Blog RSS

Speaking Up and Speaking Out

November 1, 2006

Three years into the Iraq War, the American public is making next week’s election a national referendum on the policies that got us there and seem to offer no end in sight. In a democratic culture with free speech at its core, one of the earliest challenges to those policies came from an unlikely source: three Texas-bred women called the Dixie Chicks. They may not have seen themselves as a political band, or even political people, when they made their antiwar feelings clear on the eve of the invasion at a March 2003 concert in London. But they put themselves squarely against the momentum growing in the country music/red state community, which was lining up behind the government’s march to war. The story of what happened to the band after lead vocalist Natalie Maines’ fateful comment—“just so you know, we're ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas”—is the subject of Shut Up and Sing, the latest documentary from Barbara Kopple and co-director Cecilia Peck. To tell their story, the band made sure their experience would be treated seriously by teaming up with Kopple, whose films include the Oscar winning Harlan County USA (striking coal miners in Kentucky) and Bearing Witness (women war correspondents in Iraq). On her part, Kopple was drawn to a story that, she says, has “become the center of a larger political debate. Their personal transformation in so many ways has come to represent the political climate we have in the U.S. right now.” The Dixie Chicks were country music superstars in 2003 and the best selling women’s band ever. Having been named entertainers of the year by the Academy of Country Music two years before, their Top of the World tour sold out $49 million worth of tickets in one day, and they won eight Grammies including the 2003 best country album. But once Maines’ comment became known, and when the band refused to back down, the country community quickly turned against them. Did the Dixie Chicks pay a higher price for speaking out because they were women? Kopple believes women get into trouble for speaking their minds when the expectation is that “men are the ones to speak out, to take a stand, and a woman’s role is to stand with her man. I think these ideas still permeate our culture.” Apparently to the country music world, seeming unpatriotic in a time of war is a far worse sin than being a convicted wife batterer like Tracy Lawrence, who has been able to rehabilitate himself with his fans. The least discussed piece of this story is how the continuing consolidation of media into the hands of a few large corporations created a situation that allowed the Dixie Chicks to be literally erased from the airwaves. “Travelin’ Soldier” was the number one single when it was removed from playing rotation. Cumulus Media, a consortium of 306 radio stations, told their affiliates not to play the Chicks' music. Several disc jockeys who broke the ban were fired according to press reports. First denying there was a blacklist against the band, Cumulus CEO Lewis Dickey was forced to admit the truth during a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on July 8, 2003.Commenting on the dangerous effect of media consolidation, with enormous power and influence falling into very few hands, Kopple says, “too often those hands are attached to men more interested in the bottom line and blind ‘patriotism’ than creativity, risk-taking and progress.” The hate pouring onto these women was clearly sexist. Fans trashed their cds. At arenas, protestors’ signs and slogans ranged from the ugly to the ridiculous—“strap her to a bomb and drop her over Baghdad” and “try the chicks for treason” to “free speech is ok except in public.” Kopple points out an irony: “Women’s voices are often considered dangerous. Ours are often the voices of change, of peace, of moderation, and of forgiveness.” While shut off from their country fan base, the Dixie Chicks were propelled into a completely different musical and political universe. On the cover of Entertainment Weekly and interviewed by Diane Sawyer, the band was introduced to an audience that fell in love with the music and the message. The recording of their new “comeback” album is highlighted throughout the film. Recording it and writing their own songs for the first time functioned as a catharsis for the hell they went through. Their dismay with the country world is clear in the first single, “Not Ready to Make Nice,” an anthem of unrepentant anger. Theirs is the best sort of feminist story: all about what happens when women stand up for what they believe in. At the end of the documentary, Kopple shows the Dixie Chicks returning to the arena in London where the controversy began.  Maines restates her comment, this time with a big smile on her face. Kopple got to know her subjects well while following them around for over a year. “I think, more than anything,” she says, “their experience has highlighted that—although the cost of speaking your mind and being yourself can be high—the cost of being silenced is much higher.”
Tags: Politics

Comments