Mrs. Sink's assignment was simple: Make a poster about a singer who writes their own material. This was elementary school music class—maybe third or fourth grade—and, after learning my icon Britney Spears did not in fact pen her own hits, my second choice revealed herself: Shania Twain.
I adored the Canadian country star from the minute I received her third studio album, 1997's Come On Over, with the 11 others I got (all for the price of one!) in my mail-order CD club from Columbia House. I jammed out to all 16 songs (a whopping four of which included exclamation points in their titles) daily, courtesy of my yellow Sony walkman. Shania blended country and pop effortlessly while Taylor Swift was still in a crib. "Man! I Feel Like a Woman!" might have been the commercial stand-out of Come On Over, but I was partial to "Honey I'm Home" and "Don't Be Stupid (You Know I Love You)." It only took 21 more years from the album's release date for me to hear all three live.
Shania came to Houston's Toyota Center on Saturday, June 9, her first time back in 15 years. The top-selling female country artist of all time with five Grammys to her name is now 52, a fact I still can't conceptualize after seeing her execute a labor-intensive show, complete with stunts and no less than eight costume changes, to a screaming crowd.
It has to be said: The woman looks incredible. Each reappearance, and always in a new ensemble—a skin-tight jumpsuit, a glittering gown, thigh-high stiletto boots—elicited a collective gasp. My friend and I found ourselves returning to one common refrain the whole night: "How could anyone cheat on her?"
Superficiality aside, Shania also sounded incredible, her vocals so smooth and clear and free from any signs of dysphonia it prompted the aforementioned friend to wonder aloud about the possibility of lip-syncing. I assured her Shania would never, and we continued to listen in awe as the goddess of country-pop effortlessly moved through her 25-year repertoire, mixing classic crowd-pleasers with new numbers from Now, her first studio release in 15 years. Had we not known the words to everything from 1993-2002, it would be hard to decipher where in the discography old ended and new began.
That is to say the evening was all very on-brand for Shania. To start, there was a lot of leopard print (always of the "white snow" variety): on the maxi-dress (outfit No. 2) she wore for the old favorite "That Don't Impress Me Much"; on the T-shirt of the stage-hand who helped her ascend a piano (more on that later); on the background of a giant screen that took the stage in place of the singer toward the end of the show, presumably to give her a break, while the crowd "took a trip back in time" and watched clips of old music videos.
"Why is this happening?" my friend asked, for not the first time that night. "I could do this at home on YouTube."
That part felt like a cop-out, and as much as we loved watching Shania twirl around the Egyptian pyramids in 1995's "The Woman In Me (Needs the Man In You)," we'd much rather see her perform it then and there on the stage in front of us. But all was forgiven and forgotten when, after the bizarre interlude, she reappeared once more in a sparkling floor-length gown for a flawless rendition of power ballad "From This Moment On."
The rest of the show was mostly like that, a tug-of-war between "slightly off" and "damn, she's good." Take, for instance, when she called for assistance from a "night leopard," apparently the Shania-approved term for the security guard who ran on-stage to hoist her atop a grand piano. There she remained for the duration of "More Fun," her "hot and sexy" song from Now that saw a live performance "inspired by Magic Mike." That translated to three male dancers in half-unbuttoned shirts gyrating on fold-up chairs (and, at times, Shania herself) in a routine that might feel less random at, say, Britney Spears' Vegas residency.
Other head-scratching moments included a performance of "Soldier," the requisite country music ode to American troops. All that would be fine and well, even expected, were it not for the fact that Shania is a Canadian citizen who now lives in Switzerland. "I don't go to Canada and thank them for their service!" my friend quipped as Shania mournfully asked her serviceman to "please remember me."
She sang while seated on a guitar case-turned-swing suspended from the Toyota Center ceiling, which slowly carried her to the other side of the venue, directly above a raised stage where what appeared to be an American soldier was standing at attention. "Oh, that's nice, they brought a real soldier out," my friend said. Not so. The soldier was actually a dancer, joined by a female counterpart, and the duo performed a very dramatic interpretive number to the song. Across the way, back on the main stage, a series of screens played footage that, while not immediately recognizable, was definitely...from something. We thought we recognized an actor; turns out, we did. Mid-show Googling revealed the truth: Shania's "Soldier" is featured in October 2017's war drama Thank You For Your Service.
"This feels like pandering," I said.
Which would make sense. Shania, long heralded as a gay icon for her sizable LGBTQ fan base, managed to alienate legions of fans after telling The Guardian this spring that she would have voted for Donald Trump. "Even though he was offensive, he seemed honest," she said then. Outcry was swift, and the star immediately walked back her comments, apologizing to "anybody I have offended" and citing the interview's lack of context in a series of tweets.
The Houston fans out in full force this weekend didn't much seem to care. And they couldn't have loved her more when she welcomed to the stage a man named Kenny, who won a raffle to benefit her charity, Shania Kids Can. Kenny, an older gentleman in a plaid shirt with blue jeans and a phone clip who was given his own mic and, briefly, Shania's undivided attention, remained on stage for "Honey I'm Home," joined by a kick-line of back-up dancers.
It was this moment, with Kenny, that Shania was at her best: affectionate, genuine, and visibly happy to engage with her fans. She would pull two more on stage by the end of the night—a couple of teenage girls, who gushed, "I've loved you since, like, the fifth grade!" She took selfies with all of them. She threw her head back and roared with good-natured laughter. It was all off-the-cuff, conversational, and real. It seemed that, if she could, she'd invite all of Toyota Center up to perform with her. And, as evidenced by the screams and cheers during a barn-burning finale of "Man! I Feel Like a Woman!" all would have happily joined her.