Shania Twain marks her success by what sells

Shania Twain and Duke Ellington have at least one thing in common: They're not much for categorizing music. For Ellington, there were only two types of music: good and bad. For Twain, there's the stuff that sells, and the stuff that doesn't.

"I never was comfortable being typecast as one thing," Twain says in an interview before launching a two-year world tour that brings her to Grant Park on Sunday for a free concert. "My biggest problem when I went to get my record deal is I couldn't decide what genre to go do. I had to fit into something, which was very awkward for me. That I became a country singer had a lot to do with the timing, the fact that labels were taking on new country artists. But the type of country I was doing by that time wasn't what country people call 'country.'"

Though she was one of Nashville's core artists through most of the '90s -- her 1997 album, "Come On Over," is the sixth-biggest seller of all time -- Twain looked more like a cross between Cat Woman and Pet Benatar when she performed at the Super Bowl halftime last January.

What's more, Twain liked her latest album so much she made it thrice, and only one of those versions had even the slightest hint of a twang.

The cross-format chemistry experiment that was "Up!" (Mercury) -- which offers separate 19-song mixes for pop (the "red" album), country ("green") and world-beat ("blue") -- is state-of-the-art marketing, if not music-making, and it's produced 3.9 million sales in eight months.

For a singer who has always measured herself by mass appeal rather than hipness, chart staying power rather than artistry, "Up!" represents the latest and most calculated step in a career that's all about creating a franchise, even as it keeps her fans at arm's distance with songs that don't present a distinct personality so much as a factory assembled utility. Twain's completely shaken off the country tag that got hung on her when the Canadian singer signed to the Nashville branch of Mercury Records in the early '90s, and taking dead aim at the kind of beyond-genre appeal that has turned the likes of Celine Dion, Cher and Madonna into juggernauts.

In collaboration with her husband, producer-co-writer Robert John "Mutt" Lange, Twain first bent Nashville to her will by crafting songs loaded with country signifiers such as pedal steel guitars and fiddles, then piling on the pop hooks and bombastic arena-rock orchestrations. "Up!" cuts out the pretense -- compared to the countrified "green" mix, even Garth Brooks sounds like an Appalachian hillbilly -- and steers straight for the lucrative suburban market, which finds country too rustic, hip-hop too ghetto and rock too harsh. It makes Lange's work for past clients such as AC/DC, Def Leppard and Bryan Adams sound like just a warm-up: Here's a pop album that's all about surface pleasure, the guiltier the better. It warms over artistically bankrupt but commercially successful styles such as hair-metal power ballads and Euro-pop novelties into a collection of marginally clever anthems that dispense a little self-help advice while portraying Twain as frisky, independent and in control.

It wasn't always so.

"As a teenager my music was much more introspective," she says of her days as a struggling singer on the Canadian bar circuit. "I didn't care so much if the songs made sense to anybody else. I used them as more of an escape than anything. I was into artists like Kate Bush, and though I didn't necessarily understand her songs, I wanted to write like her."

But Twain couldn't afford to be strictly in it for the self-expression; she raised her three younger siblings after her parents died in a car accident. "If it was rock they wanted in the bars, I played rock," she says. "If it was dance, I did dance music. If it was country, I did country. I did whatever was paying."

Now, Twain says, "being hip doesn't matter to me." Her biggest influences, she says, come from the top-40 music she grew up with: the Bee Gees, Supertramp, Loverboy, Nazareth. "I steered away from writing introspective songs because of live performance," she says. "You're on stage for two hours a night, and I want people to be able to relate to what I'm singing. I try to make the lyrics conversational and realistic, but not heavy. It's supposed to be a party. It's just not the place I want to get lost in myself."

She and Lange get lost in other ways; they live in Switzerland, far removed from the record industry, with their young son. She wants to dominate the music world, but not impose her inner secrets on it, revealing little about herself in interviews, and even less in her songs.

"I was never really comfortable as a child in the environment of singing in a bar," she says. "So I learned to hide behind the music. That's how I keep it fun."

Shania Twain
• When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday
• Where: Hutchinson Field, Grant Park, 901 S. Columbus Dr.

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