Please allow me to introduce you to Eileen Regina Edwards. Edwards was born in Windsor, Ontario in 1965. At the age of two, her parents divorced and her mother Sharon moved to Timmins, Ontario where Eileen and her two sisters were raised. Her mother got remarried to a man named Jerry Twain. A few years later, Twain legally adopted Eileen and her sisters, changing their last name to Twain as well. Eileen’s parents gave birth to a boy and then, a short time later, adopted another child bringing the total number of siblings to five. Times were tough for Eileen growing up. Because she was the eldest sibling, she began earning money for the family at the tender age of eight. Her first job was to sing cover songs near closing times in local bars. From this early age, Twain got used to the dual sensations of the thrill that comes from singing on stage and having an audience respond enthusiastically, coupled with the negative attention from men regarding her physical appearance. Eileen Twain knew from an early age that her looks would give her opportunities that she might not have had otherwise, but, all the same, she grew to hate being defined by her appearance. As a teenager, Twain witnessed bouts of domestic violence and often had little or nothing to eat. At one point, she and her mother and siblings ran away and spent time in a family shelter in Toronto. Eventually her mom returned to the family home in Timmins along with Eileen and the rest of the children. When asked how she managed to keep her spirits up during her childhood days, Twain spoke of always having her songwriting to lean on. She has stated that some of her fondest memories as a teen were of times when she would work as a tree planter and would stay in the woods for weeks at a time, alone with her saplings, her guitar and her notebook. At the age of 22, Twain’s parents were tragically killed in a car accident. Suddenly, just like that, Twain found herself responsible for the wellbeing of her four younger siblings. As luck would have it, she was able to find employment at a resort near Huntsville, Ontario called Deerhurst Resort. All four Twain siblings moved with her. It was there that she worked clearing tables in the restaurant and working as a maid. There were no dreams of a music career in her mind when an opportunity arose to sing on the Deerhurst stage. At that time in her life, Eileen Twain was merely trying to survive.
The audiences at Deerhurst Resort took to Eileen as she performed cover song after cover song on stage. Eventually, she worked up the courage to start performing some of her original material. That went well, too. The positive reaction to her own songs allowed Eileen Twain to consider a career in music as actually being a possibility. Through her work at the Resort, she eventually was noticed by a Toronto-based record producer/D.J. who thought she had the singing, as well as the songwriting voice to make it in the world of Country music. Before agreeing to record anything, Eileen made a decision that added a layer of mystique about her. She decided to rebrand herself by changing her first name from Eileen to Shania. Twain’s family background was a mixture of Cree and Ojibway so she chose the name Shania because, according to her, it meant “on her way” in Ojibway. The newly named Shania Twain recorded some songs and made connections that allowed her to do some backup singing sessions. Eventually, she made enough contacts within the recording industry that a special session was held at Deerhurst for her. Many talent scouts were in attendance. Out of that session she was given a recording contract. By the time this happened, her younger siblings had grown up and were old enough to head out on their own journey through life. So, for the first time in her entire life, Shania Twain felt free to chart her own course in life. That started with the release of her first, self-titled album. She was, as the name implies, finally on her way.
From those humble beginnings, Shania Twain has enjoyed a career in which she has sold over 100 million albums worldwide. She is one of the biggest selling Country music stars of all time and has won just about every conceivable type of music award along the way in Canada and in the U.S. Her hits include such well known songs as “Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under”, “Don’t Impress Me Much”, “From This Moment”, “(If You’re Not In It For Love) I’m Outta Here!”, “You’re Still The One”, “Up”, “Any Man of Mine”, “You’ve Got a Way” and many others including today’s song, “Man! I Feel Like a Woman”.
One of the things that helped break Shania Twain’s career was something that she initially found distasteful, and that was her looks. Twain came into her own in the world of music not long after MTV had established itself as the new way for musicians and bands to market their music to larger audiences. Music videos were a prerequisite for any new song being released. Fortunately for Twain, she had been hardened by years of experience singing in dive bars and knew well that it was important for her to take control of how she was being presented before the music industry took control of it for her. Twain knew that people thought she was attractive, but she didn’t want to be marketed as a sex symbol and dressed up in all manner of provocative outfits. In her own mind, she viewed herself as a strong, healthy woman and wanted to convey the sense that she was proud of her appearance and was in control of it, too. In a way, she projected a strong “my body-my choice” type of image. In the world of Country music, baring one’s midriff was not what singers traditionally did. But Shania Twain believed in herself and wanted to connect with other women in her audience in a way that told them that they, too, could be in charge of what they wore and how they presented themselves in public. Shania Twain always maintained that it wasn’t up to some arbitrarily conceived societal rules about the nature of femininity to dictate how a woman should feel about herself. If nothing else, Shania Twain wanted women (and men, too) to understand that women had as much right as men to dress how they pleased, go where they wished and have fun on their own terms. Many in the Country music establishment viewed her as a Barbie doll and didn’t take her seriously. But to younger female singers such as Carrie Underwood, for example, the message that a woman could write her own music (thus controlling what she was singing and recording) as well as control her own personal and professional image was very important.
One of the ways in which Shania Twain got her point across was via the song, “Man! I Feel Like a Woman”. This song was inspired by her experiences watching drag shows at Deerhurst Resort before she became famous. Twain remembers how transformative it was for the performers to change out of their everyday clothes and don their wardrobe for the show. She says there were many times when, after these drag queens would be fully dressed in their outfits, they would cry out about how much they felt like a woman and how ready they were to perform. To Twain, she likened those memories with her own experiences going from being a hotel maid to going on stage in the Deerhurst spotlight and how emboldened she felt doing so and how differently she was viewed by others once on stage. To be able to leave her old life behind, even just for a little while, and become this “character” on stage was all very liberating for Twain. She has stated that the main message in “Man! I Feel LIke a Woman” is to embrace who you truly are. Because of this, many have taken this song to be an empowerment song for women. Others feel that she is championing Gay Rights and attempting to pave the way for a more inclusive world. Twain says that both assertions are correct, but more to the point, she wants anyone and everyone to be able to live in a world where they can be free to call their own shots in life, as it were. Twain says that her song is a rallying cry in the same way that “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” by Cyndi Lauper is a rallying cry for personal freedom, too.
The other groundbreaking aspect of the release of this song came in the form of the music video that accompanied it. A year or so prior to the release of “Man! I Feel Like a Woman”, British singer Robert Palmer created a stir with the video for his song, “Addicted To Love” (which you can watch here). In his video, he performs in front of a bevy of beautiful women who sway in unison and who all wear skin tight body stockings and bright red lipstick. Many accused Palmer of making the statement that the individuality of women didn’t matter and that they all were really nothing more than sex objects, one no different or special than the next. Twain responded with intelligent humour. She took charge of the narrative by creating a video of her own that was almost identical to Palmer’s video with the exception being that roles were reversed and she was the one singing in front of a bunch of hunky guys all dressed the same. What made Twain’s version such a potent response was how easily she laughed off Palmer’s old school women-can-only-look-a-certain-way attitude. In the video, she constantly changes her outfit and makes the point in words and images that a woman can and should be the only one who determines how she looks. There is power in personal choice. That message, delivered in a humorous manner, helped to propel the video and the song, itself, to the top of the charts.
After the mega success of her trio of albums: “The Woman In Me”, “Come On Over” and “Up!” (where most of her hit songs can be found), Shania Twain retreated away from the limelight to a certain degree. She did hold a two-year “residency” in Las Vegas, but, other than that and few individual concerts here and there, she has mostly kept to her own private life. Shania Twain was married to her producer, “Mutt” Lange, for almost seventeen years before the couple recently divorced. She currently lives in Switzerland and has devoted herself to raising her own children. In many ways, Shania Twain has always placed the idea of “family” at the heart of her life. While she may be viewed by some as the sexy, genre-bending songstress from Canada, the truth of the matter is more that she has always been determined to look after those in her care and to always maintain a sense of pride and confidence for the person she really believes herself to be. For me, I find it easy to respect anyone who has such a well grounded sense of self. So, for what it is worth, I tip my hat in admiration to someone who has experienced much in life but who has given back much in reply.
The link to the official website for Shania Twain can be found here.
The link to the official website for the Deerhurst Resort can be found here.
The link to the official website for Timmins, Ontario can be found here.
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