Friday, November 24, 2006

Shut up and Sing: How America learned to hate Dixie Chicks

Last night I went to a premier of Shut up and Sing, the documentary about the Dixie Chicks controversy and its effects on the three women of the group. Many people will shy away from this film because they believe it is about country music, others will go or not go because they believe it is about partisan politics; yet it is these reflex judgments and the effect they have on people which is the real theme of the film. A film I recommend all to see.

The statement which started the “incident” was in 2003 at a UK concert where the lead singer Natalie Maines, in mid song banter, days after the largest anti-war demonstration in UK history said, "Just so you know, I’m ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas." The statement was met by overwhelming and prolonged applause. I was living in the UK during this time and trying to explain to Americans, even in emails or on forums, the feelings about their actions in the EU was universally met with “who cares, since you aren’t American” (oddly it was this very attitude which was alienating the EU member countries). The quote or concert was not run by US media, but by the UK paper, The Guardian, which over the days and weeks, was picked up and amplified, in the way only the US media seems able to do, to become THE story; a story which was now not just about a statement of personal feelings about a president but about betraying a country, not supporting a war, making political commentary and personally disheartening the US troops overseas by saying their struggle was in vain (what effect the statement had on the UK and other coalition troops was never considered....but then again, they aren’t American).

The title of the film came from a Country Music Times editorial written by the Director of CMT two weeks after the comment entitled, “Shut up and Sing?” In which he calls her stupid for speaking and lacking conviction and insincere for later apologizing. He states that the statement, regardless of apology, was a direct attack on Country Music, Country Music listeners, their values and their patriotism and condoned the banning of Dixie Chicks by hundreds of radio stations under corporate orders (praising it as “free speech”), and the demonstrations to publically destroy Dixie Chicks Albums before finishing with a direct message to Natalie Maines; “you have a message? Hey, put it in a song…But, otherwise -- shut up and sing.” An odd statement when “Traveling Soldier”, the number one Dixie Chick single at the time was considered so patriotic that it was rerecorded by other artists, so listeners could hear the pro-soldier message while still hating and banning the Dixie Chicks.

The footage of people with flags in their hands or around their necks stomping and burning all things to do with three women singers from Texas did have an uncanny resemblance to the “anti-US” demonstrations carried out by the “enemies of freedom” (usually seen on CNN with tones to indicate these are "bad" countries; countries likely to be invaded by the US in the future). The uniform lashing by all media brought to mind other singers like Paul Roberson who, after entertaining the troops during WWII, was banned from NBC in 1950 for speaking out against lynching of blacks (In parallel NBC in 2006 refused to run ads promoting the Documentary on the Dixie Chicks “Shut up and Sing”) and had his passport taken away in the same year by the US government because, "his frequent criticism of the treatment of blacks in the United States should not be aired in foreign countries”. Shut up and Sing Paul, because things sure have changed in 53 years.

Besides the overlooked feminist implications of a nation exploding because a woman expressing her opinion is against “country music values” the heart of film lies in the outcomes of social abuse. America has this strange and openly growing capacity to hate almost without thought or reason and then act on that hate (for example, in a recent survey 82% of Americans said that France was an enemy of the US – yet in asking around I could find no one who could remember WHY they hated France so much: France vetoed a UN resolution which the US pushed through to justify war; so the US went to war anyway and the country exploded into anti-French attitudes, and Freedom Fries and Freedom Toast were born). Watching the effects of the daily attacks and brutal abuse of women who had ALREADY APOLOGIZED, to the point that they believed (as did the FBI) that someone in Texas was going to kill them. Again, with bizarre irony, in 2003 the FBI did not reveal to the Dixie Chicks the full number of threats against them, they did however, using wiretapping of cell phones at Dixie Chicks concerts (On the basis that terrorists can use the noise of concerts to pass information – the first group they used this new plan on: The Dixie Chicks), help President Bush sue the Dixie Chicks on their recent tour for appearing on stage to the tune “Hail to the Chief”

As time went on the wary look and statements of the Chicks, particularly the lead singer Natalie were ones that Linda and I knew all too well. “They’ve become honorary gays” I whispered to Linda and she nodded back. For the Chicks there is the cycle of disbelief, the loss of hope, the inability to know who to trust; all chronicled on large screen as sponsors and fans drop from sight or distance themselves, as all incoming messages are negative and when the realization comes that it simply isn’t going to end, maybe ever. One band member wonders after a concert if this is last time they will ever play this big, or be able to play publicly at all. Indeed, their recent 2006 concert tour, while playing to sold out audiences in UK, Canada and Australia, has been banned by many southern states.

Together, two years later, with Natalie, living in LA, realizing they may never play a concert in Texas, their home state again, the Dixie Chicks work to reinvent themselves. It was not a choice of going back, because there was no where to go back to; the hate still lives on (as the many many public review sites where the film Shut up and Sing is getting 0 out of 10 ratings, yet unviewed, attests) – to buy a Dixie Chick record is now, for many Americans, a political impossibility. So yes, the Dixie Chicks start again, but as we see, individually scarred, individually beaten up and maimed. Being on the end of collective hated does bad things; just ask the filmmaker Arthur Dong, who needed 20 years from his gaybashing to cinematically deal with the subject. This film gives a little insight, a little connection, in showing how the wielding of indiscriminate hatred can affect you, regardless of social income or situation. The Chicks accept, like the so many minorities hated by Americans before them, that the only victory is in going on.


kathz said...

I hope to see this if it reaches our local indie cinema at a time when I can go. As you probably know, country music tends to have bad associations for many on the British left, who think of it as racist - though it seems to me that it's more complex and varied than that. (I don't have any expertise on the subject but i have wondered if country music isn't also, on occasion, an expression of being an outsider - but in terms of class and poverty.) However, I fear that for "patriotic" Texans my wish to see the film would prove their point about the Dixie Chicks.

GayProf said...

Well, I am not sure about the minority metaphor. They are still three wealthy white women. Taking a political stance is not quite the same as being born into a social category that has institutional discrimination against it.

All the same, I am fearful about the lost lessons of the Chicks' controversy. Like in the Reagan years, the only way the U.S. Right can keep up its impossible positions is to foster hatred of everybody else.

elizabeth said...

I went to their concert sometime after that incident - and let me tell you - I have always loved this group... but after this and the well they dealt with it - I WILL ALWAYS love them.

Sober @ Sundown said...

I am shocked at the hatred in my own country.......

I will go see the movie.

josh said...

i cant beleive that people would be so judgemental on people by what they say. they didnt deserve the reaction that they got. i love the dixie chicks...they are my all time favourite band ever!!!

Anonymous said...

No matter how disfunctional a family member may act or respond while suffering thru a stressful ordeal. There should be respectful disagreements spoke in love and with manners. I was taught, like most of americans familys you don't talk bad about your family especially to outsiders. I'm not saying it wouldn't have caused an upheaval said here in there homeland... but I think regardless of our own infighting over the issue of the war; that it was said to outsiders and had never been said to the public of their own land was like a sucker puch and the the words like traitor as well as such genuine anger show the wounded heart of a family that feels betrayed by another family member, principly that is. But they had the right to say it and their fans had the right to reject them for their behavior if not veiw. That is freedom of speech operating well. Just one of the family. I forgive them but it still hurts.