This week’s announcement that Shania Twain and hubby-producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange are splitting up is sad, if not utterly a shock. After all, if anything is part and parcel of country music tradition, it’s D-I-V-O-R-C-E.
Nevertheless, it’s always hard to hear about a marriage that’s failed, doubly so when there are kids involved. Of course, celebrity splits are practically a daily occurrence, the baggage that comes with fame and fortune astronomically amplifying the challenges every couple faces in trying to nurture love over the long term.
Yet what immediately went through my mind when I heard the news was her 1998 hit “You’re Still the One.”
When it went to No. 1 on the country chart, it was a quintessential crystallization of country’s shift away from songs that grapple with life’s struggles to those that are eager — perhaps overeager — to revel in its victories.
No doubt country radio stations will continue to play “You’re Still the One” when programmers are waxing nostalgic over those halcyon days of the late-’90s, and it probably won’t lose its appeal to country fans marking golden wedding anniversaries.
But I always marveled that this ode to romantic stability topped the chart shortly after she and Lange celebrated their fourth wedding anniversary.
Twain’s song doesn’t simply highlight country’s forsaking of reality for fantasy, but the wish to treat fantasy as reality. It’s not as if anyone would care that Twain hadn’t been in this relationship long enough even to outlast one of the toasters they surely received as a wedding gift.
Contrast this cut-to-the-happy-ending tune with the time-weathered love songs June Carter and Johnny Cash sang to one another in the final years of their lives, after nearly half a century of marital ups and downs.
When George Jones sang about “living and dying with the choices I’ve made” at Stagecoach two weeks ago, there wasn’t an ounce of calculation or wish fulfillment at work. It’s why real people shed real tears as they listened.
Music, of course, needn’t always be 100% factual any more than all film should be cinema verite. But it needs to be rooted in truth–and country music especially thrives on believability.
“You’re Still the One” might have worked coming from someone like Loretta Lynn, who married Oliver “Mooney” Lynn in 1948 and put her career on hold for years while caring for him before his 1996 death, despite the considerable shortcomings (as a husband and father) he’d displayed during their marriage.
As Shania moves on with her life and career, here’s hoping that the fizzling of the fantasy might just open the door to an honest song about failure.