Yesterday, the Guardian published a lengthy profile of country music singer Shania Twain. While the piece covered all matter of ground, from Twain’s extremely difficult childhood to the revenge fantasies she has about the friend who stole her husband, it was the penultimate paragraph that set the internet aflame:
“If she had been able to vote in the US election, she would have plumped for Donald Trump, she says. ‘I would have voted for him because, even though he was offensive, he seemed honest. Do you want straight or polite? Not that you shouldn’t be able to have both. If I were voting, I just don’t want bullshit. I would have voted for a feeling that it was transparent. And politics has a reputation of not being that, right?’”
Within hours, Twain had issued an apology, stating that her views had been provided without the requisite context.
I am passionately against discrimination of any kind and hope it’s clear from the choices I have made, and the people I stand with, that I do not hold any common moral beliefs with the current President (2/4)— Shania Twain (@ShaniaTwain) April 22, 2018
I was trying to explain, in response to a question about the election, that my limited understanding was that the President talked to a portion of America like an accessible person they could relate to, as he was NOT a politician (3/4)— Shania Twain (@ShaniaTwain) April 22, 2018
My answer was awkward, but certainly should not be taken as representative of my values nor does it mean I endorse him. I make music to bring people together. My path will always be one of inclusivity, as my history shows. (4/4)— Shania Twain (@ShaniaTwain) April 22, 2018
Country-pop crossover stars walk a tightrope between their fans, who often lean right, and their critics, who often lean left. The Dixie Chicks were famously nailed by their base after—yes, theGuardian—revealed that they’d dissed then-President George W. Bush during a concert.
Yet over a decade later, Taylor Swift’s refusal to publicly support either candidate in the Trump-Clinton presidential election was taken as evidence of her shrewd business sense—and her lack of character. As Vox‘s Caroline Framke wrote at the time, the choice allowed Swift to “squeak through unscathed, letting those who love her project whatever they want onto her.”
“Yesterday’s controversy brings our formative experiences with Twain’s early work into sharper relief. We were too young to know how hard it would be.”
In the wake of the Twain fracas, comedian Billy Eichner wrote a joke that reframed the question often asked, namely: Why do we look to celebrities for political guidance? Celebrities’ credentials are that they’re good singers, or that they have large personalities, or that they have very shiny skin, or that they excel at pretending to be other people—and these are all fine and valuable qualities.
They are, perhaps, not as valuable to a presidential endorsement as a public policy degree or an understanding of low-income housing vouchers or time spent working in school administration.
Welp, starting to rethink my initial plan to let Shania Twain guide all of my political, socioeconomic and spiritual beliefs— billy eichner (@billyeichner) April 22, 2018
The more interesting question than whether Twain was right or wrong is why Twain’s view means so much right now—even, apparently, to American women who do not identify as country music fans. The very premise of the Guardianpiece is that Twain was out of the spotlight for more than 15 years.
While she remains the the best-selling female artist in country music history and continues to make music, Twain’s star is not at its zenith, as the Dixie Chicks’ or Swift’s were at the time of their respective controversies. Indeed, her name conjures up the powerful 90s imagery of her music videos—an iconic leopard-print catsuit or curls and a Canadian tuexedo—and songs like “Man, I Feel Like A Woman” and “You’re Still The One.”
As Girlboss’editorial director Jerico Mandybur wrote last summer, Twain’s message is as relevant now as it was 20 years ago: “Twain is a woman after our own heart with these wry observations on all the various ways guys can be dicks. Rocket scientist? Douche. Guy with a car? Who cares! Brad Pitt himself? Into the bin. Salty fuckboys everywhere and not a drop to drink.”
And we know Shania has been through it. While she has an incredible voice and divine cheekbones, she’s also suffered significant abuse, loss, and betrayal, all of which are detailed in that same Guardianpiece. Many women can relate to both Twain’s suffering—and her strength. Some have been quick to point out the apparent hypocrisy of Twain, an abuse survivor, supporting a known abuser.
Abuse is an inherently confusing experience that intentionally co-mingles love, violence, and control and is processed individually. Twain demonstrates the complexity of the experience in this same piece as she shares that she mourned the death of her stepfather, who had consistently abused her. We should resist the urge to tell people how to process their experiences or use others’ stories of abuse to force linear recovery narratives onto their lives.
Twain was a prominent pop culture feminist in the heady 90s—when those of us in our 20s and 30s were forming our ideas about the relationship between femininity and power for the first time. Twain stripped the concept of its inherent weight, showing us that worth could be asserted with spirit, verve, hair-flips. Feminism’s inherent weight, of course, is political action—which is more difficult, and more nuanced, than its attendant pop cultural aesthetics or rhetorics.
Yesterday’s controversy brings our formative experiences with Twain’s early work into sharper relief. We were too young to know how hard it would be.