Dixie Chicks: Shut Up & Sing
Last weekend I saw the Dixie Chicks documentary Shut Up & Sing (2006) at the Prince Charles. It was a scorching summer day in London, so the place was hardly full. The film covers the immediate and ongoing effects of Dixie Chicks lead vocalist Natalie Maines’ 2003 comments during a performance at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London, in which she quipped to the audience that “we’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas”. The off-the-cuff remark was greeted with wild cheering from the London crowd, but when the story found its way into the US media, the band faced a huge conservative backlash from right-wing bloggers and country fans who resented Maines’ anti-Bush statement, particularly as the US was on the brink of invading Iraq at the time. The resulting hue and cry saw the Dixie Chicks’ records virtually banned from country radio, and threw their careers into chaos.
The idea of the documentary was promising, but in practice I think it had less impact than the sum of its parts. It was interesting and kind of bleakly amusing to hark back to the 2003 backlash that was stoked by wingnut bloggers in a highly effective campaign of coordinated calling to country radio programmers. Cue lots of shots of angry redneck types waving poorly-spelt placards and the obligatory 'steamroller crushing Dixie Chicks discs' shot from local news teams.
I could understand the sentiment behind Natalie Maines' aside to a highly receptive UK audience – such views were commonplace in most developed countries at that time. But the overall impression was of naivety. The enormous success the Dixie Chicks had in the US country scene before the 2003 comment was solidly based on the support of country radio networks, which lapped up their music and their image - three pretty women singin' for y'all. Mainstream country is anything but political – or if it's political at all, it's innately conservative – and the London comments came at a time when the US was going through a massive burst of war-inspired jingoistic fervour, when Dubya could do no wrong and his approval rating was sky-high.
Suddenly the mega-selling group became a tarnished brand as a highly successful and well organised campaign against their music forced them off almost all the country playlists. There's a bleakly amusing scene in the documentary where the Dixie Chicks and their manager negotiate with a shell-shocked rep from their sponsors, Liptons, who worries that the Dubya-bashing will harm tea sales. The film could've used more of these behind-the-scenes music industry vignettes, to provide more of an inside view of how the business really works. The brief coverage of the Chicks’ rivalry with the oafish redneck right-wing country dude Toby Keith, who issued an album cover depicting Maines being snuggled up to by Saddam Hussein, provided a few laughs too.
While it's generally not my bag, I admit that country has some strong performers and is the home of some great song-writing talent. The Dixie Chicks came along at the right time with good playing, good songs, nice voices, and above all, camera-friendly looks, and sang in the country tradition. But when the country mainstream rejected them, they seemed to flounder. There's a scene in the film where the tour management suggest abandoning gigs in the South due to poor ticket sales and playing rural Canadian venues instead, including Moose Jaw, which no-one had heard of. But straight mainstream country was all they seemed to know how to do; even when working in Los Angeles with the Buddha-like Rick Rubin producing and Chad Smith from the Chili Peppers contributing drums, the songs came out all twangy and lush, in the mould of everything they'd done before. No Shania Twain genre-straddling crossover success beckoned for the Dixie Chicks. (Although if the DCs came on the radio I'd probably not change the channel, unlike Shania's songs...)
I suppose the Dixie Chicks were just wishin' that country was a broader church than it actually is. Sure, there are a few left-field artists out there, and for a while a few years ago the music press started to take notice of the so-called alt-country subculture, with quality acts like Wilco... and there must be other ones. Um. Ryan Adams, maybe. I think that's the big difference between the rock and country culture and scenes. Rock is in relative decline (except maybe in Britain at the moment) but it's still got room for a wide range of styles, from folk to pop to metal. But the self-imposed definition of country is much narrower and arguably less open to experimentation: it's about a mythologised sense of national identity, and repeating a formula that harks back to a rich musical heritage, rather than expanding creative frontiers. (Maybe I'm being really patronising to country musicians though).
Still, good luck to them. I presume that the Dixie Chicks’ pre-controversy success meant they've already got multi-millions in the bank. They've all got nice husbands and cute children and a lot of money; they don't need to tour the South where they earned their country spurs. But they still crave that acceptance. Perhaps once they found the best one-trick-pony gig around, it was just too hard to change direction.
Youtube: Dixie Chicks - Not Ready To Make Nice