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TV Preview: Shania Twain ups her ante with concert special and new tour

Tuesday, August 19, 2003

By John Hayes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Thirty-four million albums.

That's more than Madonna, Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera or Cher have sold. More than any other female solo artist. Ever.

Shania Twain's first concert in three yearsis the focus of tonight's TV special. (Paul Drinkwater, NBC)
Click photo for larger image.

"Shania Twain: Up! Live in Chicago"

WHEN: 8 tonight on NBC.

STARRING: Shania Twain.

If you trust the collective wisdom of mass populations to rate artistic quality through sales figures, Shania Twain is, by the numbers, the most talented female recording artist who has ever lived.

Skeptics, however, see Twain's reliance on costly and highly unorthodox marketing devices as evidence that her popularity was simply bought. Even tonight's NBC TV special -- a taped broadcast of her first concert in three years -- is seen by some as crass kickoff of an upcoming world tour that is likely to rake in many millions of dollars.

By the numbers, both sides in the Twain debate have plenty of ammunition.

But numbers are funny things -- they can prove anything. Take the number 1, which is how many new albums Twain released in 2002. Her top-selling "Up!" CD, still in the Top 40 after almost a year, includes 19 songs. Each song appears twice in the two-disc collection -- on a pop disc bouncing with keyboards and high-powered techno zooms, and again on a country disc twanging with fiddle fills and slide guitar.

Pick up "Up!" in Europe or the Far East, and the pop part is the same but the country side is sidelined, replaced with yet another CD containing the same 19 songs arranged with a subcontinental Indian-Asian vibe.

Even her biggest fans have got to admit that there's scant artistic reason to cough up that kind of production and manufacturing cash, unless the goal is to get out of the artistic-statement business and sell more units of digitized plastic. Either way, the strategy got Twain on country and pop stations on the niche-intensive U.S. airwaves, returned her to hit status in Europe and broke through cultural barriers in Asia. Pretty drastic marketing move for a small-town Canadian girl who swears that sales are a secondary consideration.

Observers like to credit or blame Twain's husband, mega-producer Mutt Lange, one of the richest men in the music business, for putting the "ka-ching" into songs that, according to some cynics, shed little light on the performer's personal life, break no new ground stylistically and simply sell a lot of records. Twain, however, prefers to credit the musical instincts of her fans, not her marketing capital, for her unprecedented commercial success.

She says it's all about the people.

"What I enjoy about ["Up!"] is that people pick different versions that they like," she says in a conference call with reporters shortly after taping the TV special. "A mother and daughter might like the same song, but like different versions. That was the whole idea behind it. Just having the choice and sharing that diversity."

She's got a point there about having a broad audience. Supporters say it's because her music is bouncy, inoffensive and appetizing to almost everyone, while those aforementioned cynics say her stuff is bouncy, benign and lucratively appeals to the lowest common denominator of public taste.

"There are so many unknowns," she says. "At a show I'll see a group of five or six 20-year-old guys standing around and a group of 16-year-old girls and elderly couples and parents with their kids. That is something that's the same everywhere I go."

Not that she's been out and about recently. For several years, Twain has been holed up in a secluded Swiss chateau with Lange and their toddler, eating vegan, meditating and, she says, "singing 'Hi Diddle Diddle' at bedtime."

"I don't think any of these things are a science," she says. "The only thing that it boils down to is that my audience is wide. Some of my fans are concert-goers, some see me on TV, some just buy the records. There isn't just one demographic. That's the only sense I can make of it."

The two-hour TV special shows Twain at a Chicago Cubs game, on a river boat and performing for 50,000 fans in the city's Grant Park.

But, "the NBC special is very different from the concert tour," she says. "Different setup, different production. ... One song may sound more like the [pop] version, but we'll have a fiddle playing on it, and vice versa. And the live versions, in a lot of cases, aren't like any of the three [studio] versions. I like to treat a live [production] like it's its own beast."

Tour dates have yet to be announced. But in the interim, Twain wants you to forget about marketing strategies, listener demographics, sales charts, 34 million albums sold and the impending "ka-ching" of a concert tour that industry analysts predict will be a blockbuster.

"It's my first time on a concert stage in three years," she says. "For me, it's like I never really left the stage. ... It's more of a reunion."

John Hayes can be reached at or 412-263-1991.

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