Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Striking a Pose

By Michael McCall

NOVEMBER 17, 1997:  Here's a Jeopardy-like riddle for you. Answer: They've sold millions of records rife with perky melodies, sing-along choruses, elementary dance beats, and uncomplicated guitar riffs. They dress in body-hugging clothes, flaunt their pierced navels, and constantly appear as if they're preparing for a fashion magazine layout. Their carefully designed images blend glamour with earthy vitality and cheeky attitude, and they flaunt an ultra-girlish, ultra-cute presence that mixes coquettish innocence and sluttish suggestiveness. They're questionably talented but undeniably popular.

Question: Who are the Spice Girls? Oh yeah, we forgot to mention they're American.

Who are Shania Twain and Mindy McCready? Yep, that's the answer we were looking for.

A year or so before five sassy British tarts became the most overexposed import since a certain blond princess, Twain and McCready adopted their own spice-gal strategy for stardom. Bucking country-music convention, their primary marketing tool became the video monitor rather than the concert stage. They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars per clip to present themselves posing and twirling, pursing lips and wiggling hips.

As with their spicy U.K. counterparts, Twain's and McCready's breakthrough albums were sort of fun in a disposable, guilty-pleasure kind of way, even if the quasi-feminist message of their hit jingles didn't jibe with the anti-feminist message of their imaging. Ultimately, they suggested that a woman can be what she really, really wants to be, as long as she gets her hair and makeup just right, wears sexy clothes, and acts like a bouncy, innocent sex object. In videos and publicity photos, the two are always careful to appear vibrant, fashionable, and oh so playful. As comic Janeane Garofolo has pointed out, it's a form of communication between the sexes that says, "I'm so cute. Fuck me! Fuck me!"

That Twain, McCready, and the Spice Girls have all issued new albums within a seven-day period is either an eerie coincidence or an evil conspiracy to turn the world's young women into Stepford-like cheerleaders. Of the three LPs, McCready's If I Don't Stay the Night is by far the most credible. The Spice Girls' aggressively upbeat Spiceworld certainly has its moments; the songs are so unerringly catchy that they can be pleasurable in small doses but quickly grow annoying over any length of time. Meanwhile, the most disappointing of the three albums is Twain's Come on Over; apparently, the singer figured that if her youthful persona resulted in blockbuster sales of 1995's The Woman in Me, then she could increase her popularity even further by acting completely juvenile.

McCready, at age 21, is the youngest of the bunch, yet her song choices display a maturity that her female colleagues lack; she doesn't equate being youthful with being shallow. Instead, she smartly explores what happens when a fun-loving girl grows up and demands to be treated with respect and honesty. As on her first album, Ten Thousand Angels, the singer purposely digs for songs of substance, then presents them with a combination of prom-queen pertness and Melrose Place-like cattiness. Drawing on songwriters Matraca Berg, Kim Richey, and Sunny Russ, she injects a measure of thoughtfulness in her music; likewise, in Mark Sanders and Bob DiPiero, she finds tunesmiths willing to portray women with confidence and strong self-identities.

Modern women Mindy McCready has carefully cultivated a similar public image, but her musical persona differs vastly. Photo by Sandra Johnson. Right photo by Timothy White.
"What If I Do," McCready's initial hit, finds her telling a new lover that she wants to take things a little slower than he does. The title song takes a similar approach; here, she hopes that postponing sex with a new man in her life won't cause him to lose interest in her. "Oh Romeo," written by Berg and Gary Harrison, is a wonderfully evocative song about an obsessive "romantic depressive" who comes to realize that a man is simply not worth dying for.

The differences between McCready's and Twain's personae is apparent even in the two singers' album titles. The former poses a somber question, while the latter teases with a suggestive come-on. Working again with her husband, veteran rock producer Robert "Mutt" Lange, Twain tries to turn up the juice with a bouncy collection of simplistic love songs. Instead of shoring up the energetic, independent attitude of her breakthrough album, country music's leading ingenue affects a calculated, artless pose of innocence.

Throughout the album, Twain strains to sound hip by injecting her lyrics with what she apparently believes is youthful slang. In "Don't Be Stupid (You Know I Love You)," she responds to an aggressively jealous boyfriend by telling him to "take a pill" and "don't freak out...just relax, Max." By equating youth with nonchalance and naivet, she ends up condescending to the very audience she seeks to attract.

Something a little more sinister is at work in the album's other songs. It might be fine to blurt, "I ain't gonna act politically correct, I only want to have a good time," in "Man! I Feel Like a Woman!" But elsewhere, as she expands upon her un-PC outlook, Twain portrays young female subjects who want nothing more in life than a guy to protect them. Indeed, "Holding on to Love (To Save My Life)," cowritten by Twain and Lange, features possibly the single most objectionable lyric of '90s country music: "I don't need to get all caught up on the 'Net, 'cause I'm already set. Can't you understand--already got my man!" In other words, there's no need for a woman to bother with technology--or education or self-sufficiency--when she's already bagged herself a fella.

This message runs throughout Come on Over. In her current hit, "Love Gets Me Every Time," Twain says she had been content to pay her own rent until she fell for a guy who apparently set her straight about who should take care of the bills. In "From This Moment On," a duet with Bryan White, she sings, "I live only for your happiness, and for your love I'd give my last breath." In "Honey, I'm Home," she's frustrated at work because she got a run in her hose and her hair went flat, and just when it seemed like things couldn't get worse, she lost her purse. "I must confess," she chirps, "this could be worse than PMS." All is solved, of course, once she walks in the door and says, "Honey, I'm home." The chorus finds her pondering whether the money is worth the headaches--maybe she'd be better off staying at home.

When Twain does attempt some sort of statement of independence, she comes up with "Black Eyes, Blue Tears," a song that trivializes physical abuse by treating it with undue lightheartedness. She opens the sweet and peppy sing-along, "Black eyes, I don't need 'em," adding that she's going to stop "rollin' with the punches" and stop "begging please--no more." Like every other song on the album, it's just another cute little ditty--only this one is about a woman who decided that maybe she shouldn't have to endure beatings from her lover.

Twain has chosen to forgo what made her last album so successful: her ability to draw on the emotional complexities of life while creating fun, upbeat tunes. This time out, there's nothing fresh or fun, and she has sidestepped anything even resembling complexity. Twain is in her early 30s now--she needs to stop acting so spicy and to act like a mature, thinking adult. If she needs any guidance, all she has to do is put on Mindy McCready's album.

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