I always feel out of place at country music concerts. My decidedly Asian features and general rejection of denim cut-offs and flannel plaid shirts mean that I stick out like a sore thumb (at least in my mind). I’m always hesitant to tell new friends that I like country music, worried they’ll think I ascribe to the values of the stereotypical right-leaning people that often count themselves as country music fans. As a liberal Canadian feminist born in a big city, I certainly don’t identify with the tropes of drinking beer (I don’t drink it!), driving a truck (I don’t drive!) or praying (I’m not religious!). And yet, country music is still one of my most listened-to genres.
To be clear – my country music is that of Shania Twain, The Chicks, Taylor Swift, Kacey Musgraves and Maren Morris. Women who sing from a uniquely female (and frankly, feminist) perspective about love, loss and making your way in the world. But often, when friends have remarked that they’re surprised to learn I’m such a country music fan, I’ve been at a loss for words to explain why it’s so near and dear to my heart.
A Timmins, Ontario — and country music — icon
In particular, Shania Twain’s music has been the soundtrack to my life for as long as I can remember. She happens to hail from Timmins, the same small Canadian town as my father (where a lot of family members still live).
From a young age, I was told about Shania’s regular visits to her hometown to give free concerts and how generous she was with the local community. Family trips to Timmins would always consist of driving along Shania Twain drive, with family members remarking on her favourite treats in town or how her house was across from my great grand-uncle’s.
‘Not Just a Girl’
But after a decade of passively listening to Shania as she came up on shuffle without giving her much of a second thought, watching her new Netflix documentary, Not Just a Girl, reminded me why she’s so radical. Sure, “let’s go girls” has become bachelorette party soundtrack fodder in the 25 years since its release (rightly so), but the concept of a woman not only embracing her femininity, but owning it with such power and authority is genuinely groundbreaking — considering the world it was released into in 1997. (For reference, the problematic-at-best teen rom-com She’s All That was released two years later in 1999.)
Frankly, we don’t hear enough about women setting wildly aspirational goals and then going out and accomplishing them.
Watching Not Just a Girl taught me that — in addition to writing her own lyrics — Shania took major creative control over her image, particularly in her music videos: from the iconic hooded leopard-print outfit in “That Don’t Impress Me Much” to the campy, playful tuxedo in “Man, I Feel Like A Woman!” These looks launched endless fashion trends and imitations in the years to come, and to this day.
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Goal setting impresses us — a lot
What’s more, from an early stage in her career, Shania identified that she wanted to be an international superstar, cross over to pop and be a top touring artist. Shortly after identifying those goals for herself, she crushed them. Her third album had 12 hit singles (iconic tracks like “Man! I Feel Like a Woman,” “That Don’t Impress Me Much” and “You’re Still The One,” to name a few). To this day, Come On Over remains the best-selling studio album by a solo female artist. Ever.
Frankly, we don’t hear enough about women setting wildly aspirational goals and then going out and accomplishing them. Shania has spoken about growing up in a low-income, abusive household in a small Canadian town, and still had the gumption to dream big. Not only did she achieve these goals as a female artist in the male-dominated music industry, she did it in the boy’s club that did (and still seems to) prevail in country music, all while writing and singing original music about the power of being a woman.
Holding the door for other women
On the surface, Shania’s lyrics are playful, catchy and often quite cheeky. A closer look shows the defiant, feminist attitude of a woman who knows her worth and isn’t afraid to assert herself, all while recognizing the strength in being vulnerable. This attitude set the stage for other female artists like The Chicks, Taylor Swift, Maren Morris and Kacey Musgraves – artists who have similarly danced between pop and country while telling vulnerable, nuanced stories about womanhood.
Is country music still predominately ‘white’?
Let’s be clear – it’s undeniable that the country landscape is still very white. Lil Nas X’s country charts snubbing and active rejection from the country world after his smash hit “Old Town Road” is a disappointingly literal representation of how far the country music industry has to go towards acceptance. The artists I’ve mentioned are all white women who are afforded the many privileges that come with their status.
Because of the country music landscape that Shania established, I’m proud to be a country music fan.
But with that privilege comes great responsibility, and in my opinion, it’s a privilege that Shania has wielded well. Her songs have become anthems for the LGBTQ2S+ community, appreciated for their camp and tongue-in-cheek assertions about gender. Her lyrics are intensely relatable — regardless of your race, gender or sexual orientation. Her inclusive approach to songwriting and her fan base is one that seems commonplace today, but was groundbreaking when she got her start in the early ‘90s. Arguably, it wouldn’t be commonplace today if it weren’t for Shania’s efforts.
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Because of the country music landscape that Shania established, I’m proud to be a country music fan. As I’ve grown up into Shania’s music, I’ve found deeper meaning in her lyrics and iconography – to this day, “You’re Still The One” always makes me swoon, and the gradual transition from gentleman to sex kitten in her “Man, I Feel Like A Woman” music video is a venerable crash-course in gender studies. The fact that pop prince Harry Styles counts Shania Twain as his music and fashion inspiration is the only proof you need: Shania is the timeless icon we all deserve.