get yer head outta yer ass
20 years of fantasy

shut up & sing (barbara kopple and cecilia peck, 2006)

Shut Up and Sing makes a good case for … well, you know what, I'm not sure what it makes a case for, but whatever it is, the case it makes is a good one. The blurb on the Netflix disc holder says the movie "centers on … The Dixie Chicks and their nationwide vilification" after singer Natalie Maines said something snippish about Bush in a concert. Watching the movie, you can see the reaction of some of the country music fans who turned their back on the Chicks, and there are occasional mentions of the damage the controversy did to the band's performance on the record charts. (This could have been focused on in more depth … there is a brief segment from congressional hearings about conglomerate control of radio, and a few interviews with DJs and station managers who quit playing Dixie Chick records, but, as is the case throughout the film, nothing of real depth is offered.)

The movie works best as an intimate look at the artists. The filmmakers seem to have had very close access to the Chicks, and the women come across in terrific fashion, funny, with great camaraderie. Although sisters Emily Robison and Martie Maguire started the band, it's Maines, the lead singer who was added to the band some years into its history, who gets the most attention … yet the sisters seem mostly happy with the situation. And while Maines is the one with the "Big Mouth," her fellow Chicks stick by her, presenting a united front to the world at large that is touching and inspiring.

I wanted more clear analysis, so in that regard, Shut Up and Sing fell a bit short for me, but I may have been expecting something that wasn't intended. Or rather, whatever the intentions, what comes across is more a study of three working female artists than a simple presentation of public events. And that study is very good indeed.

My biggest problem with the movie is tangential … it's not something that comes up in the movie, really, but I can't help thinking about it. The Dixie Chicks make fine music … I don't think they are the best country musicians of all time, or the best anything of all time … I like some of their songs, but my taste runs more to Alison Krauss on the one hand or Dolly Parton on the other. But the movie makes the point that the Chicks' music transformed into something more … pop? … when they felt that the country audience had abandoned them. We don't get enough music in the movie to make any useful judgments about how that transformation worked out … if you know their music, you can decide for yourself if going from "Goodbye Earl" to "Not Ready to Make Nice" is progress or not, but you won't be able to figure it out from the movie, which never makes any claim to being a concert film. The thing is this: I am always concerned when I think art is being evaluated more on its "proper" cultural position than on its quality as a work of art. And I can't help wondering how many people have become Dixie Chick fans not because they fell in love with the music, but because they fell in love with that lady who dissed George Bush. I'm not talking about the fans who know the words to all the songs, I'm talking about the people whose first real exposure to the band came when the controversy raised its head. Just as a lot of people decided then and there that they no longer liked the Dixie Chicks, you just know there were people who said "I'm gonna go out and buy me some Dixie Chicks albums to show I support free speech." Well, free speech is a great thing, and Dixie Chick albums are good things, but I'd be happier if I thought people were buying Dixie Chicks albums because they thought the albums were good, instead of buying them because Natalie Maines said a mean thing about Bush. Because deciding you like the Dixie Chicks because of what Maines said is just as stupid as deciding you don't like them for the same reason.

Whatever … I'm nitpicking over a movie that was enjoyable. These three women really are great fun to watch as they interact. The movie has a real woman's perspective, which may go without saying (it's about three women and directed by two other women), but it's a welcome change to see women musicians offering up their own vision of what it means to be artists in a collective. I'm not going to run out and buy some Dixie Chick music … the stuff I already have is good enough for me … but the next time I listen to them, I'll see them in my mind, and I'll like what I see.

Comments

Jonathan

I like the nitpick. I feel the same way about aesthetics and politics. First the music (or art or whatever) has to be good. Then, if it's got good politics as well, even better.

Chris

Excellent review. I'm one of the fans who has purchased every Dixie Chicks album the day/week/month it comes out. This album and documentary made me even prouder to be a Chicks fan.

My complaint about this film (and it must be small, for I asked for and received my own DVD of this film) is that it was occasionally choppy in its presentation. Given the amount of footage that was available to the film makers, I guessed that probably most of it was shot more for the band's or memories sake than to be used in a nation-wide theatre release. Yes, I could see some of it being shared in other venues, but when this controversy struck, I think they saw an opportunity to put this film together. You go with what you have, and IMO, they had some poor quality film. Not poor content-- just poor video.

scott

Oddly, I rented this today, and am planning to watch it soon. I do want to comment on your tangential point, however.

"I can't help wondering how many people have become Dixie Chick fans not because they fell in love with the music, but because they fell in love with that lady who dissed George Bush... I'd be happier if I thought people were buying Dixie Chicks albums because they thought the albums were good, instead of buying them because Natalie Maines said a mean thing about Bush."

I'm uncomfortable with this suggestion. To illustrate, I'll point to an interesting exchange that occurred once between Bob Costas and Dave Marsh on Costas' late night talk show--they were actually talking about your man, Bruce Springsteen. Costas quoted an Esquire cover story out at the time (I think this was late '80s or early '90s) that said something about how, with Born in the USA Bruce's fan base expanded from a fan base full of people who were Springsteen diehards (music fanatics, all of them, no doubt) to a fan base that included all sorts of casuals, including teenage girls who simply thought Bruce was a cute guy (and, who knows, maybe even some lefties who admired things Bruce might've said around the time about Vietnam vets). The tone of the Esquire piece was clearly suggesting that this could only be bad for Springsteen, for his music, and for the fans that had been with him all along. Marsh's response was great. He said something to the effect that that's exactly what's so great about pop music to begin with. That someone--a casual fan--can go into a show (or buy a record) expecting one thing (and they can go into the show or buy the record for the most seemingly superficial of reasons) and come out of it with something else entirely. They might even emerge from that initial contact as something other than a casual fan (I've certainly experienced such transformations myself, as I'm sure you have). Then again, they might not--and why should they? I think casual fans are just as vital in their relationship to an artist as the diehards are. You could argue that the relationship isn't as "deep," but it could be argued in the other direction that the relationship between artists and an audience of diehards can easily become cloistered, self-congratulatory--a "cult," as it were. Just a thought.

Steven

I don't disagree with you ... I'm just talking about something different, at least I hope :-). Expanding your audience is a good thing. It can also be problematic, I'm not saying it's all peaches and cream, but I have always been in favor of moving beyond a cult.

What bothers me is people who make decisions about the value of cultural artifacts based first on whether or not they agree with what they perceive is the socio-political stance of the artists or artifact, and only second on whether or not the art in question has value. It's the kind of logic that leads to people dismissing John Wayne movies because they think Wayne was a reactionary, or saying The L Word is a good television series because it's about lesbians. In the case of the Dixie Chicks, it would be nice if new fans were exposed to something new that they enjoyed, but I don't think that's the case ... I think they are exposed to something they already "knew" they liked (Bush-bashing artists) ... they judge the Chicks on their politics rather than their art. And that's exactly what the people are doing who throw their old Dixie Chicks CDs in the garbage because they no longer agree with their politics. The actual music is largely irrelevant ... if you like Bush, you don't like the Dixie Chicks, if you don't like Bush, you do like the Dixie Chicks. I'd prefer that people decided what they thought of the Dixie Chicks by actually listening to their music.

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