When a red-blooded, macho, flag-waving, Bush-voting American country music fan looks at a gorgeous blonde who also happens to make his kind of music, one doesn’t normally expect him to pay attention to the substance of her conversation. Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines didn’t think so either, at first. Far from controversial once upon a time, the Chicks were simply playing to a London crowd on the eve of the Iraq war, and Maines happened to mention that she and the audience were on the same side. Had there been no such thing as the blogosphere, the remarks might have gone unnoticed, but juiced up by the right-wing website Free Republic, Maines’s comments led first to a national stir, then some boycotts, and now a movie, Shut Up & Sing.
In fact, the movie’s not quite the Bush bashfest its publicity might lead you to believe; it’s closer to the Metallica doc Some Kind of Monster than to Fahrenheit 9/11. Like Metallica, the Dixie Chicks begin the film as a multiplatinum band looking to move their sound forward on a new album, only to have external circumstances throw a wrench into the works. The political angle is the film’s hook, but its real goal seems to be to persuade non–country fans who support the band’s politics that, hey, y’know, their music’s pretty good too.
The idea that popular music should never be political is, on the face of it, idiotic. Would you tell Bob Dylan to just shut up and sing? Or System of a Down? John Lennon? Even country as a genre has not been free from impassioned ideals; Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash never shied away from populist issues, and Hank Williams Jr. and Charlie Daniels have been vocal in support of Republicans. The thing with the Dixie Chicks is that they were not a political band and never intended to be; ironically, by going all out in bashing the band for one comment, protesters generated a self-fulfilling prophecy, as Maines became hardened in her defiance, still “Not Ready to Make Nice.”
Those still mad at Maines aren’t going to be won over—the right-wing demonstrators
interviewed on camera mostly come off as idiots, and Bill O’Reilly is shown advocating that the Dixie Chicks be slapped around (though he’d no doubt claim that to be amusing hyperbole). But the most hilarious of the detractors is Toby Keith, who defends himself against Maines’s criticism of his songwriting skills by saying, “She said anyone can write ‘Boot in Your Ass,’ but she didn’t!”