A while back, I was forced to take a job which included among its many indignities the nonstop broadcast of a soft-rock radio station over its intercom system. With the Orwellian tag line—“All your soft, familiar favorites”—this radio station introduced me to a level of musical torture I had scarcely known to have existed. As a music-lover, asking me to tune it out would be like asking a mother to ignore her only child being beaten and humiliated. Still, I managed to cope with it via a twofold strategy: first, frequent and elaborate murder fantasies in which I would off Michael Bolton and Celine Dion in grisly fashion just as their dramatic early whispers had turned into the hysterical screaming of the word “LOVE!” that they use at the climax of every single song. Second: an aggressive lowering of my standards. This latter strategy made an otherwise surly music snob gasp with joy when I heard the first strains of the new Dido song, or Santana with Michelle Branch, or even Norah Jones for the billionth time.
Still, those were all songs I had at least a secret affection for before taking that job. The real shocker was Shania Twain, who has just released this greatest hits collection. Previously, I had filed her next to Faith Hill on the ash heap of pop culture. My prejudices about Hill proved polite compared to my assessment of her talent when I was actually forced to listen to her. Twain, by contrast, had plenty of surprises. Hill is Celine Dion with less impressive pipes and a dollop of country twang for no good reason. Twain, when teamed with husband and producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange, is pure confection; she knows her strengths and she sticks to them. Of course, Twain’s massive popularity means that few music aficionados respect her. Lange is at least used to doing massively popular work that no one respects, namely with Def Leppard, a group with which Twain has more in common than fans of either would care to admit. Def Leppard was accused of being too polished to be metal; Twain is accused of being too pop to be country. Both complaints are misguided: what Lange does well is to steer an artist towards the ever-popular middle-of-the-road without demanding the kind of sacrifices that he would were he the mercenary he is often taken for. Def Leppard’s Hysteria is slick, glossy, and sanitized of the band’s previous rawness, but it is not a sell-out. It communicates the band’s ideas to a mass audience—but the ideas remain theirs.
In the case of Twain, the line gets blurrier since Lange gets a co-writing credit for her songs, but the results are enjoyable enough that it hardly matters. Greatest Hits gathers together just about everything you could want from her unless you happened to be a fan of her pre-superstar, pre-Mutt debut, which is ignored here. This is no country purist’s collection, but Twain is no country purist’s singer. What people want from her is exactly what she delivers with Greatest Hits—catchy, mindless fun: 21 tracks of it. Four of those are new, but the other 17 will scratch most any itch that Shania fans could come down with. To be sure, this isn’t artistic greatness. “Forever and For Always” sounds as if it is dedicated from one idiot teen to another; “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” has a title-word-to-exclamation-point ratio that would make the headline writer at The National Enquirer blush; “That Don’t Impress Me Much” is just plain annoying. But, in the end, who cares? Enough Twain converts will be thrilled to have her best songs on one disc, and any skeptics out there need only be forced to listen to soft rock for 40 hours per week to discover what they’ve been missing.