One of the ironies of the whole Dixie Chicks brouhaha in 2003, on the eve of the Iraq War, when Natalie Maines announced to a sympathetic British audience “We’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas,” is that the president of the United States isn’t from Texas. George W. Bush was actually born in Connecticut, where his father grew up. Then again, only one of the three Dixie Chicks (Natalie Maines) was born in Texas, either (though all three, like Dubya, were raised there). More to the point would’ve been “We’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from the United States.”
Shut Up and Sing, co-directed by Oscar-winning documentarian Barbara Kopple (Harlan County USA) with Cecelia Peck, deals with the absurdly disproportionate response to Maines’ relatively benign comment. Up until that point the best-selling female group in history, the Chicks find themselves shut out by the country-music industry and its easily offended red-state fans. Their CDs are publicly stomped and burned; their songs no longer get airplay. It’s a real John Lennon “Beatles are more popular than Jesus” moment, except that when Maines chokes out an understandably lukewarm apology, the furor doesn’t die down. America at that time had been driven mad by 9/11 and gulled by Bush’s lies about WMDs (and subtle rhetorical linkage between Saddam and bin Laden), and wasn’t in the mood to hear dissent against a popular president. (Even in Massachusetts, where I took part in an anti-war protest around the same time Maines made the snark heard ’round the world, some people drove by yelling “You want another 9/11?” and “Kick Saddam’s ass!”)
Everything in the Dixie Chicks is “we” — Maines, Martie Maguire, and Emily Robison present a unified front, and one assumes that all three of them agreed that the war was a bad idea. Maguire and Robison, however, are more circumspect and cautious than the spitfire Maines. One can agree with Maines, and empathize with her frustration, and still find her a tad arrogant. The other Chicks worry about the effect all the controversy will have on the hundreds of tour personnel who depend on good ticket sales for their livelihood. Maines, lying on a couch, her face twisted in contempt for the yahoos who’ve turned their backs on the band, couldn’t care less. The movie isn’t quite the idolatrous you-go-girl portrait one might expect: it shows us how the inhuman pressure of the situation pissed Maines off and kept her pissed off for months on end, pushing her past the tipping point, as the other two women support her but seem to yearn for it all to blow over.
Still, time vindicated Maines, and eventually, as the war ground on and more and more troops died in a conflict that was pre-sold as a cakewalk, placards started popping up at concerts: “NATALIE WAS RIGHT.” The band’s anti-war stance came to seem prescient, while their antagonist Toby Keith, with his moronic “Courtesy of the Red, White, & Blue,” seemed more and more like a barroom crank and doofus (subsequently, he claimed that he never supported the war). The Chicks’ post-controversy album Taking the Long Way took five Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year and Best Country Album — take that, Toby.
Kopple and Peck take the opportunity to catch the Chicks in a variety of performance modes — onstage, in rehearsals, in the studio. Their unity extends beautifully to their music, and it’s not surprising that the Dixie Chicks, having alienated some of their Bible-belt fanbase, picked up new ideological fans who bought their album just to support their politics and wound up actually enjoying the songs. Like many another great country act — k.d. lang, Lyle Lovett, Johnny Cash — the Chicks straddle the line between country and rock, and perhaps they have the controversy to thank for guiding them towards a new sound, a new voice, and a new audience.
Ultimately, Shut Up and Sing is about the cost of free speech at the major populist level, when you have to worry about corporate sponsors (Lipton Tea) pulling out of your tour after you’ve criticized a president — something most of us generally don’t fret over. If the Dixie Chicks weren’t so huge, the comment would’ve passed unnoticed, but they became the accidental tip of the spear of pop-cultural dissent aimed at the Bush administration. As noted, they weren’t martyrs for long, and more and more stars would come forward to join them in protest, but the Chicks took the heat and the shunning and the death threats first. Does that make them portraits in courage? In this media-driven culture that thrives on tabloid abrasion and eschews thought against the grain, perhaps.