At one point during the Madison Square Garden show of her last tour ever, Shania Twain sailed around the venue on a mount designed to look like a mechanical bull. “It’s not all fun,” she told the audience of her life. “But I can say honestly I’m very humbled to be back up here. I don’t know where I got the courage, but I have a funny feeling you had something to do with it.” Then she started singing “Up,” her 2002 single off the album of the same name. That record, released over 10 years ago, was her last comprised of new material.
“Up—up—up—Can only go up from here,” Shania sang, her clear voice only slightly dampened with age. She was singing, it seemed, from experience, as it wasn’t so long ago that her life seemed dark. Her longtime marriage to her producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange ended in 2010, after Lange had an affair with Shania’s best friend. “When that happened, I thought, ‘Forget it, this is more than I can handle—I’m never going to sing again,’” Shania said in a recent interview.
But she’d already stopped singing before that drama, stricken with dysphonia, a vocal condition. After that was treated, and her divorce was finalized, Shania bounced back, startlingly, with a marriage to Frédéric Thiébaud—the former husband of the best friend with whom Lange cheated.
“It’s totally out of my comfort zone, it’s not something I do while I’m an entertainer, if you know what I’m saying,” Shania told George Stroumboulopoulos in 2011 of her promo tours, as she released her memoir From This Moment On. “It’s almost like two separate lives.” That same year she did a short series for OWN called Why Not? with Shania Twain, about her new chapter, which was not entirely positively received. The series, which had her on a journey of sorts to talk to people who had also gone through emotional struggles, ended with her wedding to Thiébaud.
Why Not? should have returned Shania to the limelight with a vengeance, after a period of self-admitted seclusion. And it did, but only to a point. From 2012 to 2014, she had a Vegas residency, but has still produced almost no new music—at least any that’s been released to the public.
In March, Shania announced she’d be going back on the road for her Rock This Country tour, her first in 11 years. It would be her last tour, she said, during the year of her 50th birthday. “It’s the afterparty tour, that’s how I see it,” she told Robin Roberts on Good Morning America. Despite this, her plan is apparently still to release new music when the tour finishes up this summer, with a new sound she describes as “soul.”
Will Shania return to Madison Square Garden to play those coming songs? Whether the attendees at this show would want her to is unclear. “I am BEYOND thrilled,” my younger sister nearly squealed as we entered the venue Tuesday night, surrounded by a perhaps unsurprisingly more geriatric crowd than you’d see at most stadium pop country shows. Shania’s opener was Gavin DeGraw, who said between songs like “I Don’t Wanna Be,” the theme song to One Tree Hill, and “Chariot,” “I am a little bit psychic, and I know most of you are wondering ‘Where is Shania?’”
Finally, she came out, in a long fringed black leather jacket and a very short red sequin dress, her first of two that night that would employ the very ‘90s strategy of clear straps to hold up the off-the-shoulder style. “I’m gonna have fun tonight. This is my party and I’m so glad you came,” she told the crowd. “I’m having the time of my life, I really am.”
The show was comprised of straight hits, as Shania had promised, though she did a few things she said she’d never done on tour before, like a version of her duet (with either Mark McGraw or Billy Currington) “Party For Two,” with Gavin DeGraw. But despite the high energy, it felt somewhat like a memorial to her past self. A dynamic singer, her trademark high shrieks as pointed as ever, Shania’s success as a global superstar seems now to perhaps have been possible only exactly when it happened. She doesn’t have the ability to share of herself as she performs, as she’s explained. And that’s what was lacking: she talked about herself in such vague terms it was hard to tell what her persona is, save for some like ghostly version of who she used to be. “I don’t know if it’s good or bad but I’m just a stubborn ass girl,” she said before singing “I Ain’t No Quitter,” though we’d have to take her word for it.
Twain’s success in both country and pop (she released Up in three versions, pop, country, and international) absolutely paved the way for the moves country music has made in the past two decades; her ability to garner crossover fans was somewhat unprecedented. But now that those days are behind her, what of her is left? Is she capable of being the chameleon performer modern-day pop stars are, or will she be able to properly harness her own personality to appeal to her fans, and gain new ones? “Who wears fishnets and has a great niece?” Shania laughed to the audience as she called out to a young girl who was apparently related to her. “Anyway, she knows a whole different me, thank god.”
A consummate professional, Shania knows how to put on a show, whatever “her” was performing. She was pushed around the room on a small float, at times handling a selfie stick of footage projected on the big screens. She signed t-shirts pushed up to her onstage mid-song.
But the most moving point in the evening was about three quarters of the way through. Some of her biggest hits not yet performed (“Man, I Feel Like A Woman” was saved for the encore), she sat down to sing some ballads. “I wrote this song a few years ago as my cheer-me-up mascot when I was having one of my shitty days,” she said before “Today Is Your Day,” about as sappy a song as you can get.
“You’re Still The One” is what brought the tears. Sitting with a guitar, Shania looked overcome with emotion, singing a song she wrote with her ex-husband.
“Looks like we made it/Look how far we’ve come my baby/We mighta took the long way/We knew we’d get there someday,” the lyrics go. “They said, ‘I bet they’ll never make it’/But just look at us holding on/We’re still together still going strong.”
“Look how far we’ve come my baby,” Shania sang out, perhaps to herself.
Contact the author at email@example.com.
Images via Jamie McCarthy/Getty and Emma Dries