You might remember, back in 2003, the huge uproar caused by one Dixie Chick’s dissenting words against George W. Bush. Words from one single person said in jest in a London concert made its way overseas and back home resulting in huge controversy. Treason, they called it. Un-American! Traitors! Every single adjective and noun related to unpatriotism was slung against the group. This was in the days before the anticipated invasion of Iraq. It was a time when approval ratings for “Dubya” was high and patriotism was in full swing.
The documentary begins with footage of the infamous words uttered by Natalie Maines, the lead singer of the Dixie Chicks and follows them through the fallout and eventual rebuilding of the Dixie Chicks, as a musical group and as a brand. The words, you may remember, were: “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas”. Watching the actual footage from the concert, it was easily discernable as a statement said in jest but it was still obviously a sentiment that echoed true to what she believed. The crowd cheers after she says it and they continue on with the concert, oblivious to what will soon transpire because of those few words. It’s not until the press back home (mostly due to Fox News, of course) pick up on the story on what Maines said, that it becomes an out-of-proportion political controversy. Even Maines muses, at one point in the film, that she is surprised that all this is over something she said. And she’s not some great political figure or anything, just an entertainer. An entertainer who happens to be a public figure but also happens to be a citizen in the United States with the right to freedom of speech, the First Amendment.
It becomes the centre of debates and discussions on all the news outlets. There’s questioning about where the Dixie Chicks’ loyalties lie and their patriotism. There’s even boycotts of their music and public trashing/crushing with a bulldozer of their CDs and paraphernalia. One lady interviewed, as she was throwing away her CDs, says that she likes them but for what they said, they are trash. Country radio has turned against their once country darlings. In other words, the reaction is strong and fierce by at least a certain demographic in America.
You can see the anguish and dismay felt by the Chicks throughout all this. And despite the fact that it was only Maines who said it, the group continued to band together to form a united front. Emily Robison and Martie Maguire, the two “other” Dixie Chicks, could’ve easily turned on Maines and tried to distance themselves from her but they didn’t. That was nice to see, especially since Robison and Maguire are sisters and original members of the group before Maines came along in 1995. The PR folks were working overtime during all this too. The Dixie Chicks went on the cover of Entertainment Weekly addressing all the attacks against them, although against the advice of their PR people, and went on an interview with Diane Sawyer. As the boycotts and backlash continued, so did their Top of the World Tour. When the tour finally reached Greenville, South Carolina, the Dixie Chicks anticipated angry mobs and a hostile reception. While there were protesters outside and “fans” who went only because they had already bought tickets before the big ol’ calamity happened, the audience inside was for the most part supportive. Maines went out of her way to give the haters a moment in the concert to “boo” to their heart’s content, but instead, the stadium erupted into cheers and applause.
The tour trudged on and things seemed okay, under the circumstances. That was until the date neared for their Dallas, Texas show on July 6, 2003 when Natalie Maines received a death threat. Yes, a death threat! In it, the writer said they were planning to kill her at the Dallas, Texas show. However, the show must go on and needless to say, security was beefed up for the show. O the night of the show, the girls are visibly anxious and fearful for their lives but they try their best to keep things light (or light as can be, considering). Luckily, a suspect is apprehended before the show so their nerves are at least somewhat calmed by this fact.
All this, I think, speaks volumes about the political climate at the time.
The documentary also flashforwards to 2005-2006 as they work on and eventually promote their album “Taking the Long Way” (2006). Some of the songs, such as “Not Ready to Make Nice” and “The Long Way Around”, directly respond to the controversy. In the lyrics of “The Long Way Around”, they sing, “It’s been two long years now / Since the top of the world came crashing down / And I’m getting’ it back on the road now” and “Well, I fought with a stranger and I met myself / I opened my mouth and I heard myself / It can get pretty lonely when you show yourself / Guess I could have made it easier on myself”. They show how the ramifications from “the incident” in 2003 persist as they are still being looked over by country radio stations even if there isn’t an explicit boycott. Yet after all that and the lack of support from the country music sector of the music industry, their album still manages to win five awards at the Grammy’s, go three times platinum and garner critical acclaim.
Initially, when I came across this movie, I wasn’t really a Dixie Chicks fan. I wasn’t a fan of country music and I only heard their songs when they happened to be on the radio. But I knew I admired the group (namely, Natalie Maines) for 1) having the gumption to voice their opinions at a time when challenging the status quo was frowned upon and 2) for not backing down and retracting or altering what they said after everything erupted. They stuck to their guns and I love that. I respect Natalie Maines for having the courage to speak out against the war and against Bush at a time when it wasn’t a popular thing to do. I do, however, wonder if the Iraqi war had turned out to be a success, how things would have turned out for them and if this movie would ever have been made. While Shut Up and Sing does give us an interesting insider perspective of everything that happened during those tumultuous times, it also seems like it could be perceived as a kind of “I told you so” statement now that the American public has started to realize the out of kilter Iraq situation.
What’s really interesting about this movie is that it illustrates just how hyper-patriotism can easily turn into an abominable and destructive entity. Dissent, once an ideal cherished in the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, now provokes threats, verbal attacks, the brandishing of the title “un-American”, etc. The Dixie Chicks aren’t the first, nor the last, public figures to receive backlash for speaking out against the war or Bush. I don’t know exactly when or how speaking out against either became equated to hating America (and its values) or not supporting the troops. Can’t these things be seen as dichotomous areas? Nevertheless, I find it sad that some people will so quickly and viciously turn on other people for having a different stance or political belief. It’s highly, highly ironic that these are the same folks who pride themselves on their patriotism and Americanism but refuse to respect that part of the constitution that guarantees free speech. It is like we’re suddenly in a communist regime. Not to mention, they were just words. Words that weren’t to be construed as hate speech in any way. In the grand scope of things, the actions did not fit the aftermath. You have all kinds of celebrities doing reckless behaviour, like the DUIs reported almost every week, but there’s no huge uproar over that even though driving impaired is not only illegal but dangerous to the population. Yet you don’t see boycotts and media attacks against those public figures. There’s no one sending Paris Hilton death threats. Where are people’s priorities? DUI = acceptable. Dissent = very, very unacceptable.
In the end, I am just glad to see that the Dixie Chicks were able to prevail in the times of despair and get back on top, even after the hurdles they faced. Regardless of your feelings on the war and the Bush administration, I think the ability to stay true to yourself through thick and thin should be admired.
Below are two of the songs off “Taking the Long Way”. I must say, they are pretty catchy and are now on my iPod.
“The Long Way Around”
“Not Ready to Make Nice”