410 · 5 December 02
Shania Twain: Up!
Shania Twain's new album comes as a two-disc set. The two discs, red and green, each contain the same nineteen compositions, in the same order, at more or less the same running time. On the red disc the music is mixed as "pop", and on the green disc it is mixed as "country". Abroad the green disc is even replaced with a blue one that is mixed as "World". These genre labels are subject to micro- and macro-debate, but otherwise these are simply distribution facts. You can, with the help of a little importing, listen to this album three different ways.
The idea of subtly remixing songs for different audiences is, of course, not a new one. Mutt and Shania have done it before on individual songs, as have the Irish alter-Shanias the Corrs with similar material. Doing it with the whole album, however, and for me selling the versions as pairs at single-disc prices pushes the idea into the realm of genuinely audacious artistic statements. The clear implication is that "pop" and "country" differ in such superficial and quantifiable ways that Mutt Lange's studio, at least, has a box in a processor-rack somewhere with one big knob on the front, and with one hand he can dial the whole enterprise anywhere on the spectrum he wants. The blue disc complicates the exact metaphor, since you probably need a two-dimensional controller, but if these songs can be "mixed" into three different styles, why not eight? Why not just give the listener the controls and let them pick the exact balance of elements? We are edging towards the dream of interactive art, and a mediated form of interactivity, at that, in which the premise is that Mutt and Shania have done all the work that requires expertise and authorship, and have simply left you free to make the decisions that arise from your own listening preferences. Furthermore, the commercial audacity here is the idea that "pop" and "country" are not differently-addressed demographics, they're just different moods, and like Donny and Marie, we're all subject to little bits of both.
The reality is rather less revolutionary, which is either good or bad depending on your level of anticipation or apprehension about that particular revolution. "Mix" turns out to be a coy term for how these versions differ. It suggests that they contain more or less the same elements, just with different relative emphases, but in fact there are defining parts in each color that aren't present at all in the others. There's no big knob, unless by "knob" you mean a telephone, a session calendar, Mutt Lange's contact book, and a copy of Pro Tools. It's hardly revolutionary to assert that a "song", in the sense of its basic melodic/harmonic structure, can be performed in different styles, and in the end perhaps the strangest thing about the three versions of Up! may be that Mutt and Shania, shameless recidivists both, didn't go the whole pre-post-modern way and stage three completely independent recording sessions with three different human bands. Shania professes, in the liner notes, to love singing different styles, but actually her vocal performances are one of the few things that don't change at all between the colors, so she didn't get to. It's not even entirely clear which version of the backing tracks (if indeed any of these) she was listening to in the studio as she sang. This is what "mix" means in this context: there is one Shania, and the three colors are different ways to array her skirts around her. Except she tends to wear pants, but you get the point.
The other reality you'll quickly discover, even sticking with the domestic version, is that "pop" and "country" are relative terms. In the liner notes Shania just refers to the discs by color, and that's probably better. The red disc is subject to the full force of modern studio technology, or those aspects of modern studio technology that Mutt Lange cares about, at any rate. The green disc replaces a few of the red disc's whooshy machine noises with plinky acoustic-instrument noises and the occasional conciliatory slide-guitar lick. I'm not totally convinced the green versions weren't executed by the same robots that did the red versions, but at least on the green settings they try to twitch like people. The differences are trivial to spot in an A/B comparison, but of surprisingly little holistic consequence. If we have to separate things into pop and country, then really the red and green discs are both pop, and unless some green discs get shipped to Madagascar or Tuvalu by mistake, I think you'll have a hard time finding anybody who can reasonably disagree with this assertion.
And anyway, the exact red and green production details are reduced to minor factors in the face of the 4/4-stomp juggernaut that is Mutt and Shania's writing style, as informed by Mutt's time producing Def Leppard and Bryan Adams as by Shania's childhood listening to Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson. Of the nineteen songs on Up!, twelve are fundamentally cheerful, bounding, uncomplicated, frothily anthemic pop songs of the sort that made Mutt and Shania stars in their respective branches of industry, and six of the other seven are smooth, airy, mid-tempo ballads. Nobody involved with this project knows the difference between sophistication and gimmick, and nobody, from Shania to the package typographer, appears to have spared even the smallest shred of concern for intellectual depth or aesthetic texture. You won't find a better example of an album maniacally intent on delivering exactly what is expected of it, and from a consumer-product standpoint, this could well be the year's most earnest effort to apply the largest mathematically-possible numerator to the lowest-possible common denominator. If you don't like this, it won't be because of any extra effort Mutt and Shania could have put into it and failed to.
Not that there's any shortage of other reasons why you might not like this, mind you. It's seventy-three minutes of music in essentially one obtusely straightforward style, and either songs like this make you happy and comfortable on the basest instinctive level, or else I can't imagine you making it through the whole thing once, let alone twice for the colors. The lyrics aren't precisely bad, in the sense of being inept applications of words to melodies, and given an expected audience of impressionable youth they arguably do a credible job of sticking to first-do-no-harm, but they are every bit as relentlessly trivial as you'd provisionally conclude from reading the track listing and observing that between the eighteen titles that aren't a woman's name there are ten exclamation points and fourteen contractions, including three songs whose titles are simply "Up!", "Nah!" and "Ka-ching!". If this album wins Shania new friends from amidst former enemies, it will be by smiling at them until they just can't bear it any more, not by itemizing and addressing their rational standing objections. It helps if you think Shania earns extra chances by being so cute (and some pictures of her posing in a threadbare white tank-top are included to string you along until the videos). It helps if you've surrendered to other happy, empty music already, and so stopped being afraid of it, or of what liking it might say about you. For all Mutt and Shania's efforts to accommodate different moods, it's absolutely vital that you're able and willing to put yourself into the one that doesn't require any color of this album to provide anything other than uncritically redemptive exuberance.
I am willing. Lord, I am more than willing. Shania is cute, I like Mutt's lumpy songs, I think the gimmicks are adorable, and if I can happily sing along with Japanese I can't translate yet, how can I object too vehemently to sunny nonsense in my own language? I like both the red and green discs enough to be pleased to have the excuse to listen to the songs twice as often. I don't begrudge Up! its limitations, or resent its shallowness. It may not mean or signify anything, but it makes me very, very happy. In a year already so blessed with music I adore that I could easily have closed nominations and spent December in blissful top-ten deliberation, here I am letting one more album in.
I love the slow ping-pong between lead and backing vocals in the choruses of "Up!", and the U2-ish guitar-echoes in the verses. I love the spongy synth-bass lurking at the bottom of "I'm Gonna Getcha Good!", and the way the instruments return one-by-one after dropping out at the beginning of the chorus. I know exactly how cheap a list-structure girl-power throwaway "She's Not Just a Pretty Face" is, and how dubious the word "just" in the refrain renders the whole thing, but I forgive it in the same way I salute the teetering eighty-five-year-old man jockeying his walker into place to look like he's holding an automatic door open for two twenty-five-year-old girls in running shorts.
The quasi-Latin ode "Juanita" is the one dreadful writing misstep, in my opinion, the one song on which Mutt and Shania try to be somebody else, but it's over quickly (very quickly if I can reach the remote), and it gives way to the album's first ballad, "Forever and For Always". Big-budget pop of the bubblegummy Spice-Girls-to-Britney sort is most intolerable to me when it wilts into ballads, but Mutt and Shania, having no lame r&b aspirations and basically no ability to function at all without a strong pulse at the center of the song, approach their ballads the same way they approach the faster songs, letting harmonic texture and evolving grace substitute for spiky noises and sharp cadences, and as a result they rarely stray much farther from the pop line than, say, "Mandolin Wind" or "The Boys of Summer". "Ain't No Particular Way" only gets about halfway back up to speed before "It Only Hurts When I'm Breathing" slows things down again. Shania is now happily married, absurdly rich, and living in a secret village in the Alps somewhere, but presumably nobody wants to hear a bunch of songs about the difficulty of getting Alaskan salmon shipped all the way to Switzerland packed properly in virgin glacier ice, or whatever her current problems are, so she has wisely frozen her performing persona at its vulnerable pre-stardom stage, and can thus still carry off songs of wistful, bruised survival, triumphs of minor perseverance or paeans to sustaining hope. This is fortunate, as it allows her to cannibalize timeless narratives from countless other sources, in this case the obviously-false profession of disinterest, perhaps best previously exemplified by John Waite's "Missing You".
When my own Shania Twain resistance finally shattered, some time ago, the final chisel-tap was administered by the sly "Okay, so you're Brad Pitt" in "That Don't Impress Me Much" (or by the outfit she was wearing in the video when she said it, I forget which), and Up!'s first attempt at a follow-up single with that kind of sneakily-barbed hook is "Nah!". The verses are kind of stiff and lumbering, like an old John Cougar Mellencamp song redone by anime transformers (better in the green version, actually, where the dynamics aren't quite as cartoonish), but they build up a musical crescendo that slams to a sudden halt right where the chorus ought to begin, so that Shania can answer the seemingly rhetorical "Would I do it all again?" with an impeccably clipped and impishly dismissive "Nah", and I don't know when else I've heard a performer's comprehensive grasp of their own appeal as succinctly encapsulated. The ensuing soaring chorus, which eventually decomposes into bubbly "na-na-na-na"s, is merely a celebratory formality. The sweet "(Wanna Get to Know You) That Good!", which I classify as one of the ballads based on a few bpms of missing speed, has perhaps the best country genes, but even the green version plays up the rock rhythm section and gauzy backing textures too much to really qualify, and to me the chorus belongs to the same lineage as Patty Smyth's "Isn't It Enough" and Pat Benatar's "Love Is a Battlefield".
Canadian upbringing, "World" mixes and a safe European home notwithstanding, Shania Twain has no business titling a song in French, but it's only "C'est la Vie", which has arguably passed into English as an idiom. More suspicious, arguably, is the wholesale appropriation of the hook from ABBA's "Dancing Queen" for the chorus, but even this she and Mutt pull off with untroubled aplomb, sliding effortlessly, for good measure, through the line "I could be a slob or keep my job", despite the fact that at this point Shania's "job" kind of involves hiding in the mountains for years at a time and every once in a while getting photographed in your underwear. "I'm Jealous" is an intermission (faintly Bruce Hornsby-ish in the green form), and then there's "Ka-Ching!", which I would go out on a limb and predict will eventually be a single, except that probably all of these songs will be singles before Mercury is done with this record. I recommend the red mix of this one, as the stupid cash-register noises are marginally less non sequitur-ish in the denser arrangement. I think the jittery drums and quick string-stabs in the verses are supposed to be a vague nod towards Destiny's Child à la "Independent Women, Pt. 1", but icy reserve doesn't work at all with Shania's warmly twangy voice, and by the chorus she gives up. If there's any lingering doubt, she and Mutt promptly squash it by seguing into maybe Up!'s most Come On Over-like track, the fond "Thank You Baby! (For Makin' Someday Come So Soon)", my favorite bits of which are the red version's springily meditative bass pulses and perkily bombastic synth-string cascades, both of which are disappointingly judicious in the green.
If you're going to be embarrassed by only one song on this album, when you're overheard listening to it, it's probably going to be "Waiter! Bring Me Water!". The green version starts with some amusingly Eastern-sounding ukulele feints, but in the red version they're piped through a horrifically stereotypical fake-Asian synth patch, and come out with all the cultural sensitivity of Gold Rush-era Chinaman cartoons. The chorus, though, is even more inane, Shania begging the staff for water so that she can throw it on her date, who has become debilitatingly fascinated with some other girl across the restaurant. "I may even have to hose him down", she muses. Even assuming for a moment that the narrator of this song is not supposed to be Shania Twain herself (or, I guess, that the other girl is Kate Winslet), so that the scenario makes any sense at all, it's going to tax your constitution to keep a straight face through what the printed lyrics (prepared, seemingly, by a former UN page probably fired for overliteralism) transcribe as "She was new -- he wanted to / Kno - oo - oh - oh - oo - ow her" and, later, "Uh, bring it on! / Uhhhh / Oh / What's so hot about her? / Uh, uh, uh, / Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah." In the red version of the choruses, at least, there's so much crazed guitar-sample roar that it's obvious everybody knows it's funny; in the green version, to which the red chop-suey riffs drive me, self-awareness isn't as manifest. And don't get too cocky if you make it through that, either, because you've still got to traverse the surprisingly Cyndi Lauper-esque (particularly the red) "What a Way to Wanna Be!", next, with "Time to tone my thighs - / Gotta lose another size, yeah!" and "Bigger is the best, / But only in the chest, yeah!" lurking.
After those two, though, it's the home stretch. The stridingly affirmative "I Ain't Goin' Down" (which, belief-beggaringly, or maybe -buggeringly, seems totally unaware of any innuendo) appears to have been drawn less from vivid personal experience than from watching a couple episodes of Gilmore Girls, but if Mutt and Shania hadn't been able to figure it out, Beth Nielsen Chapman could probably have written it the same way. "I'm Not in the Mood (To Say No)!" is clearly an A*Teens romp that somehow snuck out of Sweden, jubilantly sparkly in the red mode but still synth-bass driven in the green, and even Mike Peters could take lessons in exhortative generality from "I don't like sittin' down doin' nothin', / I'd rather spend my time doin' somethin'". The swirly "In My Car (I'll Be the Driver)" is about drawing lines (driving her car: bad; all other forms of indignity and maltreatment: acceptable), and I'll save you some puzzlement by pointing out that she's singing "You can put a hole in my shoe", not a similar-sounding "wh" word that would expand the scope of maltreatment rather alarmingly. "When You Kiss Me", the gentle finale, could have saved the Spice Girls or the Backstreet Boys from any number of treaclier things, a moment of uncluttered dignity after all, both colors getting the instruments out of the way of a great backing-vocal swoon.
And then the album is over, without any additional fanfare. Seventy-three minutes, and they have changed nothing. They are cognizant of nothing, for that matter, and totally unperturbed by their pervasive irrelevance. When movies do this, or books, just try to fill time with harmless fun, I rarely find it at all endearing. In music, somehow, it's OK. Up! is as long as Scarlet's Walk, but weighs nothing. Tori's album was a survey of the state of human character, and Shania's is the songs on the radio she sings along with as she drives through Kansas one shimmery Saturday in early June. Up! requires no preparation or acclimation, and rewards no dedication, unless you count getting the fold-out poster off the booklet staples. But both albums serve their purposes. Scarlet's Walk, for me, is a tool for understanding, and thus ultimately for living better, in a better world. But those are hard tasks and problems, and projects that probably won't be concluded any time sooner than death. In the meantime, there are all these years and days and hours to get through. Some of them don't mean anything. Some of them needn't. But you have to get through the meaningless, effortless hours, as surely as the moments of revelation. The meaningless hours, if you do them right, are positioning for the hours that count. I've spent few meaningless hours, this year, as happily as these.
That's the end, really; it's only in the interest of consumer awareness that I append the following postscript. Yes, naturally, I ordered the international version to get the blue disc, even after concluding that the red and green ones were mostly interchangable. Listening to the red and green discs in alternation, I often feel like it's me that has changed, not the albums, and I'm just noticing different things in different intensities each time. It's easy to identify the red and green versions of any track in juxtaposition, but there are many moments on the green disc, and a few on the red, that I might not be able to tag correctly if you played them for me in isolation. The blue disc is a rather different matter. "More rhythmic with an Eastern influence. Way fun!", Shania explains in the notes. What she means to convey by "Way fun!" is that the blue versions destroy every semblance of charm or identity in the songs and render them almost literally unlistenable. There are currently a couple time-bombed Windows Media files of blue mixes on her web site, so you don't have to rely on my reactions. As you'll discover, the blue versions strip off just about everything from the red/green versions except Shania's voice (left surreally untreated), replacing them with a ghastly quasi-polyrhythmic clatter something like a troop of OCD lemurs trying to imagine how a tense coalition of former minor Men at Work and UB40 members would rewrite Atari Teenage Riot songs as Eurovision entries. I said it wasn't entirely clear which version Shania was listening to while she was singing, but it certainly wasn't this version, as her singing sounds exactly, throughout, like it was flown in from an entirely different genre. Mutt and Shania's songs are nothing if not coherent and centered, and here they are made incoherent and uncentered. I begin to fidget after about twenty seconds, and the only way I succeeded in getting through the whole disc once was by playing it at work, at a very low volume, during an afternoon dedicated to loud typing and frequent interruptions. The songs are even more indistinguishable this way, every one seemingly processed by the same conversion routine, which has been painstakingly optimized to eradicate any distinguishing quirks from the original material, not only elements that distinguish one song from another but ones that distinguish one measure from another. Even the blue versions of "Nah!" and "Waiter! Bring Me Water!", two of the least complex songs ever assembled by anybody not planning to perform them at CBGB one hour from now, manage to totally wreck their internal logics so they're not even funny any more. The fast songs, thus mutilated, are like trying to enjoy a roller coaster on a full bladder in a lightning storm, and the slow ones are like bubble tea in which the tapioca has been replaced by little balls of squid-ink-dyed wasabi. I've heard dance remixes that showed this little understanding of the nature of the source material, admittedly, but at least they understood the style they were trying to impose. And maybe, I suppose, there are legions of acolytes of this "style" somewhere, too, in Madagascar or Tuvalu, and I'm crassly dismissing a whole colorful traditional argot. If so, I apologize. But leprosy is colorful and traditional, too, and we have to draw the line somewhere.