Revolution #71, December 3, 2006
New Film Shut Up & Sing
The Dixie Chicks: Still Not Ready to Make Nice
“Just so you know, we’re ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas.”
This was the famous comment dropped between songs by Natalie Maines, lead singer of the Dixie Chicks, at a concert in Britain right before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck’s stirring documentary Shut Up & Sing tells the story of what happened next. Within days, this immensely popular country music singing trio--the largest selling female music group in history--was banned from country radio stations throughout the South. DJs broadcast uncensored threats calling for Natalie to be “strapped to a missile and sent to Iraq.” Thuggish reactionaries picketed concerts with signs like “Deport the Dixie Twits” and “Try the Chicks 4 treason.” Mothers dragged kids to staged-for-TV “CD-crushings” where farmers on tractors rolled over Dixie Chicks discs. Record sales plummeted, and the band had to perform arena shows under death threat.
Filmmaker Barbara Kopple has won two Academy Awards for documentaries that explore moments in recent U.S. history when the social patina gets cracked. Her many films include Winter Soldier (1972) which documents the first GI hearing on atrocities committed in Vietnam, Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976) about a unionization strike of coal miners, and My Generation (2000), the story of all three Woodstock festivals. Kopple is known for letting her subjects speak for themselves, a method that works well with the women in the Dixie Chicks. Along with lead singer and guitarist Natalie Maines, the band includes sisters Emily Robison (banjo, dobro and lap steel guitar) and Martie Maguire (fiddle and mandolin).The film is crammed with great concert footage, and these fine musicians play their hearts out.
As the film opens, we see the Dixie Chicks, a couple months before Natalie's Bush comment, singing the Star Spangled Banner at the Super Bowl.
How did all this happen? Shut Up & Sing takes you on the journey. Expect to be surprised.
The film shows footage from a Congressional hearing where the president of Cumulus Broadcasting testifies to ordering 250 subsidiary stations to stop playing the Dixie Chicks’ songs. The “grassroots” radio call-in campaign against the band is revealed to be organized by powerful extreme-right websites grouped around freerepublic.com. The fascist-bully country star, Toby Keith, volunteers as point man for anti-Dixie Chick attacks and receives ceaseless airplay and “human interest” coverage for adding a topical ditty about “putting his boot up [Natalie’s] ass” to his women-hating, war-mongering repertoire.
The film offers an exposing picture of the high-level attention paid to try to take down this band. Even Bush weighed in, telling Tom Brokaw: “The Dixie Chicks are free to speak their mind…They shouldn't have their feelings hurt just because people don't want to buy their records when they want to speak out…”
The stakes were clearly high. Could a regime that was launching an immoral war based on deception simply allow one of the most popular singing groups ever to poke them in the eye? And a female country band to boot? One can only imagine the executive freak-out: right at the moment when a compliant populace is most needed, these voices of dissent (widely respected virtuoso musicians who can get a real hearing) start rising from within the patriotic home base.
There is a telling scene in a high-rise boardroom with the Dixie Chicks' corporate tour sponsor, Lipton Tea, who have hired a consultant to try and talk the band into toning things down. A rare moment to capture on film, the camera moves around the room from face to face as we watch the larger political objectives of the regime in power intersect with the narrow commercial interests of Lipton. In a calculating and smooth delivery, the operative tells the band: “At the end of the day--it is true you are great musicians--but essentially you are a brand.”
But the authorities find themselves head to head with a group they cannot simply roll over. This is the pulsing heart of the film, leavened by the band’s non-stop wit and irreverence that has you alternately clapping and laughing out loud. Natalie at a band meeting: “Now that we’ve fucked ourselves, I think we have a responsibility to . . . continue fucking ourselves.”
How did the Dixie Chicks respond when besieged for political insubordination by the music industry, the government, and reactionary pundits all over the country? Strip naked and defiantly cover their bodies with the very epithets being flung in their face—“Big Mouth,” “Slut,” “Saddam’s Angels.” Voila: the famous Entertainment Weekly cover which must have really irritated Bible-belters.
There is a history here. Even before Natalie's public dis of Bush it was hard for true-believing Christian fundamentalists to get behind the Dixie Chicks. Certainly not after they hit the charts with “Goodbye Earl”—a song about the permanent removal of an unrepentant wife-beater. Then there was that whole “Earl's in the Trunk” bumper sticker movement—not exactly in line with the Ten Commandments.
After Natalie's Bush comment, country radio never relented on the Dixie Chicks and the episode did not blow over. They were faced with either going along with a stay-safe logic that says they should shut up, or standing up for principle and risk losing it all. The band thought people should have the right to free speech. And faced with all the reactionary attempts to censor them, the Dixie Chicks had to decide whether to submit and go along with the dictates, or insist on their right to exercise free speech. The band decided to fight, with gusto--which is quite a good thing.
Band member Martie Maguire said in a recent interview: “Before [Natalie] said what she said, I don’t ever think I took a stand about anything. Then the bottom fell out, and I found myself at age 34. I knew what I believed in, but I always saw both sides…In the past I tried to micro manage everything to ensure that this career would last forever . . . [Then] the light just went on. I went, okay, now I know who I am and what I stand for and it doesn’t matter what we lose along the way.”
The Dixie Chicks are sustained by their fans, some old and some new, who are thrilled to see these artists take on the colossus--something that’s still far too rare in our culture. Homemade signs (“Thank you, Dixie Chicks!”) held by cheering young women show up at every concert.
As Barbara Kopple lets the tape roll, we watch how the band comes to grips with the fact that country radio is not allowing them back in. They look at who they are as artists in a different light. During the past year, the band released an exciting new album, “Taking the Long Way,” which branches out musically and is the first album they wrote in its entirety. Emily Robison: “I feel that fire you get when you’ve been knocked down. … it’s like being given a second life.” They are now adding a whole new set of listeners, drawn by the new music, and for many, the band’s passionate defiance.
“Lubbock or Leave It,” one of the new songs, takes a scorching look at the Bible Belt, returning to Texas and specifically Lubbock, Natalie’s hometown, a city that also drove out rebel rocker Buddy Holly for not following the buttoned-down Christian path. (At a recent concert, Natalie is quoted saying, "I heard we've been nominated to be nominated for an Academy Award, but I just saw Jesus Camp [a film exposing Christian-fascist indoctrination camps for children], and I think I'd vote for it instead. It was very eye-opening.")
* * *
At one point early in the film, the Dixie Chicks are counseled: “Try not to be judgmental of the president. I’ll tell you why, he’s got sky-high approval. The war couldn’t be going better.” Watching Shut Up & Sing today, with Bush’s poll ratings tanking and the Republicans losing Congress as the U.S. imperial quagmire deepens in Iraq, it’s heavy to note how much the national mood has shifted since 2003. Makes you think about the potential for even more profound ruptures in the future.
The Dixie Chicks are still not played on most country radio, and this past October as the film was about to be released, NBC refused to broadcast TV commercials for Shut Up & Sing , stating that the “ads are disparaging to President Bush.”
NBC eventually relented under pressure. Which is one lesson of the film and the whole Dixie Chicks story. When you know you’re right, go find your allies, fight the odds, and don’t reconcile with the enemy. This is a work in progress. Natalie on Larry King last May: “I don't have any respect for the decisions [Bush has] made and where he has led our country. And Katrina was more bizarre than watching everyone agree to go to a war that we didn't really know the reasons for. You definitely didn't know what country you were living in, watching those images.”
At a concert last week a reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle remarked that “the night's high point came with Maines' raging delivery of the single "Not Ready to Make Nice," during which the audience roared non-stop…”
… I've paid a price, and I’ll keep paying.
I’m not ready to make nice,
I’m not ready to back down,
I'm still mad as hell
And I don’t have time
To go round and round and round.…
(To watch the video: http://www.cmt.com/artists/az/dixie_chicks/videos.jhtml)
Towards the end of Shut Up & Sing, a member of the Dixie Chicks back-up band proposes a song on the unity theme--being “undivided” as a band and as a society. Natalie: “Does that mean we would have to forgive all those people that did that to us?” He says, “Well, for the sake of the song, maybe it would.” Natalie, flinging a dismissive hand in the air, says, “Nope.”
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