Why are certain things popular?
I have no idea. In fact, I’m pretty sure no one really knows. In regards to albums, sometimes it’s a couple of hit singles, maybe a zeitgeist-capturing sound that people can’t get enough of, or maybe, just maybe an album gets popular because the songs on it are actually really good. These are the types of things I want to delve into in a recurring feature in which I count down the 50 best-selling albums in the U.S. of all-time, which I have dubbed “The People’s Albums”. I’ll go about this by simply listening to them, then trying to get to the bottom of why each particular album appealed to such a massive audience.
The kinds of albums I’ll be reviewing here will most likely fall in to two distinct categories: insanely popular albums that people continue to adore, and insanely popular albums that are now just relics of a bygone era, an era when people actually bought music. This will almost certainly make for a group of albums that I’ve either listened to about a million times, or albums whose appeal is a bit harder to discern (i.e. probably suck) and thus have not made me feel compelled to seek them out until now. Number 50 on the best-selling albums list easily falls in to the latter category, since this is not something I can ever imagine listening to on purpose. But that’s ok, since I reckon that’s what this whole experiment is all about.
Album: The Woman In Me
Artist: Shania Twain
Release Date: February 7, 1995
Copies Sold In The U.S.: 12 Million
Why Was This Popular?
Because America loves an underdog.
If you look at a lot of today’s biggest pop stars, many of them have some defining characteristic that makes it seem like they should have no business succeeding in their respective genres. Hell, I wouldn’t consider myself a modern pop music aficionado, but I can already think of a few offhand: Adele (she’s a female pop sensation, despite being a little bit tubby), Mumford and Sons (they play Americana-infused folk music, despite being British fancypantses), Drake (he’s a respected rapper, despite being Canadian and Jewish). And during the mid-to-late nineties, Shania Twain seemed to have no business tackling country music, the most American of music genres, when she was in fact born in (gasp) Canada. Ok, so this might not seem like that big of a deal now, but one has to remember that the Nashville establishment has and continues to have a pretty strong stranglehold on country music and it’s good old-fashioned American image.
Ontario’s Shania Twain was probably able to transcend this for a couple of different reasons, all of which aligned in the form of her breakthrough LP, The Woman In Me. The fact that Twain’s then-husband, Mutt Lange produced the album definitely could’ve been seen as another obstacle that would work against it, since his credentials seem way too “rock” for him to make a suitable country producer. However, Lange was particularly successful at taking artists who might’ve seemed a bit too rough around the edges (AC/DC, Def Leppard) and cultivating their songs into semi-slick mult-platinum monsters (Back In Black, Hysteria).
Lange’s production here is more than just semi-slick, but I think it still had enough twang and orneriness to draw in the hardcore country fans as well as pop fans. And that gets at another big reason this album, and Twain’s even huger 1997 follow-up were such blockbusters: they arrived right in the middle of the popification of country music. Now I’m no expert on country music (like at all), but from what I can gather, there was a noticeable shift from the badass “outlaw” period of country that happened in the ‘70s, to the “pop music with fiddles” bullshit that passes for country nowadays. Twain and her male counterpart (Garth “Chris fuckin’ Gaines” Brooks), pretty much took this changing of the guard and rode straight to the bank with it, presumably upon a silver steed made of platinum records. Which brings me to the question of “quality” in regards to this album…
Did It Deserve To Be Popular?
You know, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this album at all, but I am somewhat pleased to say that I didn’t absolutely hate it. I will say I did get a bit scared when I heard the ‘90s adult-contemporary synths, dopey reverb-drenched guitars, and squeaky clean piano lines that made up the intro to “Home Ain’t Where His Heart Is (Anymore)”, the album’s opening track. But thankfully the rest of the album doesn’t completely reek of the kind of dated production value I was expecting out of The Woman In Me.
In fact, there are a few songs on the album that (dare I say) kinda rock… like a little bit. Ok, forgive me if I’m really hesitant to give any sort of praise to an album that was basically created solely to appeal to ‘90s soccer moms, but I guess I kind of get the appeal. Shania Twain does have a certain commendable feistiness to her, and I think that shines through in the more upbeat numbers like “Any Man Of Mine” or “(If You’re Not In It For Love) I’m Outta Here”. Granted, these are just as much pop and ”rock” songs as they are country, but I guess that speaks to Shania Twain’s M.O. – she wasn’t born of the Nashville Establishment, and therefore didn’t need to confine herself to just that one particular demographic.
To answer the question posed by this section, I guess The Woman In Me did kind of deserve to be popular. I mean why not? Country music’s emergence in the mid to late ‘90s needed a female superstar to complement the one-man fireworks display that was Garth Brooks, and I think you could do far worse than Shania Twain. I don’t know if you could call her a singer with a whole lot of artistic integrity, but I wouldn’t quite call her a phony either. I particularly like the fact that unlike a lot of wannabe country stars, Twain’s singing style doesn’t contain any sort of fabricated Sawth’n drawl. Which finally brings us to the ultimate question regarding this album…
Would I Pay Money For This?
Nope, sorry. I’m man enough to admit to not hating this, but I’ll still maintain that this is not something I would ever go out of my way to listen to. Put simply, it’s just not for me.
Next Time On The People’s Albums: I get to spend some quality time with Phil Collins and Su-Su-Suddio as I talk about No Jacket Required.