Do politics have a place in art? Is it worth alienating a fan base to express real opinions? Shut Up and Sing, a documentary about the travails of the Dixie Chicks over the past three years, examines those questions. Not just a movie for fans of the band, it is an incisive and entertaining piece exploring freedom of speech and music's place in politics.
Review: Shut Up and Sing
By Kim Hollis
March 5, 2007
The Dixie Chicks were on top of the world in March of 2003. They had found commercial success with their 1998 album Wide Open Spaces, which had three number one singles and with 12 million copies sold, became one of the 50 best-selling albums in American history. The album that came next, Fly, sold 10 million copies and spawned nine singles. Their next album, Home, allowed them some crossover success. The single Long Time Gone was their first top ten hit on the pop singles chart. They performed the Star Spangled Banner at Super Bowl XXXVII.
On March 10, 2003, the Dixie Chicks were touring in Europe. In the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy, our administration was doing everything possible to find solutions to fighting future instances of terror. The leaders of our nation stood up and told us that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and for that reason, we would be invading that country. We would eliminate the threats, help to make the Iraqi people free, and the theory was that it would all be over in an instant. Given the fact that the British citizenry was strongly against any action in Iraq, the Dixie Chicks' lead singer Natalie Maines knew that her audience was sympathetic to her own personal views about the prospect of war. Playing to the crowd, she said, "Just so you know, we're on the good side with y'all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we're ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas."
This simple statement set off a firestorm. The Guardian reported on Maines' comments in their review of the concert. It wasn't long before various U.S. news sources had picked up on the story. People of all sorts became outraged by the comments. There was anger that Maines would make such a statement about our president on foreign soil. Others believed that such pointed remarks have no place when our nation is building up to war and potentially putting soldiers in danger.
Whatever the reason for disagreeing with Maines and the Dixie Chicks, the controversy grew to the point that fans were boycotting their music and country music stations simply didn't play them. As time progressed, death threats were made against Maines and concerts had to be cancelled due to lack of sales.
The documentary does a marvelous job of illustrating the events as they occurred. We start out by seeing the Chicks performing the national anthem, then we flash to a concert performance of the melancholy Travelin' Soldier, a song about the real tragedies that occur when good men are sent into war zones.
We then see Maines make the infamous comment, and what follows is a compelling examination of both the reaction of the fans and the Dixie Chicks themselves. When fans booed the Chicks in concert, Maines gave them their fair time, saying that the band was doing so in the interest of freedom of speech. At the same time, we see that Marti Maguire and Emily Robison weren't always precisely in agreement with the things that their lead singer was saying. In fact, it seemed as though they even wished she'd keep her opinions to herself at times.
What Shut Up and Sing does incredibly well is weave the music of the band in amongst their personal lives, concert footage and news clips. The movie surprisingly offers a lot of light-hearted moments and solid humor as well, though admittedly much of this humor does come at the expense of those who are on the opposite side of the fence from Maines' views. Given the facts that have come out since the war began, though, Maines looks a lot more prescient than she did at the time.
And of course, we all know where this story goes. The Dixie Chicks came forth with a new album - Taking the Long Way - that was created all on their own terms. While understanding that they might be alienating their core fan base, the band went forward with a musical style that they wanted to explore with lyrical subject matter that had potential to be controversial. That album went double platinum and made the Dixie Chicks the stars of the 2007 Grammy Awards, as they took home five statues, including the biggies Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Record of the Year.
Shut Up and Sing is a worthwhile look at some important questions surrounding freedom of speech and what can happen when popular artists embrace unpopular opinions. There are a number of people who continue to believe that art and politics should be kept separate, but from slave music to the protest music of the '60s to anti-apartheid anthems and Live Aid, we've had musicians injecting their own beliefs into their creative works. Even Ted Nugent's shooting a flaming arrow through the chest of Saddam Hussein in the early 1990s could be considered a political statement - it's just one that the majority of the public agreed with. Sometimes it takes a few people speaking up for the unpopular opinion to get a real sea change in motion, though.