A few weeks ago I watched The US vs. John Lennon, a documentary chronicling the extraordinary lengths the American government went to in order to silence an artist who had the audacity to speak out against corruption and injustice. Of course, Lennon came from an age when artists did that sort of thing, and he wasn’t the only musician to get on the nerves of the authorities during the tumultuous ’60s and ’70s. I imagine the FBI had a file on folks like Bob Dylan, too.
But we don’t live that world anymore, do we? These days the pressure to shut up and sing is greater than ever, and those who benefit most from our silence have engineered newer and more effective means for muzzling the consciences of those whose voices can actually be heard above the deafening white noise.
Last night my wife and I watched Shut Up and Sing, another documentary about an artist who had the temerity to speak the truth.
In 2003, the female country band, The Dixie Chicks, are at the top of their game being one of the most successful bands of all time. However with the US invasion of Iraq about to begin over frustrated worldwide objections about this needless war, one of the Chick vents off the cuff in concert about being ashamed of US President George W. Bush. This statement sparks a firestorm of organized and personal right wing attacks against the Chicks for daring to think they have the right to express a negative personal opinion about the President. This film covers the band’s effort to ride out the turmoil that would leave their careers under a cloud, but would eventually give them a opportunity to grow as great artists who bow to no one.
I’ve never been a big country music fan, but as soon as C&W stations starting censoring the Chicks I went out and bought Wide Open Spaces and encouraged everybody I knew to do the same. Not all country fans abandoned them, though – their next record actually debuted at the top of the C&W charts, if I’m not mistaken. Still, somewhere in here they ceased being a country band, and the deftness with which they reached this realization and adapted to face a new audience is a credit to their intelligence.
History is going to be far kinder to Natalie Maines than to George Bush, and this film illustrates why. It’s been a long time since an artist or a band was asked to endure so much. A firestorm of backlash from legions of ignorant country music fans. Obscene displays of gutlessness throughout the radio industry (ironic, given how much of the genre is all about macho shitkicker posturing). An active corporate radio conspiracy to destroy their careers. Ridicule at the hands of America’s stupidest entertainers (FUTK). And at least one death threat. But through it all Maines displays an intelligence, character and toughness that we might have thought was long and forever gone from our musical landscape.
To their credit, bandmates Martie Maguire and Emily Robison have her back at every step along the path. They’re not the firebrands that Maines is, but they share the same moral compass, and it’s revealing to watch as they all realize that there’s no backing down here. It’s not just self-consolation when they say that this is the best thing that could possibly have happened to them.
Toward the end Angela asked me a good question: “do you think it would have been this bad for them if they’d been men?” Well, let’s see – what do we know about the Dubya-worshiping country music base in the US?
Natalie Maines is a genuine hero who understands better than most, I think, exactly what it means to stand up for the rights that her toothless hillbilly former fans say are the most important things in the world to them.
So I highly recommend Shut Up and Sing, and their latest release, Taking the Long Way, is now perched at the top of my to-buy list. In parting, I think I’ll let the Dixie Chicks speak for themselves. Thank you for singing, and please, don’t ever shut up.