Shut Up & Sing

2006-10-27 (Limited release)

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.

— Dixie Chicks, “Taking the Long Way”

“They’re sticking a finger in the eye of their own customer.” Such is the sentiment expressed by one angry Dixie Chicks customer, on learning of Natalie Maines’ 2003 declaration that she and her fellow Chicks were “ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” Almost as soon as she said the words, they were on the wire from London, sending conservative and country radio stations into a tizzy that had considerable consequences for the artists and their stanch and savvy manager Simon Renshaw.

Barbara Kopple and Cecelia Peck’s Shut Up & Sing tracks those consequences, in particular as they affect the Chicks — Maines, Martie Maguire, and Emily Robison. Such focus grants the documentary a kind of familiar charm and emotional charge: these musicians are wives of supportive, proud husbands and mothers of young children, as well as long-time collaborators (Maguire and Robison are sisters). On its face, this focus makes the Chicks look especially user-friendly, as if the movie means to recuperate them into a fold of domestic conservatism. But in fact, as the movie shows, the Dixie Chicks’ politics is more complex than their designations as either “good” country western artists or “bad” unpatriotic big mouths. Their own argument — pretty much adopted by the film — is that their dedication to free speech is precisely what artists of any stripe should practice and, when necessary, preach.

Cutting back and forth in time, Shut Up & Sing draws connections between then and now. Then is 10 March 2003: the Dixie Chicks sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” at that year’s Superbowl, their single “Travelin’ Soldier” was a hit, and the show at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire was sold out. Knowing that the U.S. was set to invade Iraq, Maines spoke her piece concerning President Bush, received applause and approving laughter, and the set went on. by 12 March, however, the Guardian had printed her remarks and U.S. country fans were in an uproar. The “best-selling female group in history” was in trouble.

Shut Up & Sing includes footage of what might be strategy sessions, as the Chicks and manager Simon Renshaw figured what to do, imagining early on that he storm would blow over, that it might even be a good thing to have such a wave of publicity (Maines suggests that her explanatory “statement” go something like this: “The comment was the result of the frustration I feel as an American citizen for being ignored”; Renshaw laughs, “Wouldn’t it be great if they started burning CDs?”).

Little do any of them know how vehement the protests against them would become. Meeting with a rep from Lipton Tea, who was sponsoring the 2003 “Top of the world” tour, they’re advised that the company might need to de-affiliate itself from the controversy. “You are a brand,” he observes, and so the Chicks must grapple with what it means to be simultaneously responsible to associated brands, to fans, and to their own sense of who they are.

Even as they believe they can assuage the outrage by narrating or clarifying their personal feelings, the Chicks never consider “apologizing,” in the way celebrities tend to do (using passive constructions concerning the event in question, saying they’re sorry “if” someone was offended”). Instead, they own the “comment,” as it will be known, and assume it will be understood as an example of, you know, “free speech.” And with that, their lot is pretty much cast, as they will forever now, be the post-comment Dixie Chicks. Looking back, Maines offers, “It is a part of who we are as a band now.”

The Chicks’ PR team decides to use the attacks on the band in order to present their “side”: the film includes a scene at the photo shoot for the now famous Entertainment Weekly cover, where the artists appear naked, with words written over their bodies (the image includes digital towels for the movie poster). Maines’ chest is emblazoned, “Big Mouth,” and she continues to defend her right to say what she thinks, even when Toby Keith produces a photoshopped image of Maines cuddling up to Saddam Hussein, former fans send hate mail and death threats, and country radio stations boycott their records. Callers to radio shows excoriate the Chicks for their lack of patriotism. Maguire worries that the effects will be long-lasting: “It’s more than just a job,” she says of their work as a group. “I just really hope we can get our career back on track. Because I need it.”

Their post-comment career has, of course, been different from before. They recall the early days with a certain fondness (their big hair and shiny outfits, a performance at a Pillsbury Bakeoff in 1996, a gig Renshaw notes was the Chicks’ idea, not his), even as they set up for the next album, Taking the Long Way, working with Rick Rubin (who appears in his usual mode, his famous stuffed polar bear looming behind the sofa on which he sits, barefoot, with prayer beads in hand). While, as Maguire remarks, the record is “like our therapy,” it is also innovation for them: while it sounds countryish, it’s expanding the boundaries of what counts as country, and how other generic elements might be worked into a core sound.

Even more interestingly, they have to determine how to market the record. While the label (Sony) is supportive, the Chicks and Renshaw take the decision concerning country radio. Will they send cuts to the stations that used to play them in the past? Will they, as Renshaw puts it, endure more “redneck bullshit,” and “go back and put yourself in the crosshairs”? As the film recalls the decision, it takes very little cogitation: Maines says, “I am not willing to work country radio, it’s not worth it.”

The Chicks are asked repeatedly (say, by a smarmy Diane Sawyer), whether they regret the turn of events or resent Maines for wrecking their lives and career. And they do acknowledge that the shift was sudden and startling, as well as upsetting. But they insist they have no regrets, and even appear to embrace their new status and working conditions. On learning that George Bush has told Tom Brokaw, “The Dixie Chicks are free to speak their mind. But they shouldn’t have their feelings hurt,” Maines turns to the documentary camera and announces to the president, “You’re a dumb fuck.”

It’s a moment that passes quickly, and it’s funny. But it’s also emblematic of a new sensibility. Forever designated a “female” group, the Chicks, like other such groups, have long behaved with an expected decorum and poise, accepting their designation as “female” within a hierarchy of artists. The film makes a special point of showing the Chicks on the road and at home (as well as at the hospital, while Robison has her twins), underscoring how the fact of their being shapes their outlook. On one level, this point recalls that made by Kopple’s Academy Award-winning documentary, Harlan County USA, concerning the crucial “women’s work” of supporting and organizing the Kentucky mineworkers during that crisis. Shut Up & Sing shows how misogyny in the music industry is of a piece with misogyny elsewhere, that women’s work can still be dismissed as such (the Toby Keith Saddam photo being one example).

On another level, the episode reveals the ways that radio and the industry more generally continue to operate. The film includes footage from the July 2003 Senate Commerce Committee hearing on radio ownership, investigating in part the “ban on the Dixie Chicks.” As reported in Freepress, the Senators (including John McCain) sought to discover, among other things, “whether or not the radio ban on the Dixie Chicks during the Iraq war constitutes a concern related to concentration of ownership.” The film includes this remarkable, oxymoronic revelation by Cumulus Media’s Lewis Dickey, that the decision to boycott the Chicks’ songs “was a collaborative decision-making process. Everybody fell in line.”

As Maines notes, the Chicks are now on a path they didn’t anticipate (“We’ve been turned into a verb,” she notes, “You can be dixie-chicked”). As the film ends, their anti-war stance has become popular among the U.S. population (if not country radio listeners per se), and the group remains committed to their own free speech, “not ready to make nice.” The changes in their career and their fan base may not alter the way the music industry works. Still, and to their credit, the Chicks will not shut up.

RATING 8 / 10