When I lived in the darkest depths of Little Rock, Arkansas, every morning my kindergarten class would clap their hands to their hearts and pipe out the Pledge of Allegiance. Even as a little kid, I remember thinking, "These people are nuts!" I stand by that conviction to this day, and neither Dixie Chicks: Shut up and Sing, the newest documentary from Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck, nor the slightest return to sanity in the U.S. election, has done much to change that.
Shut up and Sing is the story of the Dixie Chicks (Natalie Maines, Emily Robison and Martie Maguire) and their big mouths. On the eve of the American invasion of Iraq, during a concert in London, England, Maines quipped that the Chicks were embarrassed that the president of the United States was from Texas. In so doing, she unleashed an old-fashioned shit storm of Biblical proportions. Before long, former fans were burning their CDs, haranguing radio stations not to play their music and threatening to kill Maines.
As the American media descended on the story, what should have been a tempest in a teapot turned into a tidal wave, and all the while Kopple kept her cameras rolling, capturing what became a political awakening for these women and their families.
Hate them, dammit!
Sometimes documentaries are simply blessed, and so it was with this film. Only a few weeks earlier, the group had sung "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the Super Bowl, and were riding high on a wave of American sentiment and schmaltz, all of which came crashing to a halt when Maines shot her mouth off. I use that term purposefully, since the power of the word is amply evident here. Mightier than the sword is the mouth of a snarky woman. Or so the old adage goes, women fear men killing them, but men fear women laughing at them. For Maines to make fun of the top man in the country was tantamount to heresy. Don't you dare dis daddy, girly. Whether he be God or Bush.
To her credit, Kopple places little argumentative narrative on top of the events; she simply records. Some of the moments captured in the film could not have been better scripted if a team of writers had been on staff. Who could even dream up some of the crazy stuff that ordinary Americans get up to? Take, for example, the enormous woman protesting outside a Chicks concert, who hefts her toddler, barking at him to say he hates the band. "Say it!" she snaps, giving the kid an extra jolt for motivation. It is a gift from the documentary gods, and you can virtually feel the glee the filmmakers must have felt capturing such a telling incident.
The film was made over the course of three years, during which a great deal changed. There is ample material to pick from, but it is often the quieter, more befuddled moments, when all the band's bluster tapers off, and the women just look confused and scared, that the truth of the film emerges. The place that they thought was home turns out to not be what they thought it was, and the betrayal goes very deep. It is probably a terrible thing to lose faith in your country, to be left alone and shivering in the cold, stripped bare of all the warm, cuddly notions about your chosen place in the universe.
Although the trio came to fame as plucky babes from Texas with vaguely feminist songs like "Earl Had to Die," they are ordinary women, not political radicals, and it is this quality that gives the film its punch. Like most artists, they're mostly interested in selling records, and are perfectly willing to use any media spin that will work to their benefit. But controversy is a doubled-edged tool, a quality that is especially evident in the sequences in which the Lipton Ice Tea executives, the tour's corporate sponsor, express their "concern" that the band's political posturing might negatively impact on the Lipton brand. In the entertainment world, women are still largely products themselves, trussed, coiffed and glossed like so much Christmas wrapping.
Kopple is a smart director; she knows enough when to hang back and simply let the looks exchanged between the three women speak volumes about the pressure of money and media, in that order. When radio stations refused to play Dixie Chicks records any longer, the band was forced to find other avenues for promoting its album. Lately, they have been doing the rounds of televised interviews with Oprah, Regis and Kelly, Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer, courting a larger audience while the country music world still treats them like pariahs.
Tour dates in the southern U.S. still prove difficult while Canada has thrown down the welcome mat. It is very hard for non-Americans to understand why people would get so excited over a trifle like a joke made at a concert. The contrived nature of this controversy starts to seem just that, something that detracts from the real events taking place, as if all that the public can truly concentrate on is something simple. Any larger, knotty ideas are for the big brains in Washington to deal with, and all the people need are bread and circuses.
But underneath that truth is another deeper, even nastier one. Musicians such as Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and Neil Young have been far more political in their music and with their audience, and have been lionized in the process. (Albeit John Lennon and Yoko Ono found out the hard way that Americans don't take kindly to English men or Japanese women criticizing them -- he got killed; she got turned into catchphrase.)
But female artists can face a tougher crowd. Shut up or get beat up is the message from Fox network wankers. Sean Hannity called the Chicks "stupid bimbos," Bill O'Reilly said they "ought to be slapped around." And country singer Toby Keith threatened to boot Ms. Maines in the ass. The fact is, simply, that the Chicks are women, and the backlash they suffered was motivated in part by this fact. The notion that women lack the cultural authority to speak out isn't news; female columnists also routinely get booted about. As band member Martie Maguire says, "It was perfect." The most all-American girls, who're supposed to embody American values, talking out of turn, got hit hard. Although the Chicks' political awakening is amply evident, less so is the feminist one.
Women's rights and wrongs
One of the most curious things about fundamentalism, of any stripe, is that it is remarkably similar when it comes to matters of women. The Taliban might stone adulterers, and champion the burka, but in the U.S., even Wal-Mart employees feel they have to right to deny women access to birth control pills.
Author Sam Harris (The End of Faith), interviewed recently in the Sun Magazine, talked about the correlations between fundamentalism around women's rights, saying, "One example is that we now have a vaccine for the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus, which causes cervical cancer, of which 5,000 women die every year in the United States. The vaccine, which can be given to girls at age 11 or 12, is safe and effective. Yet evangelical Christians at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- political appointees -- have argued that we should not use this vaccine, because it will remove one of the natural deterrents to premarital sex."
It all starts to seem eerily similar. The U.S. might decry the abuse of women's rights in Afghanistan, but was happy enough to turn a blind eye for many years, even inside its own borders, to the rise of misogyny. But truly no country is innocent; the number of dead women in Mexico continues to climb, while in Vancouver, the recent death of Manjit Panghali has raised the issue of violence against women in the Indo-Canadian community. These truly are the times that try women's souls.
One of the points that Laura Kipnis makes in her new book The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability is that a colonialist mindset continues to wreak havoc, long after the colonizers have skedaddled. Extending the metaphor to the question of women inside patriarchy, she asks how deeply women have internalized their own subjugation. And answers, all the way down to the bone.
For Americans, it is probably a double-whammy of indoctrination, God and Country, and don't dis daddy. Kipnis states, "This massive overinvestment in paternal figures and institutions has such an Oedipal flavour."
Whether the ousting of the bad patriarchs (Bush, Rove, Rumsfeld) from the seat of power has any long-term effect on the national psyche remains to be seen. Somehow I doubt it. Americans imbibe their national mythology like it was mother's milk; it goes down before they probably even have time to understand what it is that they're swallowing. Thus the inherent difficulty in losing faith in what they have always held dear is terribly clear -- be it country, father or faith.
For the Dixie Chicks (perhaps, they'll change their name after this), the pain of this revelation becomes increasingly apparent, turning from bemused to horrified at the consequences of such a seemingly small thing, especially since the ability to open your mouth and say whatever you want is supposedly enshrined in the American constitution. Even as rap star Kanye West can shout that George Bush hates black people on national TV and face little consequences, the Dixie Chicks continue to struggle to even get their music played on country radio.
If the film has one thing to say, it's that sometimes it is the very worst things in life that force you to see anew your most deeply held beliefs. In a country that claims the holy mission of spreading democracy to the rest of the world, hypocrisy may be the deepest and most ongoing truth.
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