With Bush’s approval ratings lower than ever and the recent Democratic sweep of both houses of Congress, it is difficult to remember a time when the president was all but untouchable in the public arena. In early 2003, with 9/11’s lessons still ringing in our ears and a “slam dunk” of a war about to begin, Bush was not only a media darling, but a confident, swaggering representation of America’s new role in the world. Sure, the usual voices of opposition popped up in the usual places, but overall, hyperpatriotism trumped dissent, with the resulting triumph of raw emotion over dispassionate analysis. It is important to keep all this in mind while watching the Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck documentary Shut Up & Sing, because in light of the inarguable disaster that is Iraq and the incompetence that now defines the entire Bush machine, it is all too easy to mock the man now safely discredited as a supreme moron. When Natalie Maines, lead singer of the Dixie Chicks, made her comment about being embarrassed to share the same home state as Bush, American troops had yet to rush into the nation that would be his Waterloo, and the country was struck with that unique case of war fever that banishes free expression. Few rush to Bush’s defense at this late date, but Maines took him on when few dared stand in opposition.
The comment itself, as we see again in the familiar clip from London, was benign, even sarcastic, and was quickly followed by an almost embarrassed chuckle, as if Maines had simply taunted an unruly fan rather than the president. I have no doubt about her sincerity, but as she freely states in the moments after the remark, it was more about getting the crowd excited and ready for the show. In fact, had the comment been ignored by the media, or the country music world simply shrugged, it’s unlikely Maines would have said another headline-grabbing word. That’s not to say that she isn’t genuinely opposed to war and Bush’s foreign policy, but as the movie makes clear, Maines became truly radicalized only after being tarred as a traitor. As expected, her defiance only grew the more she was taunted and harassed, which makes her supremely human above all else. Nevertheless, Maines put her ass on the line with her stiff upper lip, and red-state America turned only because of her refusal to crawl on her belly and apologize. Matters are made worse when the defiance is directed toward a group of people far too simpleminded to appreciate nuance in public debate. That group, of course, is that crushing wave of crackerdom known as the South. We’d expect nothing less.
While the film is more Wild Man Blues than Harlan County, USA in Kopple’s oeuvre, it manages to effectively capture an overall mood of three women who had reached the pinnacle of success, only to watch that fame fade away with alarming rapidity. And Kopple’s political sympathies are carried out by her subject, but this time, there’s more of the personal; how threats and allegations change this group and how they must now deal with declining record sales and sparsely attended concerts. No one’s feeling sorry for the Dixie Chicks, as they remain incredibly wealthy and comfortable, but losing your core audience for political reasons as opposed to mediocre product makes it supremely difficult to self-assess. Do you apologize and try to move on? Take an extended vacation? Pander? Retire altogether? Artists and entertainers must constantly reinvent themselves and remain fresh, but at what point does it become too obvious? Fans can be fickle and often unfair, but they sense a retreat from authenticity like sharks in a bloody ocean. And most of the time, artists see it coming. In the case of the Dixie Chicks, this was literally an overnight turn.
What this movie makes clear is that while the three women (Maines, as well as sisters Emily Robison and Martie Maguire) are all opinionated and tough, it is Maines who runs the show. Tensions, small though they may be, are revealed, and cracks appear with such subtlety that they could almost go unnoticed. They clearly love each other and work well on the road and in the studio, but one can sense that if a choice had to be made, the sisters would apologize and return to normal. Above all, they want to play their music and avoid controversy, while Maines is apt to dominate the conversation and shake her fist at all comers. Emily and Martie support Natalie throughout, but a jealous resignation must surely set in, which carries over to their most recent record. One of the sisters even remarks that she doesn’t hear much of herself in the music. She says it with an almost quiet serenity, but one wonders if harsher language was left on the cutting room floor. Natalie’s too strong and rebellious to be contained, while the sisters come across as restrained and even a little shy. Sure, the lead singer, almost by necessity, gets the most attention, thereby fostering an often bitter competition among the other members of the band, but with the Chicks, an added tension arises: Is this about the music, or a political statement?
Fortunately, the movie refuses to disconnect one from the other, and Natalie’s most lasting impression is that one cannot (and should not) create art without being political. In fact, art lacking a political consciousness is all but valueless. This gets at the heart of the absurdity of “shut up and sing” as a belief. Social conservatives, above all, lack an artistic bent, and therefore fail to recognize art’s importance in the life of a nation. As a result, all is commerce, and the entire lot — singers, actors, authors alike — are products; interchangeable and indistinguishable from the discs, celluloid, and pulp on which their craft is carried. It’s more than the repression of the unpopular and the dangerous; it’s the inability to take seriously the ideas and expressions of anyone not officially sanctioned by the Beltway or corporate establishment. Wonks make, discuss, and debate policy, and “mere” musical acts are cardboard cutouts to distract us from the real world. Needless to say, such madness ignores centuries of radical, important works and even the possibility that art can change the world. That’s not only the self-importance of the political arena, but the rank stupidity of those citizens who burn records and fill dumpsters with the “unacceptable.” It’s curious indeed that the same lonely young woman in Dallas who bases every opinion she’s ever had about men, love, family, and God on the music that pipes through her stereo is the very same to shudder with rage when the conversation turns to current events. It’s simply not “proper.”
And while I’m no fan of country music, I can admit to liking the Dixie Chicks; not only in spirit for their bravery, but for genuinely engaging music. They tell good stories with their lyrics, and with their latest release, move beyond the expectations of a fan base that has now seen fit to turn its back. Maines has been at the forefront of this evolution, and does not care a bit that she’s been forced to seek out new listeners. In a way, she seems relieved by the decision, as if she’s been reluctantly timid all these years in the face of a juggernaut that now lionizes slack-jawed nitwits like Toby Keith. It’s akin to coming out of the closet, and having already pissed off radio stations and sponsors, there’s nothing left to lose. Even a death threat in Dallas is nervously dismissed (Maines thinks he’s rather handsome, in his own way), as if that’s the final signal of their new course. If they don’t want you dead, after all, you aren’t saying anything important. Wisely, the film jumps back and forth from 2003 to the last 18 months or so, proving that while the women have never lacked confidence, they have now acquired a much-deserved heft; a cultural position that ensures a legacy for more than mere record sales. If it were solely about the numbers, after all, we’d still be talking about Boston or Vanilla Ice.