New Documentary Finally Recognizes One of Pop Music’s Great Pioneers
A new documentary about Shania Twain’s life and towering career is part of a trend towards the reappraisal of women’s impact on music.
There was a time when Shania Twain was one of the biggest names on the planet. Between 1995 and 2002, she released a succession of era-defining records (1995’s The Woman In Me, 1997’s Come On Over, and 2002’s Up); she is the only musician to have ever had three consecutive diamond-certified albums (Come On Over is the biggest-selling record of all time by a female artist); and the tour behind her fourth album Up saw her play in almost 100 arenas across the world.
In the late 90s and early 2000s, if you switched on a music video channel on TV, or changed the radio station, it wouldn’t be long before you heard a Shania Twain song.
But in 2003, after she contracted Lyme disease while horse riding, the her ascendancy came to an end. The disease decimated her ability to sing as she once had, and she didn’t appear onstage for almost 10 years, until she accepted a Las Vegas residency in 2012.
In 2017, she released a new album, Now, which, though solid (it charted globally, at number one in many cases), didn’t reach the heights of her dizzying peak. And while she has long been considered one of the greats, in the fast-moving internet age it has been easy to forget just how impactful she was.
Twain was the first artist to achieve a country-to-pop crossover, maintaining both audiences to dominate global charts. She took control of her image via her music videos – the visual of her powerfully decked out in leopard print in the video for “That Don’t Impress Me Much”, for example, still endures – to set standards of pop iconography that the biggest stars of today are still chasing, while also showing how a woman could also forge her own path in a tough, male-dominated music industry.
A new Netflix documentary, Shania Twain: Not Just a Girl, serves as a definitive reminder of just how towering a figure Twain is.
The 90-minute film is made up of footage both new and archival, and features extensive interviews with Twain as she revisits her life and career. Artists from Lionel Richie to Avril Lavigne outline her influence on music, as the film tells the story of this artist who moved in her own direction rather than in the one that label executives would unwisely have preferred, and reaped the rewards.
While many know Twain as one of the most famous faces of the turn of the millennium, there are few who are aware of just how impressively she navigated her own way into that position.
Without Twain, the pop music landscape would look quite different. As the film would have it, there are three major facets to Twain’s trailblazing: she paved the way for country-to-pop crossover artists, she followed her own nose at a time when woman artists were often tightly controlled, and she took ownership of her image via her music videos.
Not Just a Girl argues, with testimony from country artists like Kelsea Ballerini and Orville Peck, that without Twain, the ability for artists to cross over from country to mainstream pop would not exist. Taylor Swift, Kacey Musgraves, Maren Morris, Carrie Underwood and more have followed in her footsteps to transition from Nashville to global pop stardom.
Elsewhere, the film shows Twain carving out agency in her own work. Female popstars, particularly women in the 90s and 2000s, were too often unable to make their own decisions about their work or careers, due to a paternalistic, predatory and controlling music industry that enshrined ideals of youth, femininity, and perfection, and pushed these onto artists.
When Twain got her first recording deal in 1992, this was the case for her, too. But she has always had an impressive self-possession – she was forced to grow up quickly when at 22, her parents died in a car accident and she was left to take care of her younger siblings, singing at a resort in Ontario to pay the family’s bills.
According to the film, her label wanted her to be more traditionally country, but, as Twain puts it, “I was definitely coming from a spicier place as a songwriter.” Tracks by other writers were put on the record, and, she says, “I had no room to experiment or grow into the project.” But instead of being cowed by the men around her, Twain simply found other ways to make music, collaborating with rock producer (and her eventual husband) Mutt Lange to develop the sound that became her signature.
Another place where she was always able to express creatively, however, was in her music videos – even now, it is hard to think of Twain without conjuring up the brilliant imagery for her biggest songs. This began on the set of the video for her debut single “What Made You Say That”, where she felt fully in control, and created a sensual, beachy visual that showcased Twain essentially performing an extremely well-dressed version of a Sandals advert.
In the clip, she was unashamedly embracing her sexuality, rather than embodying country music’s buttoned-up, good-Christian-wife version of what womanhood should be. As she says in the film: “I was a disruption to the image of country music, absolutely.”
The attention Twain has paid to her music videos has served her own career but also pushed the boundaries for others in pop. For today’s visually orientated world, artists like Twain, and before her Janet Jackson and Madonna, who took control over how they were presented to the world, were pioneers. Where artists today like Katy Perry, Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga step into themed “eras” every album cycle, these women entered new eras every time they made a new music video, their personas changing depending on the song.
Twain is responsible for videos that have become cultural talking points in themselves – her leopard-print train for “That Don’t Impress Me Much”; her gender-flipped nod to “Addicted to Love” for “Man, I Feel Like a Woman!”. She began, she says, with her look – “I always gravitated towards leopard print… and I wanted midriff” – and went from there. Her second manager Jon Landau recalls that Twain also edited all of her videos herself.
Not Just a Girl is the latest in a trend of films that reappraise women musicians of the 80s, 90s and 2000s, previously overlooked in favour of the men of the time (you can’t move for rockumentaries about Britpop and its associated acts).
Sheryl Crow was recently the subject of the documentary Sheryl, which sought to assert her ongoing legacy and the effect she has had on women’s place in rock music; the journalist Jessica Hopper (author of the wonderfully named The First Collection of Criticism By a Living Female Rock Critic) recently directed the US docuseries Women Who Rock, which focuses on the achievements of women in guitar music, and hears from giants including Mavis Staples and Chaka Khan; while Britney Spears and her treatment by the music industry, media and public has also been the subject of intense discussion (and, frankly, more TV time than has felt necessary).
Our current moment is ripe for these conversations, firstly because of a cultural fixation with nostalgia, from the much-anticipated Barbie movie to the 70s-adjacent aesthetic that defines so much of Netflix’s original programming.
Secondly, and more positively and presciently, it is also because we see the ripples of these artists’ groundbreaking lives and work everywhere. Women playing rock music band together to join each other on touring bills and even in band line-ups (Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker’s boygenius collaboration is a good example) just as they did during the days of Crow’s time at Lilith Fair in the 90s, while Twain’s fun, new country aesthetic is having another heyday, via modern artists like Orville Peck and Lil Nas X.
The recognition of these women is important, and validating: their success has for too long been forgotten or downplayed while men of similar ages are considered legends. Not only that, but discussing influential women in the traditionally sexist genres like rock and country helps to change those environments – from publishing and music ownership to festival line-ups – for new artists breaking through.
Documentaries like Not Just a Girl, which openly explore country music’s more outdated ideas about gender, and show how artists like Twain who have challenged them and triumphed, only contribute to progress.
Shania Twain has shaped modern pop stardom, and her impact is seen in contemporary music from Haim to Harry Styles (Not Just a Girl shows Twain performing alongside these artists, and having her music covered by them). Would we even have had Taylor Swift’s crossover success with country-pop hits like “Love Story” without Twain’s “You’re Still The One” and “I’m Gonna Getcha Good” before it? The illuminating Not Just a Girl is a testament to a great pioneer – and the great crossover artist of our lifetimes.
Image: Alexander Harbaugh