Shut Up and Sing!

Monkeys on the barricades
Are warning us to back away
They form commissions trying to find
The next one they can crucify

–“Easy Silence,” The Dixie Chicks

When reviewing films about politically charged or polarizing subject matter, I’ve found people get suspicious if I don’t, full disclosure style, reveal the personal context from which I’m approaching the subject.  So, for the record, I had heard of The Dixie Chicks before the 2003 concert at which lead singer Natalie Maines said she was “embarrassed” that the President of the United States was from Texas, but I couldn’t recognize any of their songs other than maybe the one that the tall, pink-haired girl sang on American Idol that one year.

One of my pet theories at the moment is that good documentaries are plentiful because life is pretty interesting, but great documentaries are rare because to make one requires the director to resist the urge to impose so tight a structure on the material that it becomes a lecture rather than a case study. Barbara Kopple has made some great documentaries in the past (Harlan County U.S.A.; American Dream), and Shut Up and Sing! is in the same class.  It’s the best film I’ve seen this year.

What I liked most about the film is that one needn’t be on either side of the debate to appreciate it (though the responses I’ve seen to An Inconvenient Truth and Lake of Fire suggest that the most deeply partisan are incapable of appreciating any film that is not entirely consistent with their own views).  The most interesting points that are made here are usually in the form of connections—some obvious, some subtle—between how people in the film respond to the circumstances that confront them.

The film is mostly sympathetic to the Chicks, and so, I guess, am I. Up to a point. As someone who has had a small taste of what it’s like to be followed around with microphones and cameras, I understand the frustration inherent in the hypocrisy of having one’s every miscue celebrated while the more contemptible (and representative) behavior of others is seemingly given a pass.  I approached Shut Up and Sing! curious about why, given the fact that there seem to be comments (from all sides of the political spectrum) more ugly on talk radio every day and more caustic on Comedy Central every week, this one comment somehow managed to prompt the response it did.

Some of the potential answers to that question that were floated in the film were expected:

–the country music market is demographically conservative.

–the country music demographic may have made the Dixie Chicks a more attractive target for the conservative blogosphere, and the response may have been less of a perfect storm than a manufactured one.

–the fact that the Chicks were in Europe made it hard for them to see, focus on, or take seriously the severity of the response until the spin cycle had developed to the point where nothing short of self-excoriation was going to satisfy their detractors.

Maybe Means just picked the wrong moment to put her foot in her mouth. She did apologize for the words (if not the sentiment), but by that time the controversy had a life of its own. One of the film’s largest laughs (both times I screened it) came when the public relations consultant provided for damage control urges the Chicks not to say anything that could be construed as negative about President Bush because the interview they are preparing for could be in the can for as long as two weeks and by that time the war in Iraq might very well be over. If the reconstruction of Iraq has begun, he warns, the president’s approval ratings will be even higher, and criticism of him may not be well received. If the film does nothing else, it reminds us how quickly we forget what it is like to live at a particular moment in time and how very selective our memory can be.

There is a certain pleasure in vindicatory hindsight, but if that were all that was happening here, the film wouldn’t be quite so interesting. It is as much a character study as a chronicle of a scandal, and it is the complexities and contradictions of its subjects that engages the viewer and raises the film above the level of simple polemic.

Even those who are anti-war or whose feelings towards President Bush are not warm, must take occasional pause during the film and acknowledge that the backlash the Dixie Chicks experience might not be exclusively political in nature. It’s hard for me to hear lyrics that use a crucifixion metaphor (see above) without hearing the echoes of Percy Shelley romantically casting himself on the thorns of life and bleeding, bleeding. And when they start running off to their weekend horse ranches to “decompress,” lamenting how their fertility drugs cost more money than some of their fans make in six months, or complaining about how awful it is to have to wear a tie in order to make a million dollars (okay, that one’s on Natalie’s husband, actually), it’s easy enough to see how fans miffed at their words could be alienated their attitude.

The irony, of course, is that we are all like that more than we think. Each of us (not just celebrities) is somewhat blind to the privileges we enjoy and occasionally oblivious to how quickly we can come to look at our best blessings as entitlements. It must be added that, to their credit, the Dixie Chicks become more reflective and (at least to me) likable while working through bitter experiences and don’t just remain bitter about them. When ticket sales lag and they are faced with cut backs, they realize and acknowledge that their decisions have repercussions for hard working people and not just for faceless corporations trying to wring an extra gallon from the cash cow.  They realize they get something out of performing beyond the financial rewards—a connection, a charge, a thrill—and that facing the possibility of giving that up hurts. They realize all that, and still they choose the long way around, both standing by and learning from their past actions, trying to deal with the consequences of their decisions honestly and not merely escape them as do so many of us.

For all that, my moment of clarity while watching the film came not from something said by Natalie, Emily, or Martie, but by Bill O’ Reilly who opines that the Dixie Chicks just need to be “slapped around.” Strange, isn’t it, how that statement didn’t seem to offend anyone, how it’s not a big controversy to this day, and how nobody is threatening to boycott Fox News if they continue to play his work? Perhaps it’s just understood that his words were not meant literally. Perhaps his words were borne of frustration and strenuous disagreement. Perhaps he simply made a poor choice of words and ought to be allowed some slack for the occasional blunder given how much time he spends in front of a microphone. Perhaps advocating violence against women really isn’t thought to be as serious an offense in this day and age as expressing disdain for the President of the United States. Perhaps Toby Keith’s “boot in your ass” is not just America’s answer to other nations that don’t bow before it but also to its own citizens who don’t toe the ruling party line. Perhaps he really just meant what he said.

All of a sudden, Natalie’s lyrics don’t seem quite so melodramatically exaggerated, do they?

My Grade: A

Editors note: This review originally appeared as a guest post at Looking Closer Journal.

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