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.