On the Record
Shania Twain’s Come On Over is an overlooked feminist masterpiece
It’s one of the biggest-selling albums ever and took country-pop global but its themes of female empowerment are often forgotten. In our second column on personal favourites, Roisin O'Connor reappraises a record that impresses her, very much
I was seven years old when Come On Over was released in the UK. It was 1999, and my half of the bedroom I shared with my younger brother was littered with cassettes, felt-tip pens, and books by Roald Dahl and Jacqueline Wilson. Downstairs, we had a CD player and shelves stacked with my parents’ albums: The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones and Dire Straits for my dad; Kate Bush, The Kinks, Fleetwood Mac and The Police for my mum. I’d heard “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” on the radio and begged my mum to let me buy the album with my pocket money. Against the odds, America’s biggest country music star found her way into the family collection.
Seven-year-olds don’t really listen out for things like how good the production is, or whether the lyrics reference some obscure poem. Instead I lasered in on Twain’s warm, Canadian twang singing huge choruses over fiddles made to sound like synths. I felt the thrill of trying to emulate her brassy confidence on that most cutting of lines: “OK, so you’re Brad Pitt?... That don’t impress me much!” Later, I’d learn that most of these songs were performed in a major key, so it’s no wonder they were such a joy to sing along to. I had a dance routine for every one of them.
With the help of her producer and then-husband Mutt Lange, who had previously worked on stadium rock albums for the likes of AC/DC and Def Leppard, Twain made the definitive country-pop album. Come On Over is a slam-dunk of hits, and one that taught me about female empowerment. A full 15 years before the #MeToo movement, Twain was singing about consent on “If You Wanna Touch Her, Ask!” and domestic abuse on “Black Eyes, Blue Tears”. On the defiant “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!”, meanwhile, she flouted every rule about what a demure country chanteuse was supposed to be and she inverted Dolly Parton’s “9-5” on “Honey, I’m Home”. It’s the most traditional sounding song on the record but it sees Twain demanding that her partner look after her when she comes home from a crappy day at work. “Shania’s brand,” the singer-songwriter Caitlin Rose told Rolling Stone in 2017, “was ‘I will take no s**t and all of your money, thanks!’ … nobody stepped on Shania, especially not the men in her songs.”
There was even a dig at the Nashville purists on the album: “Rock This Country!”. Shania wasn’t afraid – she was hard as nails, raised in a household in Timmins, Ontario, where food was scarce and her mother and stepfather engaged in a tumultuous, often violent relationship. By the time she was eight, she was singing in bars to help support her family. And she wasn’t afraid of taking risks with her music, either. Her second album, 1995’s The Woman in Me, made her a star in country music but failed to chart at all in the UK and so in order to go global, her sound had to morph into something country that resembled pop. Lange spent four months remixing the album to remove many of the traditional country elements from the album’s original US version and that’s the version that I heard as a child. What remained was Twain’s message, one shared by the prominent female artists in the late Nineties, from Alanis Morissette to Madonna, that explored empowered female sexuality.
However scandalised Nashville was by Twain’s pop hooks and glam-rock wardrobe, the rest of the world was sold. Come On Over is a monolith that shattered industry records and was a No 1 country album across four different years, eventually topping the UK charts in 1999, 74 weeks after it had originally been released here. It is still one of the biggest-selling records of all time, shifting over 40 million copies worldwide. Songs such as “That Don’t Impress Me Much” have the kind of winking, sarcastic tone that Taylor Swift – who decided to pursue her own career after hearing Twain’s music – would later inject into hit songs such as “Blank Space” and “We Are Never Getting Back Together”. Without Shania, there likely wouldn’t be a Taylor.
But Come On Over’s success didn’t always overshadow its critics. In 2000, Come On Over became the best-selling album of all time by a female solo artist and yet a 1999 article in The Observer titled “Could this be the worst year in the history of pop music?” bemoaned Twain’s “fake country”. Not only that but the music press was still hardwired to pit female artists against each other: just a few months later, the same publication instructed Twain to “move over” as it profiled another rising female country star, Faith Hill.
The reality was that 1999 was a defining year for women in music. The 41st Grammys was dubbed the “Grammy Year of Women” because each of the nominees for Album of the Year was a woman or a band fronted by a woman, while Lauryn Hill was to set an industry record as the first woman to win five Grammys in one night.
In the past few years, pop writing has evolved so that “serious” music sections in national publications can just as easily publish a think piece on Britney Spears as they can on Bob Dylan. But there is still a chasm between the two: you still might not expect to see Shania Twain’s albums recommended by a “serious” writer, and it often falls through the cracks of poptimist criticism. But I would argue that Come On Over has stood the test of time just as much as anything by Fleetwood Mac or The Beatles. It broke records and boundaries and succeeded in being enjoyed by as many people as possible, and it has some killer riffs.
For me, it’s the album I always come back to. I listen to it when I’m cleaning my flat; if I’ve had a rubbish day and need cheering up; when a member of the opposite sex really pisses me off. I actually stopped listening to music last year, after breaking my ankle, which is a scary situation for any music critic. I was bed-bound and fell into a depression. But, even though I couldn’t dance, Come On Over was the album that pulled me out of the fog. Shania, you’re still the one.