Up! Is A Direction

Rick Ojo McGrath

Artist: Shania TwainUP! Shania O'Twain
CD: Up!

Produced and arranged by John "Mutt" Lange
All songs by Shania Twain/RJ Lange

Released by: Mercury Records
Release date: November 19, 2002

Running time: Country Disc: 72:41, Pop Disc: 73:07

More Of The Same Old, But I Give It A 10 For Marketing Moxie, Dick!

So there I was, freezing my butt off in the huge downtown Toronto HMV. It was cold enough for an Eagles reunion. It was frosty because the store had no front doors, and it was an unbalmy minus 15 centigrade outside. Some marketing boys musta decided the old hardrock look wasn't conducive to a spendthrift shopping experience, and were redoing the joint in mirrored modernism. I wasn't impressed they were doing it in December. What were they thinking?

So there I was, shivering in the checkout line, and I saw the meaning of the mirrors as they became visually legible once you adopted a static point-of-view. It's Much Marketing: if your customers aren't actually looking at the product, then show music videos (ads for songs) reflecting and playing on virtually every flat surface -- above and beside the racks and stacks of the selfsame product. Or see that guy around a corner, stuffing a cd in his pants. Or see me seeing the video they're playing at this frozen point in time: I'm Gonna Getcha Good, the hot first single off Shania Twain's first cd release in two years... the somewhat briefly named Up!

Ahh yes... I'm Gonna Getcha Good, that happily upbeat, percussively pounding variation on good/should/wood/could promissory love plan of the predatory female. But what an odd, Tron-like video. No bare midriff... hmmm. But hey, Shania's back, and who hasn't been steamrollered by the publicity? The endless interviews... newspaper stories... late nite TV appearances...

I gave in. A rack of Up!s was strategically placed beside the cash register queue. My hand simply reached out on its own and grasped one, my eyes drawn to the holes in Shania's poorboy tee shirt as she merrily flounced on the cover. Ahh, what the hell, I thought. It's cheap, she's Canadian, I don't have any of her other cds, and ya know, a guest might want to listen... and from a literal sense, the cover does imply "pick me Up!"

And so it was Shania came home with me that chilly day.

I Just Lived Through A Marketing Breakthrough.

It was after a couple listens that the irony of my purchasing experience became truly apparent. Just as HMV was revamping inself to appeal to a wider entertainment audience -- rather than just a music audience, so was Shania, that businesslike little miss smartypants from backwater Timmins, Ontario, revamping herself into a, well, global star. Hey, it's something to shoot for. Can you do it by changing the decor at the same old store? HMV thinks you can. And so does Shania. That's when you realize Up! is more than a new cd by a famous female singer. Much more. It's got a revolutionary new concept. Honest. And it's the first of its kind in almost 40 years. You have to go back to 1965 when Bob Dylan first put out a double album. Jeez, we thought. Tres cool. Then came triple albums, then albums with booklets and posters and finally it all congealed into a great obsessive monster called the Box Set. But all these permutations are simply variations on the theme of More! But More! is not a Direction. Up! is a Direction.

Up! is the first music cd in history to present the same songs to two separate communities: the "conservative country twang" and the "sexy international pop" audiences. It's a double cd set. One cd shows Shania in a bare-midriffed funky eurobeat outfit; the other in a bare-shouldered, cowboy hat torso pose. But that's just the visual clue. Each cd features different musicians, different arrangements, different vocal styles -- it's two completely different cds -- but with the same songs on each.

Take it from an old adman... this is brilliant marketing. Brilliant. It's a whole new direction for music marketing. The plan is all innovation:

  • You got lucky in the past, so forge ahead -- the last two megasellers were country thangs that got bought by non-country people on an international scale. The trend is your friend, so why continue to tempt fate?... give each market what they want -- and give each a taste of the other's style -- an effect enhanced by the opportunity to compare the differing treatments of each song.
  • Recycle the same songs through two cds -- an incredibly creative idea. And it's not even cheating, cause they put 19 songs on each cd, a generous 70-odd minutes a side, so it's actually four cds in "value".
  • Charge the same for your monster 150 minutes of music as other people do for a single cd of maybe 50 minutes -- you'll make up for the slightly lessened margins in volume.
  • Publicize the thing to death -- when you're a proven megamoneymaker, you can pretty well pick and choose. And in this case, Shania chose pretty well every opportunity to spread the word.
  • Make the "U" in Up into a happy face by adding two eyes -- making letters into icons by adding non-alphabetical elements is a longstanding, and still effective attention-getter. And can't you already imagine it on a tee shirt? Her tee shirt? Could this be her laying the corporate groundwork for a future Shania icon?
  • How has everything worked so far? I think the boys in marketing are allowing tiny smiles to flutter at the corners of their tightly-drawn lips. Over 850,000 copies sold in the first week, and at, say, a conservative $15US each, that's $12.75 million in gross. Better than some movies. Want some perspective? Her last cd sold over 22,000,000 copies. You do the math.

    Twixt Us Twain

    Maybe it was her poverty-stricken childhood, or her obsessed mother, or the fact she had to raise her three younger siblings while warbling at a cheesy rural Ontario resort, that she wasn't gonna take any shit from the old farts in Nashville... whatever the reason, Shania is undoubtably a driven personality. Focussed. Professional. Ambitious and Fearless. Throw in the usual crap about carrying around all the human baggage, and I think you've got a great recipe for the old banana split personality syndrome. She's like a walking dialectic, a self-named twain of characterizations: poor/rich, down home/sophisticated, bossy/compliant, sexy/motherly, charismatic/shy, and on and on. Let's say all that is true, and in fact her entire career seems to be neatly encapsulated in this bifurcated collection of pop and country songs.

    Shania's lyrics on Up! continue to mine the rich vein of simple lover's homilies and woman power pep talks... a personal shaft she's dug around in since her first album. But let's not forget, this is basic pop music, entertaining, and what matters most in pop is the clever hook, combining a (usually) cliched phrase with a catchy musical riff. It's only task is to make you sing along, maybe dance -- take you away for a couple minutes of reverie. Or reassurance.

    Given the pervasive sophistication of this cd's marketing effort, one has to believe everything about this release has been carefully orchestrated. Open up the 2-cd case, and the "pop" version cd is on top. That means they want you to play it first. Shania starts the ball rolling with the title song, Up!... which, not surprisingly, is an upbeat song about a depressed woman, plagued by the most mundane of mishaps --acne, (no kidding), running out of gas, and people bugging her. While the cause is unstated -- gotta be man trouble, or PMS -- the message is to overcome these difficulties and everything will get better, as you "can only go up from here." Amen, sister... but do I hear echoes of pregnancy in the lyric?

    The next cut is the Top Ten out of the gate single, the cd-seller. And it's a great one. I'm Gonna Getcha Good is classic Shania... the country sex kitten on the prowl... but not for a fling, she wants the long-term thing: "I'm only interested if I can get you for life" -- yet another version of the conceit she's already expressed in (If You're Not In It For Love) I'm Outta Here. On the other hand, her plan seems to be to screw her paramour into submission. Good going, Shania.

    She's Not Just A Pretty Face is another "strong women" song by Shania, pointing out that success is not just having a pretty face -- that woman can and do succeed at the same level as men, without relying on their looks. Easy enough for a beauty queen to say.

    Juanita is Shania's name for a spirit of freedom that lives "in the heart of every woman in the world". An interesting song, insofar as it explores a concept as yet unhear in the Twain oeuvre -- a song of mythological import. The overall effect is a little Walt Disneyish, though, invoking images of this goddess as something that "rides without the reins" -- a sort of spanish Pocahantis for the soul.

    After these girrrl power songs, Shania switches to an uptempo ballad, Forever And For Always, another breathy, promissory note about staying together forever. Similarly, Ain't No Particular Way is a song about how love always catches you unawares, and It Only Hurts When I'm Breathing is a little Faith Hillish ditty about the emotional pain of lost love. Pretty usual stuff.

    Nah is another smartass song... "Sure, you swept me off my feet/ I miss you now and then/ but would I do it again....Nah". The "nah" is done in her disdainful "that don't impress me much" spoken voice. The lyrics to this "I'm over you" song are quite amazing in their imagery, in either the pop or country idiom. She actually sings:

    You won't find me
    Naked and cold justa sittin
    on the doctor's table
    Waitin to be told justa why
    I'm no longer able
    to feel my heart beatin' --
    give me a good reason why!
    I kinda went numb just around
    about the time you told me
    You were movin' on

    Get the feeling she spent a lot of time with doctors during her pregnancy?

    (Wanna Get To Know You) That Good! is yet another love song exploring the country fetish for obsessing on a loved one. C'est La Vie is yet another upbeat message for people who wake up feeling that every day is a Monday. Don't worry, it'll all be OK eventually, Shania says, just keep working and paying your dues. At least she's speaking from experience.

    I'm Jealous is a cool song -- an interesting idea done in a clever way. She's so demanding of a man's attention she's even jealous of nature: moon, wind, sun and rain. Did John Lennon go that far?

    Ka-Chingg! (aside of being another of 10 songs ending in an exclamation mark) is a puritan rant against the great god of american capitalism. What? Only a Canadian and a Brit could write this one. Basically, it's advises listeners to stop going overboard on credit cards, stop going to the mall on sundays, and not to remortgage their homes so they can keep buying "foolish" things. Just what we need, eh? Financial advice from a zillionairess. Oh yeah, you'll love the Pink Floyd intro.

    Thank You Baby! (For Making Someday Come So Soon) is a forgettable love ditty, but Waiter! Bring Me Water! is another wacky one -- a story song about a girl who takes her man to a nice restaurant, where, to her horror, he starts paying attention to a little hair-flicking hottie at another table... the water is cool the guy off. Maybe she should throw it at him:

    There's gotta be a way to cool this clown -
    he's starting to embarrass me
    I may even have to hose him down -
    bring me water

    What A Way To Wanna Be! is about the dangers of extreme weight loss and trying to look "perfect". Again, easy enuff for Shania to say... the cover pix show her gut as taut and muscular as ever, kid or not.

    I Ain't Goin Down is another song about overcoming adversity... the general tone sounds a lot like it could have been written by Shania's mother, but one assumes its more generalized to working to achieve your beliefs. I'm Not In The Mood (To Say No)! reveals Shania's work ethic -- which, as you might imagine, is strictly go, go go. In My Car (I'll Be The Driver) is pretty easy to figure out and the set ends with When You Kiss Me, another steamy love ballad.

    Vote For Your Favourite Version

    Just how well these songs work depends on which version you like: country or pop. I was actually surprised that many of the country versions sounded better to my ears. It may be Shania's voice, which is still twinged with a lot of country "crying", that adds to the mostly still country genesis of the songs.

    Having the choice of arrangements is actually pretty cool, if for no other reason than to marvel at Mutt Lange's impeccable production skills. Like Daniel Lanois' influence on U2 and Emmylou Harris, or Bob Rock and Metallica, Mutt is the man that is the sound of Shania, and he's a master artisan of the craft, dipping into a wide array of musical styles and infusing his intelligent, sophisticated sound throughout both cds.

    It's Mutt's work that separates the pop from the country, and it's like a primer in current production trends: the country still borrows from rock, but the pop borrows from all over -- you can hear echoes of early Beatles, the celtic harmonies of The Corrs, the audio distortions of Cher, the sounds of early folk-rock, some sinewy chinese melodies, spanish themes -- a little bit of something for everybody.

    Marketing 1, Music 0

    Sadly, I think the marketing is better than the music. What you hear is what you've already heard. Which is a lot of predictable music at a reasonable price. Her singing, except for the white-hot performance on I'm Gonna Getcha Good, by far the best song on the album, in both country and pop versions, still retains that slightly annoying "lightness of being", and her forays into different styles, more prevalent on the pop side, seem to be more tentative than confident. On the other hand (that dualism again), her less-pretentious, Shania-like-stuff, like Nah, Waiter! Bring Me Water!, and In My Car (I'll Be The Driver), are cocky and funny, bursting with her hip-swiveling rhythm. You expect, and receive, superb production values. But Up! doesn't match what it is hyped to be. One hates to suggest this is being marketed as a big money-maker for the Twain/Lange hit machine, but there's not much here to suggest they felt rich enough to strike out in new directions.

    The overdose of exclamation marks is also interesting. As LR once wrote: "The problem with the amateur writer is not the disposition towards grammatical error by itself, but rather its unconscious confession of the truth". I dunno about you, but this plethora of punctuation reminds me of the writing fetishes of the female pre-adolescent: the dot over an "i" done like a heart -- the whole dear diary flambouyant thing. The triumph of form over content. Shania's life does look a bit like an example of arrested development -- was she ever a teenager? -- and, let's face it, listening to her warble through rehashes of her hard-times past is getting a tad past the empathic stage. Shania, you're too rich and famous to pull that country hard knocks line anymore. On the other hand, her outlandish lecture on fiscal responsibility that is the wacky Ka-Ching! is a step in a questionable direction -- unless Shania is planning a separate career as a financial advisor. She seems most effective doing blistering, slow love ballads, and, just to keep the opposites alive, those funky, silly, hook-laden hits that are pure country chick assertions.

    Bottom line? You'd want to play it as background music for some kind of quasi-manly exercise, like doing a little woodwork, or painting a fence. OK, at a barby-que. It's good, but it seems oddly short of hook-laden hits. I've listened three times now, and I'm still having trouble conjouring up the melodies when I stare at the song list on the back of the cd case. Except for a handfull of songs, this 19-cut, double produced marketing masterpiece only points in the Direction of Safe! And the Marketing Dept. assures us Safe! is the proven way to keep those sales Up!

    © Rick McGrath 12/02

    OJO RATING: Ajo's rating (two for mutt, one for shania)


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