Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Shut Up and Sing: Leftapalooza

The new Dixie Chicks documentary Shut Up and Sing comes with an impressive cinematic pedigree: Co-director Barbara Kopple researched and directed Harlan County, USA, one of roughly a half-dozen truly indispensible documentary features. But this glorified celebrity puff piece displays little of Kopple's trademark sensitivity or her talent for muckraking reportage: What appears onscreen is, for the most part, a drab, technically inept, MTV-style video diary guaranteed to make your eyeballs bleed. It’s doubly unfortunate that as the film's directors, Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck have chosen to deemphasize the Dixie Chicks’ music and focus on their political views instead. Frankly, I wish they had followed the film‘s title by letting the top-selling country-music trio sing a bit more -- especially since music, not political commentary, is what the Dixie Chicks do best.

The film focuses on the fallout from a March 2003 concert in London, when the Chicks' lead singer announced, “We’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” Perhaps like Pauline Kael, who wondered how Nixon could have won re-election when none of her friends voted for him, the Dixie Chicks were too ideologically sheltered to understand why those words might have caused offense. Certainly compared to the anti-Bush invective that has poured from the entertainment industry over the past few years, their off-the-cuff banter was fairly tepid. However, timing and setting proved more important than content: Conservative fans might have forgiven an anti-Bush wisecrack, but not on foreign soil, to a foreign audience, at the precise moment when American troops (many of them the sons and daughters of red-state conservatives) were preparing for battle overseas. To many country-music fans, the remark was tasteless at best, at worst deliberately seditious.

In Shut Up and Sing, the Chicks view the ensuing backlash first with bewilderment, then with contempt for conservative fans. What happens from there could be considered a primer in how not to handle a public-relations fiasco: A snooty British manager sets the tone by calling anti-Dixie Chicks rhetoric “redneck bullshit” -- and provides the film’s only humorous one-liner when he claims that “The Free Republic [web forum] is incredibly well-organized.” As a committed Marxist like Barbara Kopple might tell you, class-based elitism is hardly beneficial to the workers’ struggle against the prevailing capitalist-imperialist order -- unless, I suppose, the workers happen to be a bunch of beer-swilling, country-music loving hicks.

Meanwhile, the Chicks issue half-hearted non-apologies, insisting on the right to speak their mind while belittling their fans‘ right to do likewise. Worse yet, when fellow country star Toby Keith attacks the Dixie Chicks with a photoshopped image of their lead singer cuddling with Saddam Hussein, the Chicks turn ruthless, creating t-shirts emblazoned with the schoolyard taunt “FUTK.” In case you haven’t guessed, the last two letters stand for “Toby Keith” -- though in typically evasive fashion the Chicks won‘t own up to the meaning of those first two letters on camera. Before long, the Dixie Chicks (and their fans) are met with angry protesters wherever they go.

Country radio stopped playing Dixie Chicks singles shortly after the London concert, and still refuses to promote their music on the air. Shut Up and Sing seems to take the position that the Dixie Chicks were blackballed by corporate management, and perhaps by the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy. It even features excerpts from a Congressional hearing during which leading Democrats (and honorary Democrat John McCain) accuse media conglomerate Clear Channel of stifling the Dixie Chicks' free speech. Yet as the film also makes clear, neither the Dixie Chicks nor their critics were deprived of their First Amendment rights. Everyone had his or her say, and the critics won fair and square.

It’s a simple economic fact that pop stars and wealthy celebrities depend on the support of their fans far more than their fans depend on them, which might partially explain why grocery-store managers and construction foremen suffer fewer economic consequences when they express unpopular social and political beliefs. (See: Michael Richards.) As local station managers note in the film, the Dixie Chicks have inspired a grass-roots backlash among their listeners, and the reason country radio stations won’t play the group is not because they agree or disagree with the Chicks' politics, but because they don’t want to lose their core audience.

You may ask where the Dixie Chicks’ actual music might figure into the movie, and the sad answer is that for the most part it doesn‘t. Not until the final credits roll do we see an honest-to-goodness musical number, though even that isn't complete: The filmmakers cut the middle section so clumsily one can practically hear the scissors snip. The song itself, “The Long Way Around,” comes across as dour, 1960s protest music with a countrified twang and tight three-part harmony. But all the same, it’s obvious that the Dixie Chicks still enjoy performing as much as their concert audiences -- what’s left of them, anyway -- enjoy hearing them.

The scene reminds us that before the Dixie Chicks became political activists, they were musicians, with an innovative, meticulously calibrated mix of folk-music stylings, gospel vocals and roots-rock rhythm. Alas, this film has been crafted for urban arthouses, not country fans -- and apparently the urban-arthouse crowd wants to see a pop group progress from mildly outspoken critics of the Bush administration to full-blown "truth-to-power" leftists like themselves. Problem is, that's also the way the Dixie Chicks' angriest detractors see them. Like Kopple and Peck, and increasingly like the Chicks themselves, they've abandoned musicianship for shallow sloganeering.

With the release of Shut Up and Sing, the Chicks’ evolution from a mainstream music act to a bona fide coffee-table band is complete. They have become symbols of the anti-war Resistance, and perhaps their new fans wouldn’t have them any other way. But the irony of it all is palpable: In a film called Shut Up and Sing, the audience never gets a chance to sit back and listen.

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