There is a photo I think about quite a lot—more than any reasonable person ought to, probably. It's from the 1998 VH1 Diva's show and, left to right, it features Gloria Estefan, Mariah Carey, Aretha Franklin, Carole King, Shania Twain, and Celine Dion. Everyone is wearing glitter or velour or both with a hint of lavender radiating off of the image. It captures a particular shift of the 90s; a pop tide turning. The picture celebrates women, of course, both rookies and legends, bringing together Franklin, Estefan, and King with the, then, quaintness of the "new" being Twain, Carey and, to a certain extent, Dion. By that point, Shania Twain would have released Come On Over, which turns 20 years old this weekend, crossing over from a country music act into the pop world.
As predictions go, this photo isn't really that strong of a fortune to tell of the future because you know, and knew then, that all of these women were on track to be famous and integral to pop culture. Twain created a bridge between pop and country—genres that were, at the time, seemingly worlds apart. Country music has its legends like Dolly Parton, Faith Hill, Taylor Swift, and The Dixie Chicks, to name a very brief few. All are monumentally successful performers in their realm. But Come On Over and Twain were different; she can be placed in an entirely separate, ascended spot on her own. The fact remains that now, at this very moment, looking back at that photo, Shania Twain is an icon.
Speaking to me on the phone from Los Angeles, I ask Shania Twain how she feels when words like legacy or icon are attributed to her and her career. Twain answers thoughtfully, yet with complete honesty that doesn't trip over her enormous success. "It makes me feel accomplished intellectually because I, like everybody else, am influenced by what those things mean and they mean something." She continues: "I don't take them lightly. I think that it is an honor to be considered those things."
Shania Twain was born Eilleen Regina Edwards in Windsor, Ontario in August 1965. She is both Eilleen and Shania, the woman in that photo surrounded around actual divas and the one who lived in Timmins, Ontario, chopping up wood for her family. She is also the one who, at eight-years-old, sang in bars; who worked in reforestation (managing a crew of all men); and the one who consumed literature and music as though they were the real nutrients she needed in life. Twain's Come On Over is in the top ten of best selling albums of all time; she has lived in Switzerland; written a book; toured the world; and is one of the few Canadians we will forever claim as our own and always be supremely proud of.
Shania Twain has—plainly— lived a life.
Twain is currently promoting her latest album, Now, which, if you hadn't heard, is her first release in 15 years. The driving narrative of every piece about this record is that she hasn't been part of music for the last decade and a half and this record marks her return. (But does a legend ever really go away?) Now is Twain's pivot into, well, now. "The whole reason I called the current album Now is because, with all of this time that has gone by, it's inevitable that I am different. I have evolved," she says. Twain assumed command on the record, something that she is proud of. In an industry that has historically more or less given performative measures of control to female pop stars, Twain actually took it. "It was very empowering to, you know, take that plunge and have faith in myself and… trust in my own ability," she says. "And, also, to brave the risk of taking responsibility on myself. To not rely on anybody else sharing that with me." The material is a balance of light and dark; of strength and vulnerability (and how those can be both at the same time.)
It's a coincidence, she says, that Now's release came during Come On Over's 20th anniversary year. To put it into perspective, 20 years later, Twain is still an essential part of pop culture canon. She recently appeared on this season's Broad City and over Halloween weekend, you could find people born long after Come On Over's initial release donning leopard print outfits, dressed as Twain from the "That Don't Impress Me Much" video—a track dedicated to every single woman who has ever come across a mediocre man who thought we should care about him. Her influence on pop culture is remarkable specifically because of this album. "I feel like I'm celebrating two incredible things in my life," she says. "I feel so gifted those years were as incredible as they were. It was an awesome time. It would be an awesome time in any artist's right to be looking back 20 years later on such a huge success."
Not only did this record give us "That Don't Impress Me Much" and "You're Still the One," it also gave us "Man! I Feel Like A Woman!", which is probably Twain's most well-known and successful track on any album ever. You'll never again be able to hear "let's go, girls" on it like you did the very first time you heard it. It's not necessarily revolutionary—even as an adlib—but, at the time, whether in 1997 or whenever it is you heard it, the song and its blink-and-you'll-miss-it legendary intro does feel extraordinary. It is all at once a command and a refuge; a pop "girls to the front" gesture for whomever needs a rallying cry and it is extended far beyond women, simply, as a group. What follows is a pulsing guitar riff for an electrifying and cheeky country song wrapped up in the gloss of pop with positive, affirming lyrics about how being sure of yourself is one of the best things possible.
Come On Over, like all of Twain's albums, works through stories of heartache, empowerment, love, defiance, and cheekiness. To a mainstream audience back then, her moves were bold. The capital F feminist signifier wasn't ever slapped on her music as a means of promotion—not like it is today, at least. But those values, and the rights of women, were integral to her work and are part of her personal belief system. "In a lot of those songs, [I'm] expressing a liberated perspective—a liberated woman's perspective on things with a sense of humor. You know, I'm not a man-hater or anything like that at all," she says. "I just wanted to say a lot of things that were true with a good spirit and still get my point across."
Nevertheless, there is one track on the record that, dishearteningly, holds weight 20 years later. On "If You Wanna Touch Her, Ask!" Twain sings over synths and a slow ripping guitar, "You must start from the heart and then/ If you wanna touch her/ Really wanna touch her/ if you wanna touch her, ask!" While the lyrics focus on a traditional concept of love (starting from the heart, taking it slow before sex, etc.) its underlying meaning is that consent is real and important. "'If You Want To Touch Her, Ask' could absolutely be a song released today. That is so fitting for the time but sad that it's fitting. And to think that 20 years later, we're still dealing with these things on such a grotesque level," Twain says. "It's a real eye-opener for me. When I was younger, it felt quite common to have gender domination problems or intimidation. Not that it was ever acceptable to me, which is why I wrote songs like that. It wasn't acceptable to me. It was awful and it needed to be said. I guess I sort of felt like we had come such a long way and I'm not sure we have."
Despite the barriers she has faced in the industry, and as a human woman existing in the world, she has persevered. Who she is as an artist is who she is as a person; she puts forth an assertion of her truth, she tells me, that is sincerely authentic and fans and critics have responded to that, including her as a universal staple of female independence. "It's not a sense a pride, it's a sense of independence. I can't think of anything worse than not being self-sufficient," she says. "To depend on someone monetarily or depend on someone for your own strength, I think is a mistake. I've always vowed to never do that. It's probably because I had very unreliable men in my life," she says. "I just figured: you know what? If I'm going to get anywhere in life, I'm going to have to do it myself. I'm not going to rely on any man to make that happen."
And that unwound something in me.
When I was seven years-old, the first album I ever received—gifted to me by my mom—was The Woman In Me. I've written about it, and Shania, before and how important she is not simply as a female pop star but as a woman who has worked exceptionally hard for her success. Receiving that album for Christmas when I was so little had a far heavier weight than just new music. My estranged father ruled over our house. Still, in her resolve and reluctance, my mom taught my sister and me to be strong and that we didn't need to rely on others for strength (read: most men.) And she did it with strategic moves such as this. I don't know what she felt when she saw how elated I was to see this cassette or if she noticed the hours I spent perfecting a lip sync to "Any Man of Mine." When Come On Over was released, I remember my mom and I watching the video for "That Don't Impress Me Much" and singing along. It was our code, this pop music; our language of being in this together, and that we could rely on each other. In seemingly small ways, both women left this huge impression on me. I imagine there are numerous stories like mine from women who have sought comfort in a pop star like Shania Twain.
Of the last words Twain says to me, she imparts a wisdom that speaks to when Come On Over was released 20 years ago as much as it does today with her record Now. "I've expressed a lot of sentiments in past and current songs [of] the strength of pulling yourself up and moving forward... risking whatever is necessary to get past them and face them," she says. Strength and courage and kindness are key to Twain's ethos—past, present, and certainly her future.
Shania is, by all counts, still the one.
Sarah did this for her mom. Follow her on Twitter.