“I've heard so many things, you know, like I ‘ruined country’ or ‘country will never be the same since Shania,’” Shania Twain recalls, as she chats with Yahoo Entertainment about her new career-spanning documentary, Shania Twain: Not Just a Girl. It’s almost impossible to believe that the artist responsible for the biggest country album of all time — 1997’s Come on Over, which sold 40 million copies worldwide — would ever be accused of ruining anything. But back in the ‘90s, Twain was seen as a “disruption” in Nashville, due to her unapologetically flashy image and pop-crossover appeal.
“I wasn't intentionally being disruptive. … I wasn't trying to bring everybody else with me, or change the [country] genre, or anything like that. I was just being me,” the singer-songwriter says with a shrug. “The documentary does set some records straight as far as, ‘Oh yeah, you guys remember how sexist certainly the industry was at the time, when I came out in country music?’ It was less [sexist] in pop, actually — which confused me very much. I'm like, ‘OK, why is there such a gap here? Why is there such a barrier?’ That probably made me a little more determined in the moments.”
Twain’s documentary, out this week on Netflix, dives deep into “the blood, sweat and tears” of her three-decade career, and she notes, “That in itself took some courage to revisit. I don't sit around thinking about the past every day, otherwise I might get a bit depressed! I'm somebody that likes to look to the future. I like to move forward. I like to look up, not down, and not behind. So, there was some emotional moments just looking back at all of that stuff.” The film covers her personal struggles — the death of her parents in a car accident, a battle with Lyme disease that nearly rendered her unable to sing, her divorce from producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange — but through it all, it makes a strong case for her artistry, which was once often overlooked.
In fact, the doc’s glimpse into Twain’s pre-fame days, when she aspired to be a Pat Benatar-esque rock diva, not only further illustrates her cross-genre appeal (“The way I think biologically is very country, but the punch and the dynamics and the unlimited expressions, that's all rock ‘n’ roll,” she tells Yahoo), but also shows why she clicked artistically with Mutt Lange. Lange was best known for working with AC/DC and Def Leppard before he produced Twain’s The Woman in Me, Come on Over, and Up! albums, and many doubters assumed that he was Twain’s Svengali — but that was far from the case.
“It was very natural,” says Twain of their professional partnership. “The documentary has been very important in that sense for me, to be able to explain a little bit of how most people thought, ‘This is really like the mismatch of the century!’ But really, we were very, very much in line, and the documentary explains that, I think, very well — how musically connected we were. It was a no-brainer for us. It just didn't seem that way to everybody else.”
When the media wasn’t harping on Lange’s contributions to Twain’s success, most of her press was hyper-focused on her (admittedly stunning) appearance. One particularly resonant segment of Not Just a Girl is a late-‘90s montage of reporters fawning over Twain’s beauty — while failing to discuss her music entirely. This irked Twain at the time, but those interviews were among the many incidents when she felt she needed to “bite her lip” and just play nice.
“As a young child, I took myself very seriously as a songwriter, as a thinker, as somebody who enjoyed a play on words, on chord progressions. At 8, I wasn't thinking about how beautiful I could be — I was thinking music,” Twain stresses. “So, when I look at those interviews… I see my facial language or expressions and my eyes, and I know exactly what I was thinking in that moment. It takes me right back. I felt like rolling my eyes in the moment. Even in the moment I'm thinking, ‘Things have to change. Is this really what I'm dealing with here, and what I'm going to have to deal with?’ But it was the reality at the time.
“For me, it's always been about visual art as well,” Twain continues, reflecting on such iconic music videos as the leopard-tastic “That Don’t Impress Me Much” or the “Addicted to Love”-inverting “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” She explains: “It was all a very complete picture from beginning to end. I was always visualizing what the songs would look like. From the beginning of making the songs, from writing the lyrics, I was already projecting myself and visualizing it. So, to be sort of shut down or not taken as seriously for the other part of the art that I did, yeah, it was awkward and sad for me in a way. … I mean, they got it eventually, but this is all about having tough skin and letting things roll off and just carry on, proving yourself.”
Twain recalls, with an incredulous laugh, one baffling instance when her record label really didn’t “get” her intentions behind one of her visuals. “In the video for ‘Any Man of Mine,’ I'm in the bathtub with bubbles, and there's a horse peeking in through the window and he hands me a towel. And I'm just thinking, ‘This is the coolest thing ever. I love horses. This is unique. Nobody else has this in their video. I want unique. I want original.’ I'm braless for a lot of that video as well. You know, just things like that, which I thought were just being very free and enjoying myself. So, I go back to the video department with the label, and they're like, ‘I think people are going to think bestiality when they see this video.’ I'm like, ‘Are you kidding? Where is this thinking coming from? I mean, this is, this is a pet!’ That's like saying, ‘OK, when you take a shower, make sure that your dog is not in the room.’ Come on now!
“So, I was frustrated in those moments,” Twain continues. “I was like, ‘If I have to overthink everything this much, I'm never going to be creative. I'm going to be so stifled.’ And those were things that were recurring in those early years. I remember thinking, ‘I'm going to go braless while I can, because I know that someday I'm going to be down to my knees and I just want to enjoy some of this natural buoyancy. This is just me enjoying being a woman.’ You are either burdened with your breasts or you feel good about your breasts, so which one do you want to be? I don't want to be burdened by my breasts! I want to enjoy them and wear things that make me feel like I'm happy I have them, instead of like, ‘Oh, bummer, I've got these.’ There were a lot of moments like that, where I just refused to resent being a woman.”
The word “feminism” comes up a lot in Not Just a Girl, with various famous fans, from queer country trailblazer Orville Peck to modern-day pop/country star and logical Twain successor Kelsea Ballerini, heralding Twain as a feminist role model. Twain, who spent years fighting a misogynist industry and so many hurtful preconceptions about her image and talent, has her own thoughts on the matter.
“I think it's all in the perception of whoever is making their conclusions about me,” Twain muses. “I'm not, like, a self-proclaimed feminist. I'm just myself. I'm just me. I'm making my own rules as I go. I myself feel like I had a huge shell to break out of, coming out of my teens. I was strapping my breasts down just to play football with the guys, because they were focusing on the wrong bounce! … I was always fighting my feminine curves in order to be taken seriously. And when I started to get creative freedom and these creative platforms as a recording artist, I'm like, ‘Wow, I'm going to play with this now. This is my playground. I am breaking free from this nonsense of pretending I'm not a girl, that I'm not a woman, or trying to hide behind something else to be taken seriously.’ So, that's probably feminism, in its own way. It's to me a very personal rejection of these stigmas that we are as women often branded with.”
While Twain stresses that she didn’t make Shania Twain: Not Just a Girl to settle any scores or right any perceived wrongs, she admits that her current renaissance feels “very celebratory.” It seems like everybody finally “gets it” now. In recent years, Twain, age 56, has recorded a duet with Orville Peck, made a surprise appearance with Harry Styles at Coachella, and closed out the American Music Awards while Post Malone fanboyed in the audience and belted along to every word. “I feel flattered by all of these young artists wanting to hang out with me and make music with me,” she chuckles. She’s particularly excited to release new music (her sixth studio album will come out next year), and she gushes about her documentary’s newly recorded title track, which sums up the self-declared “rebel’s” mindset 30 years into her unparalleled career.
“‘Not Just a Girl,’ that song says it all… which is why I chose that song for the documentary,” Twain declares. “Where I am and where I'm going, and where I hope everyone is going. Not just a girl — that is not just a four-letter word.”
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— Video produced by Jen Kucsak, edited by Jason Fitzpatrick