(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
As any keen-eared observer of the country music scene will testify, Shania Twain has been working for some time to achieve the goal she now has apparently reached with the release of her new CD Up!. And that is: world domination.
Twain has created a free-floating, non-generic world music that is simultaneously country and pop and neither. For the past few decades, pop and country have jousted back and forth for control of the great middle ground of music audiences. Anytime there has been a vacuum in pop and rock, country has rushed in to fill the void, whether it has been the Nashville Sound, the Urban Cowboy movement, Outlaw Music, the O Brother phenomenon or Garth Brooks .
Now Shania has decreed that there will be no more pop music vacuums — she will be all music to all audiences. Unlike ZZ Top — who declared themselves “bad and nationwide” — Shania is good and worldwide. With her three versions of Up! she is trying to cover the whole world.
My modest suggestion in this space recently to color-code country music albums either red or blue (for the red and blue national audiences suggested from the last presidential election) appears to have borne fruit.
I’m happy to see that Twain took my color-coding idea seriously. She of course has adopted the more global approach of coding, releasing three different versions of the album in three different colors — pop (red), country (green) and blue (global). And her marketing idea is working, especially by grouping the red and green versions in one low-price package in the domestic release. Early sales figures indicated at press time that Up! would sell close to a million copies in its first week of release, in the U.S. alone.
Marketing genius aside, there are of course the odd nagging, critical questions left dangling in Shania’s dust. Such as: does just plugging banjo, fiddle or steel guitar into nonspecific songs somehow transform them into country songs? Does aping the infectious sound of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” in the song “C’est La Vie” suggest that the Twain melody machine is running a tad thin on ideas? And, even though she and husband and producer Mutt Lange recorded the three different versions of the album, in reality the three don’t really sound so different.
Traditionally, country songs draw from personal experience, transforming the personal into the universal. Shania, like most pop writers, is attempting to do the reverse. She’s trying to convert universal sentiments (I’m strong, life can be unfair, things will be all right, love is everywhere) into personal experience. Shania’s virtual country here is much more sterile than even her recent works. She does approach some of her earlier gritty moments here in “I Ain’t Goin’ Down,” a song with a backbone, about being a 15-year-old mother. And she’s still expressive with a love song, as with “Forever and for Always” and especially “When You Kiss Me.” Mostly, however, the album lives in its own spic-and-span world where ideas are perky and bright and are no more than surface-deep.
I hear from industry scuttlebutt that Lange actually started this project with the drum tracks from Shania’s last album Come On Over and just re-configured them in the computer to create tracks for the new songs. That’s certainly conceivable. There’s no doubt that Lange is a genius at conjuring up sound. There have been only two major modern developments in the sound of country music: producer and label president Jimmy Bowen’s converting Nashville’s studio sound from analog to digital and Mutt Lange’s transforming that sound from literal country to virtual country — with the considerable aid of his singer and wife. Bowen’s revolution was purely technical and audiences didn’t necessarily discern it; Lange’s and Twain’s revolution is cultural and hits audiences bigtime. Country music will never again be the same.
Science-fiction never contemplated the future of country music. Shania Twain has done it instead. This is the first country album that truly will be played — in its different incarnations — worldwide.