It’s been 20 years since Shania Twain's self-titled debut was released, and over a decade since her last full-length studio release. In the space of just nine years, from 1993 to 2003, Twain hit the country music industry like a grenade, blowing it up from the inside out. She made women-centric pop crossovers a modern country staple (you’re welcome, Dixie Chicks, Taylor Swift) and her third album, Come On Over, is one of the biggest and best-selling country albums of all time.

But for me at least, her legacy is a complicated one. As a teenager, I couldn’t stand Twain. I felt her brand of coy, sexy country-pop pushed women back 10 or 15 years. I wrote her off as a construct of male fantasy: a girl who could ride a horse while showing off an impossibly toned bare midriff by day and slip into some sort of cleavage-baring cocktail dress at night, the emphasis always on her sex appeal first, relatability second, talent third.

In retrospect, I think my frustrations were warranted, but it was terribly un-feminist of me to ignore the ground she was breaking. I only saw what I felt were the shattered pieces of progress sacrificed by virtue of her success. I saw her success as reaffirming and congratulating patriarchy on making women conform to a specific set of ideals, of being rewarded for going along with the charade that one needs to be perceived as at least twice as sexy as they are talented in order to make it.

I couldn’t see Twain’s success as having value to all women, but it did and it does. I didn’t see her skillful manipulation of the surface to push her subversive, secret agenda — an agenda that would change country music, for a little while at least, and give rise to a new generation of women writing and producing their own material. On all of her albums, Twain asserted what she wanted as a woman, or at least what her female characters wanted, and not in service of the male gaze but in service of herself. Not that I can personally get behind every lyric, but from “Any Man of Mine” to “That Don’t Impress Me Much” to “She’s Not Just a Pretty Face,” Twain reiterated over and over again a woman’s power and independence. A number of her songs that didn’t chart reinforced feminist themes, such as "If You Wanna Touch Her, Ask!."

It’s particularly striking given the current prevalence of bro-country (Florida Georgia Line, Kenny Chesney, Luke Bryan) that’s taken over the airwaves, stadiums and even the recent CCMA Awards. Taylor Swift has moved entirely into pop at this point, leaving Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert as modern country’s two main solo female artists. Earlier this summer, Twain announced via Facebook that she’s finally working on her fifth studio release. It’s a comeback I never dreamed I wanted, but now I think it can’t come soon enough. 

To celebrate Twain's 20 years in the music industry, I've put together the gallery above of some of her biggest moments, career highlights and surprising stories about the life and times of Shania Twain.

Follow Andrea Warner on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner.

posted by Andrea Warner on Sep 20, 2013