Shut Up & Sing
First Appeared in The Music Box, February 2007, Volume 14, #2
Written by John Metzger
Natalie Maines had no idea what kind of firestorm she would ignite when in March 2003 she stood before a London audience and shared her thoughts on the United Statesí march to war in Iraq. The backlash against her was enormous, and it put her life at risk as well as the future of the Dixie Chicks ó the music industryís biggest-selling female group ó in jeopardy. Shut Up & Sing follows the outfit from its performance at the Super Bowl just prior to Mainesí pronouncement through the trials and tribulations that nearly capsized its recent international tour. Some people might believe that retracing this tale so soon would bear little fruit, considering how many of its details were placed front-and-center on national news broadcasts. This assumption, however, would be inaccurate at best.
Directors Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck are, of course, quite sympathetic to the Dixie Chicksí plight. Nevertheless, as they delve into the story that is told over the course of Shut Up & Sing, they also exhume all of the nuances that became lost amidst the bilious rhetoric spewed by ultra-conservatives. As a result, the documentary becomes something more than just a depiction of the repercussions that followed Mainesí offhand remark. Although Shut Up & Sing does examine the impact that her controversial statement had upon the Dixie Chicksí personal and professional relationships, it also provides an in-depth look at how corporate interests have been squashing the constitutional right of Americans to speak their minds.
The first 10 minutes of Shut Up & Sing perfectly set the stage for everything that follows. An uncomfortable tension and a feeling of uncertainty cloud the 2005 studio sessions in Los Angeles that formed the basis for the Dixie Chicksí recent album Taking the Long Way. Likewise, the subsequent flashback to 2003 paints a more complete picture of the environment in which Mainesí remarks were made. As the lies used to justify an American attack on Iraq spewed from the mouths of Bush administration officials, Londoners poured into the streets in what became the biggest antiwar protest in U.K. history. Clearly unnerved by what was happening around them, Maines along with Emily Robison and Martie Maguire prepared to launch their tour at Londonís Shepherds Bush Empire. Caught up within the emotion of their chart-topping single Traveliní Soldier, Maines half-jokingly blurted out an innocuous comment that was designed to elicit a cheer from the audience. It succeeded, but the backlash from the conservative corners of the U.S. was swift and furious.
Inflammatory statements made by talk show pundits Pat Buchanan and Bill OíReilly further fueled the flames. Under dictums handed down from the corporate headquarters of Cox Radio and Cumulus Broadcasting, supposedly autonomous country radio stations across the nation, particularly in the South, embarked upon an unstated but full-fledged boycott of the Dixie Chicksí material. Even President Bush took the time to take a few jabs at the band. Everything, of course, was designed primarily to squelch the Dixie Chicksí constitutional rights by removing its primary forum for promoting its products. Apparently, freedom of speech is fine when itís couched in the exchange of dollar bills, but the use of words is unacceptable when it goes against the desires of those in power. Rather than backing down, however, the ensemble ó which initially had made an attempt to mitigate the uproar by contextualizing Mainesí comment ó stood its ground, in spite of the mounting pressure that stemmed from the receipt of a death threat as well as from the concerns that were outlined by its tour sponsor Lipton Tea and its record label Sony.
Itís here that the more human side of Shut Up & Sing comes to light. As the members of the Dixie Chicks reconvened in a hotel room to discuss how to respond to the growing firestorm of protest against them, Maines tried to assume full responsibility for what she said, while Maguire stepped away from the controversy by stating, "If anybody asks me personally...hey, I didnít say it. Talk to her." At the insistence of manager Simon Renshaw, the Dixie Chicks collectively made a statement, which effectively averted a rift from forming. Still, itís hard to ignore the notion that trouble was brewing. At least initially, Maines was alone, nearly isolated from the group that she had helped to propel to stardom.
Considering that the Dixie Chicks was formed by Robison and Maguire, who also are sisters, and that Maines was hired as a replacement for Robin Lynn Macy, itís not surprising that she was destined to be an outsider. Indeed, the debate that she sparked very well could have been her undoing. Yet, over the course of Shut Up & Sing, as the ensemble struggles to redefine itself, her perseverance becomes the Dixie Chicksí rallying cry, and she eventually obtains the complete respect of her bandmates. Tearfully addressing the camera, three years after the altercation, Maguire says, "Iíd give up my career for her to be happy, to be at peace." Itís a touching moment, and it highlights the strength of the friendship that formed in the face of less than ideal circumstances.
Unlike most documentaries, Shut Up & Sing doesnít come to a proper conclusion, though that entirely is due to the fact that its story is so fresh that its history still is being written. The Dixie Chicks continues to be shunned by the Right, and both NBC and CW recently faced charges of censorship when they refused to air advertisements for the film because it was "disparaging to the President." Likewise, the problems posed by sluggish ticket sales never were addressed fully by the ensemble; instead the tour simply was rerouted to more hospitable climates. Despite its recent slate of Grammy victories and the many accolades that it received, Taking the Long Way was nothing more than a transitional effort on which the Dixie Chicks laid the groundwork for the next phase of its career. In short, how many of its new fans truly are converts remains to be seen. One thing that Shut Up & Sing does make clear, however, is that the creative spark that nearly had been extinguished by the groupís mammoth success has returned. Fueled by the desire to prove itself once again, the Dixie Chicks just might achieve the happy ending that it so justly deserves.
Of Further Interest...
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box