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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Shut Up & Sing (review)

Uppity Women Making Waves

Your first instinct — if you’re a person who values little crap like freedom of speech and the value and even necessity of dissent — is to cheer to see that George Bush’s warmongering just got an Election Day smack in the keister at the same moment that the Dixie Chicks’ new album, Taking the Long Way, is currently No. 30 on Amazon’s sales rankings for music, which is very good indeed and means it is still selling like hotcakes six months after its release. In the wake of all that happened in 2003, the veritable Two Minutes Hate that coelesced around the Chicks simply because they dared to express displeasure and embarrassment, as Americans, at presidential actions done in the name of all Americans, it seems like a vindication, a repudiation. The Chicks were right!
But then you realize that it all still sucks. All it proves is that the American public, as a whole, are indeed no better than sheep: they will condemn those in the minority simply for being in the minority, they will fail to recognize the very obvious until it smacks them in the keister, they will accept without question misinterpretations of such concepts as “democracy” and “freedom,” “treason” and “imminent threat” if it comes from someone in a putative position of authority even if the actual authority wielded by the person in that position has been demolished by lies, corruption, and ulterior motives.

So yeah, Shut Up & Sing is massively depressing, and highlights some of the hypocrisies and idiocies of American public life, and points out how goddamn fucking ignorant some Americans are, and makes you want to just give up and move to Mars and start all over again with a new revolution. The film jumps back and forth between the immediate aftermath, in 2003, of the Chicks’ singer Natalie Maines telling a London concert audience that she was ashamed that George Bush was from her home state of Texas, and 2005/early 2006, when the Chicks were working on a new album and debating amongst themselves and with their management about how best to come back from the PR mess of a few years back. And in the process, the film, by Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck, makes perfectly clear that something is fundamentally broken in America today, that American citizens simply do not understand the very rights and freedoms that define America… or did, once upon a time.

It’s not that anyone here says or implies that those who protested what Maines said didn’t have a right to do so — of course they did, as much as Maines had the right to say what she said. We are all entitled to our opinions, even if they are wildly uninformed, like those of the former fans, irate over what they perceive as “treason” on the Chicks’ part, who suggest that the Chicks are communists, or that they should just move to Iraq. Those fans may be completely comfortable showing off their utter ignorance of what communism is, or what the word treason means, or that the liberty to speak one’s mind without fear of retribution is (supposedly) something that distinguishes America from countries like Iraq. And that’s fine, even if it’s sadly hilarious that these same people can accuse, with a straight face, the Dixie Chicks of being “ignorant.” What isn’t fine is that these same fans utterly miss the irony of complaining about entertainers who spout political opinions while simultaneously embracing a musician like country star Toby Keith, who — we learn here — rebutted the Chicks with a song, apparently directed at Iraq, about how “we’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way.” Nobody told Toby Keith to keep his political opinions to himself, to just shut up and sing. And it’s not like the Chicks told a crowd in Houston about their Texan embarrassment — they told a crowd in London, a city that had just hosted its biggest antiwar demonstration ever, and the crowd loved it. So what’s the problem?

This is what it comes down to: the clips of angry fans and editorializing radio DJs and comments from radio network execs point out several major issues that anyone who genuinely cares about what America used to stand for should worry about. What the fuck is wrong with people that they can’t stand to hear an opinion that diverges from their own? How the fuck evil are all the minions of the Bush administration that they managed to convince so many people that the invasion of Iraq was for the safety of America? And how did corporations — like the conglomerates that control most of American radio today — come to wield such unilateral power over what gets played, and what doesn’t, on their stations? The boycott of the Chicks over a simple statement would never have gained the traction that it did if not for the strangehold that the corporations hold over local radio stations.

We may come to see, years from now, that Shut Up & Sing indirectly illustrates America at a pivotal crossroads. How we see that crossroads depends on whether we come to fully embrace corporate rule and the whipping into a militaristic frenzy of the American public — in short, facism — or whether we reject that. Maybe the hints of where we’ll go are already here in the film: the Chicks’ new album went to No. 1 on the country charts earlier this year without any radio play at all. Is this a death blow to the hegemony of corporate radio, or just a blip in its road to domination?

The story of the Dixie Chicks isn’t finished yet. How many more American soldiers and innocent Iraqis have to die before the story is finished is an unanswered question, but if the answer is more than zero, we’ve all lost.

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MPAA: rated R for language

viewed at a public multiplex screening

official site | IMDb
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  • JoshDM

    Shut up and review.

    :^D

  • DaveH

    Well said!

  • PaulYK

    Well said! I was a fan of the “Chicks” long before Ms. Maines made her JOKE, remained a fan during their public floggings and am still a fan now that they are finally back!! As a country that is so adamant about freedom of speech, among other such rights, that it seems to think its okay to impose these freedoms on other countries by force/invading, it should think twice about what happened to the “Chicks”…it may be you they go after the next time.

  • MaryAnn

    I don’t think Maines was joking…

  • PeterE

    There is a streak of “paranoia” in democratic politics, and perhaps in all human relations. We tend to notice when we do NOT get our way, more than we celebrate when we do. And we explain our perceived lack of control by the attacks of our enemies.

    How else to explain the constant agreement in both Republican and Democratic circles and in their blogs that the US is going to hell in a handbasket – but because it is simultaneously going toward a socialist state and self-destruction (if you are a Republican) and that it is veering towards fascism as this “Filosopher” opines?

    How pathetic for her to once again raise the accusation of “fascism” at the Bush administration – while complaining of the lazy use of language on the part of the right-wing masses.

    Let me know when Kristalnacht comes, honey. If you can still get on the web, of course!

  • MaryAnn

    Do you know the definition of facism? Much of it involves powerful tendencies toward aggressive militarization of the populace and a ceding of power to corporations. In what way does that NOT apply to the United States today?

    If you’re waiting for facism in the United States to look exactly like Germany in 1938, then you’re never going to see it.

  • PeterE

    Well, why don’t you define fascism then?

    In Wikipedia’s “definitions of fascism” it says, inter alia:

    It is common practice to define a fascist government as a “right-wing dictatorship”, but this merely replaces one vague term with another, since there is no universal definition of “right-wing”.

    But the assumption is that a fascist regime is a dictatorship. Now we had a election the other day and the current President is not being described as an all-powerful dictator, but as a “lame duck”. Which of course is giving the left great amusement. But you can’t have it both ways. We know that the current lame duck will be replaced in 2 years by another president who has to deal (negotiate) with the other two arms of our republic: congress and the judiciary.

    Your criterion of “aggressive militarization of the populace” would have to be quantified. Are more citizens (as a proportion) going into the army than at any other time in our recent history? Are our campuses being dominated by the armed forces? Are our media dominated by the military? Who just won the congressional mid-term elections? Are the armed forces primed for a coup? Please try to give facts and figures, not just your own emotions.

  • MaryAnn

    There’s an excellent, all-encompassing explanation of the new facism here:

    http://www.oldamericancentury.org/14pts.htm

    I’m not being “emotional” about this, as I’m sure you’re able to see.

  • PeterE

    Sorry – but if you think that article has some analystical kudos, your way off base. It certainly quantifies nothing.

    Just to mention a couple:
    entwinement of religion and government? This President goes out of his way to say that Islam is good at its core and that moderate Muslims do oppose terror. The Faith-Based Initiatives program has scared no-one but the ACLU.

    Control of the media:
    I laugh! Study after study suggest that most journalists are Democrats and there is no doubt to any Republican that the mass media shows Democrat bias. Why do you think the congress just passed to Democrat hands? Because the media supports Bush? Hah!

    Denigration of political opponents (or whatever): Yes some right wing journalists wrote some books. So what. Hollywood is also predominantly liberal, and dozens or perhaps hundreds of books condemning the Bush administration have been published. Who has been more vilified publicly than Bush himself? He is constantly referred to as an idiot, an ignoramus etc etc. I don’t think any of these politicians, journalists, comedians etc that say such things are in jail for their utterances.

    Its boring to go on. But wake up! USA 2006 is not ideal, but it sure ain’t fascism!

  • MaryAnn

    Clearly, we live in different worlds. Yours sounds nice.

    Seriously, I hope you’re right — I really do.

  • PeterE

    In that case I repent for calling you “honey”.

    But since you have a philosophic bent, my experience with different political organizations and perspectives leads me to believe in a Gestalt view of politics. The majority of politically active individuals (who vote, think about issues etc) tend to think in the Liberal way or the Conservative way (very broadly defined). It doesn’t matter how many “rational arguments” are thrown at them by the opposing side, very little information will actually penetrate the Gestalt and help them (us) to see the lady as a rabbit or the rabbit as a lady (or whatever that famous Gestalt drawing shows).

    Indeed, change of political ideologies probably comes as a result of something more fundamental than rational arguments, i.e. a spiritual conversion or emotional experience of some kind.

    Therefore 99% of political blogging activity is intellectual target practice and ideological bonding rather than a mind-changing experience. But we knew that already.

    Coming to an awareness of the Gestalt factor, however, can help us break out of the victimizing tendencies of bifurcated politics. In other words, if we know that our ideological opponent is a victim of the Gestalt effect, we can tone down the rhetoric and try to reach them on the basis of heart and compassion – before we attack them with all the fearsome ideological weapons at our disposal.

    Its not easy, this perspective. Although I have moved “rightward”, I still love to throw wrenches in the works of my Conservative colleagues and fellow bloggers – when I usually get attacked as a centrist or dilettante. But the truth is bigger than us and more important than my thin skin.

  • Craig

    There is a whole other side to this issue too. Let’s not forget that the Chicks not only made their political opinions heard, but they also insulted their fanbase and their musical peers in additional statements. With freedom of speech, especially as a very public persona, comes the understanding that there are negative and positive consequences to those actions. Some of those things are not nice and unfair (wackos writing ugly letters and the whole “uppity woman” syndrome). They are definitly not the first, and won’t be the last, to endure such repercussions for taking an unpopular stand.

    (By the way, it works both ways, as liberals have been shown to be a rather intolerant lot themselves over time. Hmmm, could it be the fact that both sides share the common denominator of being humans?)

    The boycotts and hard feelings are just as much due to these comments made about country music and its fans, as it is about politics.

    They need to decide if they are in the music business or the political activism business. It may be unfair, but the consumer-public wants their celebraties to entertain them, not preach to them, and not talk condesendingly to them. Most music entertainers know there is a balance for just how many personal opinions, especially political, to share with the public.

    If they insist on wearing their pride on their sleeves like a badge of honor and play “martyr” with a movie like this, they have to understand the range of reaction they will get.

  • MaryAnn

    In what way did they “insult their fanbase”? Disagreement constitutes insult?

  • Craig

    “When I looked out in the audience (today), I didn’t see rednecks,” Maguire said. (Did her lip curl slightly as she pronounced the r-word?) “I saw a more progressive crowd.”

    “I’d rather have a small following of really cool people who get it, who will grow with us as we grow and are fans for life, than people that have us in their five-disc changer with Reba McEntire and Toby Keith,” Maguire said. “We don’t want those kinds of fans. They limit what you can do.”

    “The entire country may disagree with me, but I don’t understand the necessity for patriotism,” Maines resumes, through gritted teeth. “Why do you have to be a patriot? About what? This land is our land? Why? You can like where you live and like your life, but as for loving the whole country… I don’t see why people care about patriotism.”

    ”I don’t even know what’s played on country radio, but when they tell me some titles, it cracks me up,” laughs lead singer Natalie Maines, sitting in a swank New York hotel as the group promotes its new album, Taking the Long Way, out this week.
    — New York Times, story from The Associated Press, 5/26/06

    ”I just feel stupid. I was trying to convince people that that stereotype [about country music] wasn’t real … but it does exist. I thought it was the old school,” she says. ”Now I wouldn’t blame anyone if they didn’t want to listen to it.”
    — Martie Maguire, New York Times, 5/26/06

    And for bonus points on biting the hands that fed you, there is this gem:

    “Natalie’s new motto is, ‘What would Bruce Springsteen do?'” says [Emily] Robison, laughing. “Not that we’re of that caliber, but ‘Would Bruce Springsteen do The View?'”
    — Time, 5/21/06

    “This is obnoxious, obnoxious,” said Vieira. “We started these girls — back in 1998, they couldn’t get arrested. We were one of the first national shows to give them a platform, because they deserve a platform — they are incredibly talented performers.”
    — Meredith Viera on the Dixie Chicks dissing her show The View, 5/23/06

    You personally may not have a problem with these comments, but if you look at it from the side of most of their former base audience (and industry insiders) who supported them over the prior five years, before this started, it sounds petulant, condesending and unappreciative.

  • MaryAnn

    Whoa, whoa, whoa. These comments are from the film, or from this year. If people want to feel insulted NOW, fine. But this is not what fueled fan anger back in 2003. Fans were angry in 2003 for reasons that only demonstrate that they do not understand that the right to free speech means ALL speech and in particular unpopular speech (popular speech doesn’t need protection), that dissent is not treason but an absolute requirement of patriotism that we encourage and support it even if we disagree with it.

    And that was the real issue in 2003. People weren’t angry because they could articulate any reasonable and reasoned defense of Bush to counter the contention behind Maines’s statement, which was that Bush was a warmongering liar. Fans reacted in a completely knee-jerk way that said than ANY criticism of the president, even if it’s valid, is wrong. That is not supposed to be the American way.

  • Craig

    Okay, it may well be that the Chicks have just deepened the resentments with comments from 2006. And there was no doubt that some people took a wrong-headed approach by supporting CD-burning rallies and the like.

    But the band already was reported to have had an uneasy relationship with the country music industry and its bigger recording artists before this comment was made in London. It wasn’t going to take much to justify a very public split between both sides. So, for the Chicks to “boo-hoo” the lack of support from Country insiders and artists is very jaded.

    And, free speech goes both ways! Beyond the extremists, there were the vast majority of disapproving people who simply felt, ” If that’s the way they feel about Bush and the war, then the only real way I can voice my own disagreement to their opinion is to no longer support them with my money.”

    If a musical favorite of the liberal crowd suddenly started making comments that went against some cherished, closely-held core beliefs of that crowd, I feel certain that many would react by turning their backs financially and encouraging others to do likewise. (Look at all the liberal people, pundits and politicians who darkly suggested that ABC ought to have their broadcasting license “reviewed” because they aired that “Path to 9/11” program)

    Like it or not, publically disowning your President on the eve of a war is going to be an emotional hot button, regardless your reasons for doing it. Especially for Country fans, who tend to be more of a conservative group in terms of politics.

    Proclaiming a boycott is usually the best way for a capitalist society to most effectively mount a protest for what a group of citizens disagree with. In practice, it has limited effect since it is, after all, a voluntary decision. The Chicks are certainly not much poorer for it.

    In summary, those who wished harm onto them, or who wanted them silenced or jailed, were obviously wrong.

    But many people simply disagreed with their words or actions, and choose to show their disagreement in the only constructive ways they knew how. The pocketbook.

    And now, as a sidebar, here is a tidbit that I found to further show how disingenuous some of their crying has been:

    Natalie Maines : “Politics got in the way of people having food and clothing and homes. That is what hurt and angered me, not country radio.”

    The Red Cross: “(We) may not take sides in hostilities or engage at any time in controversies of a political, racial, religious or ideological nature.”

    But what bothers Ms. Maines the most, she says, is that the American Red Cross refused a $1 million donation from the Dixie Chicks in 2003.

    “It has nothing to do with being taken off of the radio,” says Ms. Maines, 31, by phone from New York . “It has to do with the absurdity of death threats and the absurdity of being so awful that people won’t even touch you. That the Red Cross won’t take a million-dollar check from you. How can the Red Cross turn away a million dollars for charity?”

    But it’s not as simple as that, responds national Red Cross spokesperson Julie Thurmond Whitmer in a prepared statement.

    The band would have made the donation “only if the American Red Cross would embrace the band’s summer tour,” writes Ms. Whitmer, referring to the group’s 2003 U.S. tour after the London incident.

    “The Dixie Chicks controversy made it impossible for the American Red Cross to associate itself with the band because such association would have violated two of the founding principles of the organization: impartiality and neutrality.

    “Should the Dixie Chicks like to make an unconditional financial donation to the American Red Cross, we will gladly accept it.”

  • MaryAnn

    And, free speech goes both ways!

    Of course it does! No one is saying otherwise — not the Chicks, not me. It’s the tenor of the speech that is so disturbing. It’s not that people disagreed with the Chicks — it’s that they disagreed for no good reason.

    (Look at all the liberal people, pundits and politicians who darkly suggested that ABC ought to have their broadcasting license “reviewed” because they aired that “Path to 9/11” program)

    This is not remotely the same thing. *Path to 9/11* COMPLETELY INVENTED UTTER FALSEHOODS about the events leading up to 9/11 and called it the truth, and did so over broadcast airwaves that are supposed to be held in the public trust. Maines expressed an opinion about the behavior of the President, a private citizen, no matter how famous, offering her reaction to an undisputed fact. Maines did not say, “The President eats the corpses of dead babies with chocolate syrup, and that’s why I hate him,” which would have been a ridiculous falsehood… and yet, even if she HAD said such a thing, it would be no more than pathetic. ABC said, “President Clinton had an opportunity to capture Bin Laden, and threw it away,” which is absolutely not true, and particularly dispicable in a movie that is presented as a documentary based entirely on fact. The two situations are not at all comparable.

    A more fair comparison to Maines’s statement would be Rush Limbaugh’s recent tirade against Michael J. Fox for his TV ads supporting stem-cell research… though even that suffered from a clear obliviousness to the facts of Parkinson’s disease and the side effects of the drugs used to treat it.

    ABC SHOULD have its broadcast license reviewed in the wake of that movie. The networks use of the public airwaves is supposed to be contingent on a RESPONSIBLE use of them. Outright lying to the American public is NOT respsonsible.

  • Craig

    I would agree that my ABC example wasn’t really analogous to the point I was making about liberals turning intolerant when a public person expresses a unfavorable view. I would, though, suggest that the gist of the docu-drama (as stated in the numerous disclaimers) was correct in that the Clinton Administration philosophy was more law enforment-oriented toward Osmama, and there were opportunities attempted and also missed by Clinton (despite the Demo’s, and Clinton’s, very calculated attempts to shout that basic fact down), while Bush had his own failings there too.

    Hindsight condemns both Presidents. Clearly.

    However, as I predicted back when it was being shown, this program would be a vague memory in a month. (Score one correct.)

    However, I am now WAYYYY off the point. Be careful when you say that people opposed the Chicks “for no good reason”. The truth is, that the Chick backlash just doesn’t happen to be a valid reason in YOUR mind. Being upset that an entertainer makes a damming comment about the President on the eve of a war is perfectly allowed. Freedom of opinion doesn’t need to pass someone’s personal test of “reasonableness” to be valid. I would hope you would bitterly fight for someone’s right to call out the President equally with someone’s right to disagree with it.

  • MaryAnn

    As someone smart recently said, we are all entitled to our own opinions. We are NOT all entitled to our own facts.

  • PeterE

    Unless you’re a lefty, in which case you can drop little “facts” like “Bush = Hitler” whenever you feel like it.

  • MaryAnn

    I’m pretty sure it’s a fact that I’ve never said “Bush = Hitler,” so who’s inventing their own facts?

    And anyway, no one who HAS made that comparison has said that Bush is actually Adolf Hitler in disguise, so connecting the two is NOT presented as factual but as interpretation, as opinion based on an analysis of attitudes and behavior.

    Are you sure you understand the difference between fact and opinion?

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