With the current opposition to the Bush administration’s approach to the war in Iraq reaching 70% of the American public, it’s easy to forget that in the days just before the invasion began, expressing opposition to the war, as Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks did during a concert in London, could provoke hostile responses ranging from accusations of a lack of patriotism to death threats. Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck’s subtle, underrated documentary, Shut Up and Sing (IMDB), serves as a bracing reminder of how the Dixie Chicks became embroiled in the propaganda war that accompanied the US invasion of Iraq. Maines’ offhand remark that she was ashamed the President was from Texas, of course, provoked outrage among the country music audiences that had made Maines and her bandmates, Martie Maguire and Emily Robison, the target not only of massive boycotts but also of astonishing levels of verbal abuse, with protestors holding up signs calling the group “traitors” while others gather to destroy copies of the bands CDs, and one mother eggs her small child to say “screw ‘em.” Kopple and Peck’s film follows the band over the course of their 2003 tour and returns two years later to witness the band writing songs that will become Taking the Long Way.
While Kopple and Peck take some effort to show how the Bush administration built its case for war through key soundbites from Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Powell, Shut Up and Sing is less a political statement than an analysis of the music industry itself through the experiences of Maines, Maguire, and Robison over the course of the last three years. The film opens with the Dixie Chicks performing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl and quickly moves from there to footage of Maines’ now famous London concert, where her comment was picked up by The Guardian (I think this is the original concert review) and eventually repeated in the right-wing blog, Free Republic. Kopple and Peck show Maines and the rest of the band fascinated and perplexed by the hostility her comment provoked, and just as quickly, the band’s manager, Simon Renshaw, begins to ask the group how they want to “spin” the controversy, which as Stephen Holden notes, makes the band appear as if they are being “marketed like politicians to targeted constituencies.”
Eventually, of course, the controversy snowballed to such a degree that two of the massive country radio conglomerates refuse to play the Dixie Chicks because of fears that they will be subject to similar boycotts. As one astute DJ observes, most of his listeners would likely rather listen to hard rocker Marylin Manson than the former queens of country radio. This indictment of the music industry is underscored through footage of Renshaw testifying to Congress during some of the hearings on media consolidation, with Renshaw vividly depicting the silencing effect that media consolidation can have.
The film also depicts some of the more absurd responses the band faced, including an ongoing feud with conservative country singer Toby Keith, which included Maines wearing an “FUTK” t-shirt during one of her concerts and culminating, to some extent, in the notorious Entertainment Weekly cover and story where the band faced many of their critics head-on. And perhaps most dramatically, we see the band bravely playing a Dallas show soone after receiving a death threat.
These responses cannot be separated from the knowledge that the Dixie Chicks probably would not have been as widely criticized if they weren’t women, a point made in the Village Voice review of the film. Many of the harshest comments have a distinctly gendered tone, with Bill O’Reilly insisting that Maines and her bandmates ought to be “slapped around,” and Kopple and Peck are careful to depict the double standard that exists when it comes to musicians expressing their political views (Stephen Holden also touches on this in his Times review).
But I think that what made the film most compelling for me was how the band’s music grew so explicitly out of their experiences as artists and public figures but also as wives and mothers. In this sense, the film reminded me quite a bit of the Metallica documentary, Some Kind of Monster in depicting a band at a kind of crossroads and, perhaps, working to redefine themselves in the face of negative publicity (Metallica, of course, alienated fans due to their testimony on music piracy). To the credit of the band members, the Dixie Chicks remained true to their country roots, producing a deeply personal record that took on the public outcry rather than avoiding it, a sentiment best expressed in the song, “Not Ready to Make Nice.” While I’ve always been aware of the band’s talent, these scenes deepend my appreciation of a group of talented musuicans.