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Rock This County!

Mega-selling pop music may seem to be more about navel-sculpting than song-writing, but that won’t cut it for a stadium full of Shania Twain fans. What it takes to sell 19 million records.

Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2003, 7:30 p.m., Continental Airlines Arena

Sorry, Mr. Opening Act, but we didn’t know the Continental Airlines Arena was so near the NY/NJ border. Coming from Lower Manhattan, we were prepared for minutes and minutes of driving, not mere seconds. Confident there was time to spare, we kept the hammer down and sailed right past exit 16W. (Do call Continental Arena some time and listen to the recorded Directions Man. He thinks he’s funny. He is. He says “16 W!” with a lot of reverb, several times. See, if you’re coming on 95, the only thing you need to know is: 16 W. That’s the exit.)

Fosters beer at six bucks a pop. Oh frabjuous day, we could stay here for at least 25 minutes before going broke. We walk in precisely as the show starts, and this gives us something in common with Shania: we are punctual. The round stage rises to a mild plateau in the middle and is encircled by a big shower-curtain/scrim. The fabric both conceals and makes possible a Shania-shaped shadow. Floof! Down comes the curtain and the shadow ain’t Shania. Magick! But here she comes running up the aisle now.

“Hello, New Jersey!”

She’s wearing a red NJ Devils jersey, loose black pants, and chunky high-heel shoes. We’ve had a circus trick and now a sports reference—two bases touched. The band starts with “Man! I Feel Like A Woman!,” the lead-off track from Come On Over, her plate-shiftingly popular album. It has sold 19 million copies to date. That’s a paradigm. That’s a goddamn island.

In the break, she tells us her band has been with her for the past six years. They’re a multi-racial squadron of Americans and Australians. The Asian violin dude is from Chicago and the black drummer is from I don’t know where. A few guys are dressed in New Wave/Strokes-via-the-mall style, and everybody is in fabulous shape. (My friend leans over after two songs and says: “I gotta go to the gym.”) Except for the drummer, everyone sings into a headset as they multi-task multi-racially. There are more people of color in the band than in this entire stadium. Audience breaks down 70 percent female, more than 50 percent are over 30. But there are also lots of girls 10-and-below, and more above 60 than you’d expect. An eight-year-old with her mother and grandmother sits in front of us. The way you sell above five million? White women. Pollsters and media consultants are selling this idea for $500 an hour, but all you need to do is hit a Shania or Linkin Park show and you’ll see the 2004 Democrats’ wet dream jumping up and down and singing along with every word.

Robert John “Mutt” Lange’s Song Machine™ keeps the songs coming without a bump for more than 45 minutes. This pleasure-delivery mechanism is no joke. When Lange figured out AC/D.C. plus Abba plus Gipsy Kings was the Yu-Gi-Oh! Card that could beat even Sting and Metallica, he must have touched his little hermit nuts, gently, in glee. Maybe a lil’ electric twang went up his mullet as he shuffled his slippers back and forth on the slain bear rug.

Musical thing that Shania is trying to make her own: The white female violin player, Asian violin player, and gay Canadian violin player (who also plays other things) all dance with their violins, kinda not knowing what to do. But when they play, they switch from very heavily coded country-playing to some stabby thing that’s closer to horns or guitars and isn’t always immediately identifiable as strings. This move takes what is only nominally country music anyway and pushes it farther into the nameless middle trench that Shania helps to define.

I’ll defend to the death Xtina’s right to dress like an extra in Star Whores but I love that thousands of girls are here watching a CEO do her thing without also having to do a pole dance. The little girls are bugging. Every time a song from Come On Over kicks in, they stand up and dance like crazy. The girl in front of us dances really well. Promotional thing Shania has made her own: she signs autographs while she sings. Not just bridge sections or verses nobody knows. She signs during choruses, climaxes, you name it, signing shirts and hats all the merry while. She’s diligent, making sure people get their pens back and that everyone who gets near the stage gets an autograph. This continues through the whole show. She brings up a girl to help plug a local food charity and gets another brave girl to sing “I’m Gonna Getcha Good!” (This is our favorite tune of the evening. When Shania does it, is it disco?) Some girls freak when they get near La Shania, but most of the kids seem relaxed in her presence.

But this makes sense. Shania is the most relaxed superstar I’ve ever seen. She never really dances, or strikes poses, or does anything particular performative. (Obviously she’s kept her tight bod and wind-swept hair in shape because somebody’s watching, but that’s different.) What she conveys is power and ease. She trots around the stage, happy to be part of the Shania Twain Experience™, but it’s not like she’s going to work for us. She’s done enough. There’s some reverb on her voice, but no pitch correction. She goes flat every now and then. Who cares? (The backing vocals are harder to suss out, since there are eight other people singing, ostensibly.) Shania is obliging in temperament, but feels obliged to do nothing. The power of this is considerable, but what makes the show symbolically potent eventually makes it slightly dull.

Even after she’s gotten the crowd to focus with “You’re Still The One,” she doesn’t capitalize. She never chases a song, pushes her voice, or sweats. She doesn’t get transported by anything she’s doing, nor does she want to. The songs are about fidelity and sticking it out, so she follows suit. No crazy spirit summoning here—this is rock stripped of all bodily fluids. The songbook is so strong that tedium doesn’t set in for almost an hour, but all of a sudden, I find I want more. A whispered secret, a peck on the cheek, a joke, an accidental grind, a cry of pain or joy, a fast clinch in the storeroom. Not happening.

Her second outfit, after a brief spell in a Nets jersey, is tighter mall bondage pants with weird yellow laces creeping up the legs, and a tight yellow tank-top. No belly showing and no shift in performing style. That’s it for Sex Sells tonight; anyone expecting more is out of luck. I’ll defend to the death Xtina’s right to dress like an extra in Star Whores but I love that thousands of girls are here watching a CEO do her thing without also having to do a pole dance. (When Shania does “She’s Not Just A Pretty Face,” a montage of various female professionals is projected on the screens. No different than a high-powered corpo conference presentation, but I get misty anyway.)

We get a local high-school drum corps, a terrible vaudeville routine from her drummer (drummers!), and a big cloud of confetti when the show ends. (Little pieces of purple and white tissue-paper, if you’re wondering. No printed logo, no website.) It’s amazing how much of pop mythology she’s replaced with business-world values, and how little it detracts from the overall entertainment level. I would trade a hundred high-cred indie shows for another Shania show easy. But the mountain top? Can she get you there? No. She’s getting more people on board. The rest is someone else’s job.
 

Sasha Frere-Jones is a writer and musician from New York. He can be found here. More by Sasha Frere-Jones