Greatest Hits (Mercury)
Greatest Hits 2 (DreamWorks)
Ever since Shania Twain revealed that she initially asked Toby Keith to sing the male part in her flirtatious duet, "Party for Two," I keep trying to imagine what would've happened had he said yes.
Keith could've handled the tune's spritzy vocals. For all his macho posturing, country music's bully patriot is at his best when the lyrics allow him to lighten up a little. It's the video I can't get out of my head. I keep visualizing Keith in Billy Currington's role, doing the bump on camera with Shania and shaking his groove thang on a dining table before the two of them swing from a chandelier wrapped up in each other's limbs.
Shania, of course, is all about moving on camera. She wouldn't have sold 50 million albums if she hadn't hit the scene after CMT established itself as a dominant marketing force. Video has played a major role in Keith's career as well, especially in the last five years, but he's yet to show off any dance moves. How he would have handled pogoing with Shania is anybody's guess.
Twain and Keith likely appear to be an odd couple, but they share a history. Both released their debut singles within weeks of each other on Mercury Records in March 1993, and both were introduced to country fans via a nightclub tour billed as Triple Play that matched up three of their label's most promising new acts. By the time the tour ended, Keith had a No. 1 hit with "I Should've Been a Cowboy," while Twain and the other act, John Brannen, watched their first singles tank. Traveling across the U.S. on a low-rent tour nevertheless created a bond between the two superstars, and they've been commenting on each other's careers ever since.
There's another reason that a duet between Keith and Twain would've been perfect: On Nov. 9, both released new greatest-hits albumshis second, her first. The two CDs have had a lock on No. 1 and 2 on the Billboard country album chart (Twain at No. 1, Keith No. 2) since they came out. Last week alone, Shania sold 230,000 copies and Keith 188,000.
Listening through their hits, it's evident the two have more in common than coincidental career launches and friendships forged on a kamikaze tour, even if, on the surface, their differences are more obvious than their similarities. Keith is unrepentantly Southern, a rough-and-ready, proud-to-be-a-redneck guy. He has a rural work ethic and the sense of entitlement common to blue-collar guys who become self-made millionaires. Twain, on the other hand, is Canadian, a vegetarian and a practitioner of an esoteric religion that includes abstaining from sex when seeking new levels of enlightenment.
Keith isn't shy about bragging about his accomplishments and capitalizes on his celebrity and his wealth every chance he gets. Twain is friendly but aloof, so protective of her privacy that she keeps homes in Switzerland and New Zealand so she can stay as far from the glare of celebrity as she can. Keith is a down-home guy who is comfortable walking into a bar or a pro wrestling ring, Twain an uptown gal who wouldn't be caught dead in either place. It's easy to see why a lot of country fans would see Keith as one of their own: Virtually anyone in the South knows someone like him. Twain isn't nearly as approachable. Indeed, she's the unattainable fantasy, the model with the flawless features smiling from cosmetics ads or flashing skin in magazines like GQ or Maxim.
Nevertheless, the two share distinct, larger-than-life personalitiessomething country music has sorely lacked in recent times. During an era when Music Row was rightly accused of being an assembly line for seemingly interchangeable performers, Keith and Twain became stars by standing out dramatically from everyone else. They wrote their own songs, and they created their own images. The more their music reflected an in-your-face attitude, the more successful they became. There's no mistaking them for anyone else, either on the radio or when you see them in concert or on TV. Both manage to come across as individuals and archetypes at the same time.
As archetypes, though, they're fairly one-dimensional. Keith became a superstar by hammering the public with his image as a swaggering good ol' boy. His hits "How Do You Like Me Now?," "I Wanna Talk About Me," "Who's Your Daddy?" and "Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue (The Angry American)" aren't subtle, but neither are they generic. He's the poster boy for what urban Northern liberals think most Southerners are like, and his red-state audience loves him for it.
Twain, on the other hand, gave country music its modern uber-woman, the careerist who wants a man to adore her, as long as it's on her terms. Songs like "Any Man of Mine," "Man! I Feel Like a Woman!," "That Don't Impress Me Much," "Don't Be Stupid" and "I'm Gonna Getcha Good!" allow her to be both a girlish lover and the in-control partner. She's the Julia Roberts of country musica willful, witty woman who is also the ultimate object of affection.
With Keith and Twain, however, the music presents little depth beyond these one-dimensional images. Unlike some of their peersAlan Jackson or Lee Ann Womack, saythey rarely allow themselves to be victims or to explore emotions beyond power, humor and uncomplicated love.
Keith and Twain are as successful as they come. But as dominant as their images are, we only know them as archetypes, not as multidimensional humans. If they want to become their idolsif Keith is to get the respect given his friend Willie Nelson, or if Twain is to be as revered as her role model Dolly Partonboth are going to have to show us more than what their greatest hits reveal.
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