Why Shania Twain’s Come On Over sold over 20 million copies
The 1997 release had gobs of crossover potential, is upbeat, features hook-filled songwriting, and was blessed with production by a rock legend. The result has been a lasting imprint on country music.
By Glenn Peoples, Music Insights and Analytics at Pandora
— Shania Twain’s Come On Over turns 20 years old this week. The album is tied for #8 for all-time album sales in U.S. history. It’s the top solo female artist album, the top country studio album, and the 2nd highest country album behind Garth Brooks’ Double Live.
— Pandora’s Music Genome Project reveals an important aspect of Twain’s popularity: her music is almost entirely in a happy, major key, and has very few songs in a sad, minor key.
— Pandora’s music experts believe Come On Over is an influential album with lasting influence on country.
— Producer John “Mutt” Lange gave Come On Over a nuanced, rich, often explosive sound that has greatly influenced country recordings.
Shania Twain’s Come On Over was released 20 years ago this week. The album, a follow-up to her record-setting The Woman In Me, has left a deep boot print in country music and sales numbers surpassed only by fellow country artist Garth Brooks.
The midpoint of an astounding three-album stretch, Come On Over was a #1 country album in four different years (1997, 1998, 1999, and 2000) and produced more top 40 country singles (11) than most country albums have songs (10). Some of the album’s achievements are:
— #1 on the Top Country Albums chart 12 different times for a total of 50 weeks spanning from November 1997 to January 2000. In 1999, the album had streams of 9 and 15 weeks.
— 11 songs on the Hot Country Songs chart: three hit #1, five more landed inside the top 10, and all 11 made the top 40.
— 11 songs on the all-genre Hot 100 singles chart: three hit #1, five more reached the top 10, and all peaked inside the top 30.
— 20 million album sales in the U.S., tied with Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours for 8th all time. It’s the high mark for a solo female artist and the 2nd highest country album behind Garth Brooks’ Double Live.
Twain’s Pandora statistics are impressive, too: 479 million spins and 3.8 million artist stations, according to Next Big Sound. Strong numbers, yes, but those they deserve some perspective. Compact disc sales peaked in 1999, the same year Come On Over spent 26 weeks atop the Top Country Albums chart. At the turn of the century, the first streaming radio services had just appeared and Pandora was half a decade from its launch. The music world has changed since then. Today, album sales (CDs plus downloads) are only 14 percent of their 1999 levels, and streaming accounts for the majority of recorded music revenue in the U.S. (according to data available from the Recording Industry Associated of America). If released today, Come On Over would make Twain one of the most-streamed artist in history. Even so, people are still listening to her music on their Shania Twain Radio stations, and her music can be heard on stations like 90s Country.
An analysis of the Music Genome Project, a database of the musical traits in Pandora’s vast catalog, helps explain why Twain’s music is so popular:
- Twain’s music has country roots but also qualities of pop, rock, and country-rock,
- she employs subtle use of vocal harmony,
- the recordings have a mix of acoustic — namely rhythm guitar — and electric instrumentation, and has electronica influences,
- the recordings have multi-layered studio production, and overall studio production that influenced later country recordings, and
- her songs often have romantic lyrics.
“Shania pioneered what pop-country meant in the 90s,” said Rachel Whitney, head of country programming at Pandora.
Of course, one can’t overlook the role of music videos in Twain’s success. Played on MTV, CMT, and VH-1, Twain’s videos were visually stunning, mixing glamour, romanticism, and often vibrant colors. The video for “Man! I Feel Like A Woman” playfully reverses the roles in Robert Palmer’s famous video “Addicted To Love,” with Twain as a female singer backed by a band of expressionless male fashion models. For the “That Don’t Impress Me Much” video, Twain is singing amidst billows of technicolor smoke, wears a tiger-print dress and red lipstick that jumps off the screen. This wasn’t your mother’s country.
Although beloved by country fans—she still plays arenas—Come On Over doesn’t get the respect of, say, Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run or fellow country musician Garth Brooks’ No Fences—even though it has outsold both. Hit albums by pop contemporaries such as Britney Spears and Alanis Morissette sold fewer copies. Rolling Stone magazine didn’t place it on the list of the 500 greatest albums of all time (females have two of the five country albums, Patsy Cline’s The Ultimate Collection at #235 and Loretta Lynn’s All Time Greatest Hits way down at #478). Nor has Twain received the critical respect given to female artists like Patti Smith or Madonna.
But two decades after its release, through eras of patriotism and bro-country, Come On Over remains a “hugely influential album,” said Kevin Seal, a music analyst at Pandora who plays some of Twain’s material in a county cover band, Urban Outlaws. “She gets this euphoric quality on a lot of those songs, and I think that had a huge effect on Nashville production after that. Everyone doing that kind of high-production country wanted to sound like Shania Twain after that record.”
Producer John “Mutt” Lange crafted recordings that make any country album sounds thin compared in comparison. Before working with Twain on her 1995 album The Woman In Me, the South African producer, by then Twain’s husband, was best known for meticulous, larger than life rock recordings like AC/DC’s Back In Black, the 6th best selling album in U.S. history, and Foreigner’s 4. The backing vocals in “Honey, I’m Home,” like bursts of air more than fully enunciated words, are straight out of the Def Leppard playbook — no surprise since Lange produced three albums for the British metal band in the ’80s. And while it’s rare for a mainstream country artist to write her songs, it’s even rarer for a producer to get involved in songwriting. But neither Lange nor Twain is usual: the couple co-wrote all 16 tracks together. “The attention to detail on those songs — not just the production, but the songwriting — is pretty mind-blowing,” added Seal.
Twain and Lange made music that was ahead of its time. In subsequent years, numerous country recordings would follow their lead. Carrie Underwood, the next female country superstar, also took pop-laden country to the top of the charts. Just listen to her 2007 single “All-American Girl,” an upbeat ode to strong females that would work well on Come On Over — except Twain is Canadian. “Good Girl,” a 2012 single built on heavy, ’70s guitar riff, could easily be the 17th song on Come On Over. Taylor Swift, too, has borrowed from Twain in her country and pop phases, says Rachel Whitney. “Where you see the most influence is someone like Swift, who counts Shania as one of her idols. She’s still in the middle of an extraordinary career and ignores unnecessary genre boundaries while still being pretty calculating about commercial success.”
Twain is arguably one of the most—if not the most—ebullient country singers ever. That’s what the data say. An analysis of Pandora’s Music Genome Project shows nearly all songs in her career have been in a major key, which gives the songs a happy feel. Few — fewer than the typical country artist — are written in the sad, minor key, leaving a catalog of almost entirely upbeat, positive songs. “I’m not sure I’ve seen that before,” says Steve Hogan, director of music analysis at Pandora. Twain’s music was the result of a desire to write with a man’s confidence but from a woman’s perspective, wrote Gene Landrum in the book Paranoia & Power: Fear & Fame of Entertainment Icons. Twain experienced rejection in Nashville, and her debut album didn’t sell well. “The fear of failing ensured Shania didn’t fail. You can’t much more positive than when you’re still struggling to survive.”
The songs on Come On Over follow a long history of country borrowing from pop music. “Patsy Cline’s ‘Crazy’ was also a top 10 pop hit, along with loads of other country songs over time, but Twain pioneered what pop-country meant in the 90s to country radio and other artists,” says Whitney. Indeed, “Crazy,” written by a young Willie Nelson, released in 1961, lacks the full-throated delivery heard in, say, her cover of Hank Williams’ “Lovesick Blues.” In the same way, Cline’s cover of Buck Owens’ “Foolin’ Round,” also from 1961, transforms Owens’ signature Bakersfield sound into a smoother, pop-flavored type of country called the Nashville sound. Born from a need to compete with pop’s music success, the Nashville sound deemphasized traditional country instrumentation — banjo, fiddle, pedal steel — while adding a string section and rich background vocals. A Cline biographer went as far as to call Cline “the voice of the Nashville sound.” The late ’70s and early ’80s also saw a string of country crossover hits: Kenny Rogers “Lucille” in 1977 and “Lady” in 1981; Eddie Rabbit’s “I Love a Rainy Night” and Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” in 1981, and the Willie Nelson-Julio Iglesias duet, “To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before” in 1984, to name a few.
But Come On Over is the ultimate country pop, crossover album. Ahead of the album’s release, Mercury Records senior VP of sales, John Grady, who later become the head of Sony Music Nashville, was bullish on the its commercial appeal. “We’ll be up against Celine Dion and everybody else, and this can compete as a pop album,” he told Billboard a month before Come On Over was released. That turned out to be the understatement of 1997.
Thank you for reading. Please clap or share if you enjoyed it. You can look at my other Medium articles here. Click here for Measured, a collection of data-driven writing from Pandora and Next Big Sound. My Twitter handle is @theglennpeoples.