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The Boston Phoenix Country Queens

The reign of Shania and LeAnn.

By Franklin Soults

JANUARY 20, 1998:  It's easy to deplore the slick dullness of contemporary Nashville, but if the crossover moves of crass populists have been mainstream country's bane, they've also been its source of strength -- ever since Jimmie Rodgers and his peers combined vaudeville schlock, hillbilly folk, and another man's blues to invent the genre some 70 years ago.

Unlikely as it may have seemed even five years ago, almost all the crass action these days is with the new queens of country. While stalwart male performers like Mark Chesnutt and George Strait continue to buzz around the charts like industrious, harmless drones, women with odd names like Deana, Shania, and Matraca are making music that carries real commercial and artistic sting. The only question is, who gets stung?

In just the past year, a pair of these country queens have gotten so big that they're now threatening to leave behind Nashville's cramped hive altogether. Shania Twain and LeAnn Rimes are two of the biggest crossover superstars in all of popular music.

On the surface, they might seem exact opposites. Fifteen-year-old LeAnn Rimes has the preternatural vocal power of the young Tanya Tucker but none of the overt sex appeal. Canadian beauty Shania Twain (pronounced "shuh-NEYE-yuh") has half the vocal power of Rimes and more than twice as many years behind her (32, to be exact), yet she more than makes up for that with the skill and will to flaunt her killer body. Not that Rimes isn't above a little jailbait tease, occasionally baring her babyish belly button in publicity shots. Usually, however, she goes in for a more disturbing appearance, dressing like a wealthy matron who's trying to look both dignified and glamorous -- sort of like a prepubescent version of Shelley Winters in The Poseidon Adventure.

Guided by the steady hand of her father and executive producer, Wilbur Rimes, LeAnn's music matches this odd image with a precocious maturity that has captured the attention of Middle America as swiftly and completely as JonBenet Ramsey's beauty-pageant photos. At 13, LeAnn released her major-label debut, Blue (Curb), a serious dose of neo-trad melodrama that thrilled everyone from country purists to suburban philistines (she even became the first country performer to snag the Grammy for Best New Artist). Her 1997 follow-up, You Light Up My Life: Inspirational Songs (Curb), may have alienated the purists, but this collection of semi-religious pop standards solidified her base in the 'burbs, selling some three million copies in just the past three months. In fact, with the continued success of Blue and the release of the quickie demo compilation Unchained Melody: The Early Years (next up, Songs from a Womb: The Miracle Months), LeAnn has become the most popular artist in America, selling more albums in 1997 than the Spice Girls, Puff Daddy, anyone.

Hearing You Light Up My Life's title track over a jukebox late one night, I thought for just a moment that she might have pulled a coup on the level of Garth Brooks, the king of crass country crossover. Freed from Debby Boone's soggy lassitude, the melody appealed to me for the first time in my life; I could hear how this music might be considered some kind of modern folk song, comforting Middle American men, women, and children with the idea that God is their own private lover and mentor.

On the album, however, the infantilism of Rimes's version of that concept quickly becomes unbearable. Great devotional music expresses awe, humility, passionate anguish, something to indicate the magnitude of the subject matter. The one song that comes close to that here is the relatively simple country gospel number "Clinging to a Saving Hand" (the only other relief is the Diane Warren pop smash "How Do I Live"). Elsewhere we get either the pomposity of warhorses like "The Rose" or the cuddly sanctimony of Christian hymns that treat Jesus like a great big Barney in the sky. Whatever, Rimes juices the material with all the power her superhuman lungs can muster. With her perfect, unwavering pitch, her meticulous phrasing, her undercurrent of martial fervor -- the closing number is "National Anthem" -- she totally abandons her country trappings for the rootless Will to Power evinced by entertainment cyborgs like Mariah Carey and Celine Dion.

All of which would seem to make Shania Twain's sexual abandon a healthy corrective. To some degree, it is, especially on her phenomenally successful 1995 breakthrough, The Woman in Me (Mercury). With 10 million copies sold and counting, it's the biggest country album by a woman ever, helping push Shania way past mere peons like Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn in the ranks of the biggest-selling female country artists of all time.

The key isn't sex alone but the teamwork of Shania and her new husband, Mutt Lange, the producer behind massive hits by Queen, AC/DC, and Def Leppard. Not only did they discover a knack for writing monster hooks, they added an edge of pop-rock schlock to many of the album's biggest cuts ("Any Man of Mine," "I'm Outta Here!"), and they made sure Shania's independence was couched as gently as possible, so as not to threaten her unliberated male audience.

Unfortunately, the brand new Come On Over (Mercury) tweaks each one of those concepts up several notches, until they all implode. At first this excess is kind of fun -- especially in the face of reports that many country radio stations balked at the package for its brashness -- but the fun starts feeling forced pretty fast. The hook quotient is as high here as on Def Leppard's Pyromania, or something, but it's just as robotic, and 10 years out of date at least. The processed harmonizing on the single "Love Gets Me Every Time" is reminiscent of "Afternoon Delight"; the repeated "dit-dit-dit" vocals on "When" sound like prime Jefferson Starship.

Worst of all, the lyrics are not only stupid clichés, they're aggressively stupid clichés. Either they say absolutely nothing about anything, like the title track, which just strings together empty pop psychology slogans, or they soft-pedal real-life problems to the point of embarrassment, like the one where Shania thinks her boyfriend's jealous rages are just a cute annoyance. It suggests that she's using her country market -- where lyrics do matter, no matter how obvious -- as merely a stepping stone to the world of pure pop -- where words come second, if at all.

There's nothing wrong with pure pop, of course ("MMMBop" made my Top 10), but there is something wrong with Shania's bad faith, and with Rimes's mechanical piety. Certainly it's not pop music's fault that these two entertainers' crass populism turned into common pablum, and neither is it Nashville's. The sad truth, however, is that if their sales continue to go through the roof, you can be sure both genres will pay the cost for some time to come.


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