First in line among the things she has no need to do is Star Academy, a French reality game show in which marginally talented young aspirants live in a house and vote one another out on the basis of their progress in becoming slick professional singers. (Imagine the cheese factor of Big Brother, Survivor and American Idol in French.) But just a few hours after her edict about performing, Twain, 37, is singing her signature ballad, You're Still the One, in a duet with Jeremy, a young Frenchman whose penchant for accidental key changes augurs poorly for an extended stay at le Star Academy chateau. As Jeremy bludgeons the first verse, Twain closes her eyes and sways in a convincing facsimile of joy. Star Academy is wildly successful in France; Twain is only moderately successful in France. Yes, she really wants to stop performing, but what she wants more than anything is to have the biggest-selling album of all time, and she will do anything, including Star Academy, to get it.
"Overcoming any situation and performing at your best that's being a professional," she says later of her battle with Jeremy's howl. "It was an obstacle, and I overcame it." Twain speaks in formal, syllogistic sentences, especially when the subject is her job. "I am a commercial singer. When I write a song, I'm thinking about the people who are going to be listening to it. The whole process is done with that in mind. I hear other
singers say, 'What I do is artistic, and I do it for myself.' I don't get that. If you're making it just for yourself, why sell it?"
It is this unabashed commercialism (plus a great gift for pop hooks) that makes Twain the ruler of the vast collection of ears between Madonna and Garth Brooks. She began her career appealing to a country audience that was first scandalized and then hypnotized by her pop sensibilities and her conspicuously bare midriff. Then in 1997 Twain recorded Come on Over, a brilliantly calculated mix of pop and country that has sold 19 million copies and is the most popular album by a female singer in American history. Twain and Whitney Houston are the only women to have two albums sell more than 10 million copies each. Twain's newest, Up!, released Nov. 19, sold 874,000 copies in its first week, meaning it should be just a matter of months before she's the only woman with three 10-million sellers.
Because her songs are aimed at a mass audience, they are built with the same focus on demographics and inoffensiveness as a political campaign. Twain will not record edgy, experimental or controversial songs. She will do universal ballads like You're Still the One and exuberant up-tempo tunes like Man! I Feel Like a Woman! that start with synth fanfares and cowbells and end usually 3 1/2 minutes later with a giddy repetition of oooh-yeah!s and uh-huh!s over a cavatina of power chords, leaving listeners with the wonderfully woozy feeling of having just eaten a bale of cotton candy while watching a Jerry Bruckheimer movie during a roller-coaster ride.
Like all great cheap thrills, Up! is shamelessly produced and guiltlessly enjoyed; it's easily the best pop album of the year. The contagious first single, I'm Gonna Getcha Good ("I'm gonna getcha while I gotcha you in sight/I'm gonna getcha if it takes all night"), is less a love song than Twain's declaration of intent to consumers, while Up!'s 18 other tracks back her claim with the kind of energy that reminds you how much fun the genre can be. If there's a weakness, it's that Twain is too busy standing everywhere to stand anywhere. Only she could write a song, Juanita, about the independent goddess raging inside all women, include a line like "When someone tries to take away the freedom of your choice" and insist that it never occurred to her that it might be interpreted as a reference to abortion. "I wouldn't even know what to say about that," says Twain, "because my feelings about that have changed so much over the years. I go back and forth, and it's such a difficult issue. So it wasn't intended to I mean, if people take it that way, it's fine. I'm not saying, 'Don't take it that way ...'" And so on.
She asserts, "The songs themselves, the attitude, the personality, is all from my personal character." Yet none of the songs on Up! reveal anything specific about that character, such as the fact that Twain recently moved into a 100-room chateau in Switzerland or that she gave birth to a baby boy, Eja. "Who wants to hear about my kid? It's private," she says flatly, dropping the subject for a moment, only to pick it up again. "Who's gonna relate to that, anyway? People are going to go out and pay for the record, and I want my music to relate to their lives, not vice versa."