of a burst-into-tears song. It was quietly revolutionary, within that ’90s country wormhole, for its spectacular warmth, for its joyous sense of inclusion within country music’s sordid history of exclusion. In 2004, The Advocate interviewed Shania and praised “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” as “a great cross-dressing anthem,” and she said, “It’s something I’m really proud of. A lot of the stuff I do has such a feminine, female perspective, but a powerful one. It’s not only Girl Power, it’s Gay Power. Yeah, it’s G power.” This song is Shania’s attempt to pitch as large and wide a tent as humanly possible.
You can’t even call it the subtext: To repeat, the title of this song is “Man!” exclamation point “I Feel Like a Woman!” exclamation point. The video takes the ’80s Glam Femmebot Backing Band concept from Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” but flips the genders, so Shania’s backing band is a bunch of vacant-looking pretty boys, she’s wearing a veil and a really aggressively tilted top hat, it’s brilliant. The sad part here, if you’re like me and you always insist on finding the sad part, is that this song, like pretty much every song on all three of Shania’s diamond-selling albums, is also a spirited dialogue, a personal-chemistry explosion, an exultant love letter passed back and forth between Shania and her husband and superstar producer, Mutt Lange. And that story, on a personal-chemistry level, would end in betrayal, would end in disaster, would end with her broken dreams dancing in and out of the beams of a neon moon. But maybe all that still doesn’t matter. Maybe even now, when she forgets she’s a lady, she forgets about all that other bullshit, too.
One of the bestselling artists in American country music history is—and I betcha you knew this, too—Canadian. Eileen Regina Edwards was born in Windsor, Ontario, in 1965. She grew up mostly in Timmins, Ontario—big logging town, big gold-mining town. The Twain part came first: As a child, she took her stepfather Jerry Twain‘s last name. The Shania part would come later, when Nashville insisted on a flashier stage name. In 2011, Shania wrote a memoir called From This Moment On, and that book is harrowing: extreme poverty, domestic abuse, child abuse, sexual harassment and abuse. Her mother and stepfather died in a terrible car accident in 1987; she put her musical career on hold for a while to care for her younger siblings. If you’re Shania, or if you’re reading Shania, you take the quick bursts of happiness and freedom and frivolity where you can find them. Before the death of her parents, she writes about living in Toronto, living in the Big City at 18 years old, writing songs, trying to Make It, and sometimes she’d go out with her friends to gay bars, load up on eyeliner, spike up their hair, dress to excess, and dance all night to Madonna’s “Material Girl” and Prince’s “When Doves Cry” and UB40’s “Red, Red Wine.” Maybe file that scene away for later, the way she filed it away, for when she truly became Shania, and got to write her own songs, and control her own style, and use as many exclamation points as she wanted.
She makes it to Nashville. She gets a record deal. She puts out her first album in 1993. It’s called Shania Twain. She doesn’t like it. Pretty much nobody does. She laments, in her autobiography, that the songs her label pitched her were “formulaic, cookie-cutter stuff.” She likens the recording process to “knocking out commercial jingles.” She poses, on the cover, with a wolf. Her voice sounds powerful and buoyant and distinctive, but it also sounds like she’s trapped in a deep well, and she’s singing up to the wolf, who is staring down at her, confused, from the mouth of the well. This whole situation is suboptimal. The first 10 seconds of every track are all super boring. The best song on Shania Twain, not coincidentally, is the only song she cowrote. It’s called “God Ain’t Gonna Getcha for That.” That’s right: G-E-T-C-H-A. There she is.
I dig the message here: You’re not gonna go to hell for dancing with me. But overall, this is one of those albums that’s fascinating because you get to marvel at how an incredibly successful person initially failed. Or really you marvel at how Nashville failed her. Shania Twain’s lead single was called “What Made You Say That,” which is unremarkable apart from the music video, in which she cavorts with a vacant-looking stud on the beach. One of Shania’s outfits bares her midriff, which was quite scandalous at the time, CMT at first refused to play it, though in her memoir Shania still doesn’t get all the fuss—she’s way more offended now by her bushy eyebrows. It’s not exactly the “Wicked Game” video. But the clip for “What Made You Say That” serves one very important purpose, in that it attracts the attention, professional and otherwise, of one Robert John “Mutt” Lange, superproducer. AC/DC, Def Leppard, Bryan Adams, Billy Ocean, et cetera. His Def Leppard associations will be most important, for our purposes.
Mutt and Shania talk on the phone. They meet in person. They start writing songs together. They start—canoodling? Soon they will be married. Soon, Shania Twain’s second album, 1995’s The Woman in Me, will emerge, with Mutt in tow but Shania very much in the driver’s seat. Soon, The Woman in Me will sell 12 million copies in the United States. The gargantuan arena-crossover force of the union between these two people can first truly be felt on the song “Any Man of Mine.” You heard the first few seconds of that one a little a while ago, but the moment in this song when the beat shifts from “We Will Rock You” to something a little more pedal-steel-friendly is a stupendous moment indeed. Shania is born. Shania and Mutt are born. The modern crossover country superstar is born.
To hear the full episode click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.