Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Shut Up and Sing

The 2006 documentary SHUT UP AND SING, chronicling the country music band the Dixie Chick is a remarkable display of the resilience of popular figures to withstand public humiliation. The film also raises gender questions about both violence and solidarity. Try as I might, I cannot shake (some) essentialist "female power" feelings; every time I watch SHUT UP AND SING, I am overcome by support for these incredible women and pride in their actions.

Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck, who produced and directed SHUT UP AND SING, decided to make a film about the world's most popular and successful female band of all time. Kopple and Peck started shooting in 2003, as the Dixie Chicks were about to embark on their world tour and on the eve of the war in Iraq. Like so many riveted by the impending war and positive that our leaders were lying to us about the factual findings of weapons of mass destruction, the Dixie Chicks were glued to CNN (shown in one clip as they are about to go onstage and Natalie Maines, the lead singer, asks what the war update is). So, fatefully, in mid-March of 2003, the Dixie Chicks took the stage in London and Natalie Maines uttered the sentence heard 'round the world (particularly the country music world): "Just so you know, we're on the good side with ya'll. We do not want this war, this violence. And we're ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas." The comment drew immediate cheers and a playful smirk from Maines onstage. What no one knew is the uproar that would ensure and haunt them for years.

The Dixie Chicks were literally banned from country radio, had their CDs bulldozed by angry fans, called the "Dixie Twits," the "Dixie Sluts," and famously, Toby Keith showed a picture splicing an image of Maines and Saddam Hussein, intimating that the two were bedfellows while singing his song "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue." What the film explores is the personal and political; these women were thrown into a firestorm of hatred, violence and degradation.

Most notably, Maines received a letter that she would be shot dead during the band's Dallas, TX show. At no time in the film do the Chicks feel sorry for themselves (by posing naked for Entertainment Weekly with some of the words they had been called inked on their bodies, they clearly retained their sense of dignity and fight), and at no time do they back down from the sentiment that Maines was trying to express about the war. However, for a brief moment you see the pain and fear in Maines' eyes when she realizes she is actually a target (followed by her quick retort of "He's sort of cute" when shown a picture of the suspect). The film then shows the band preparing for their show in San Antonio, hugging their children and husbands goodbye and boarding a private plane to Dallas (curlers in their hair). Once in Dallas, they rise on a platform from underneath the stage and it is almost haunting to watch these three women, tiny and exceptionally exposed against the tens of thousands of people in the arena.

In class we have discussed several times the notion of the female body politic and the premise of physical and sexual violence because of gender norms, physiological difference and cultural attitudes. The violence that these women faced in language, attitude, financial loss and destruction of their albums, and culminating in the death threat, shows how deeply we expect our women to be patriotic and ultimately silent (one former fan gave title to the film by saying "I wish they would just shut up and sing"). What none of these women do is shut up, however, and they don't ask Natalie Maines to. They decide as a group that they are going to stand by Maines when they so easily could have betrayed her. At the very end of the film, the only time one of them comes close to crying, Martie Maguire says "I still think Natalie feels pressure over what's happened, even though we say over and over and over again, it was the best thing...we'd never change it, you're fine, you didn't do anything. I just think she still feels responsible. And if she came to me tomorrow and said I don't want to tour, I don't want to record anymore, I don't want to do this, I care for her. I'd say ok. I'd give up my career for her to be happy, to be at peace." If female solidarity can be essentialized, I hope it is done in the way the Dixie Chicks have: by speaking their minds, by not being sorry for it, and not quitting on one another when things are beyond difficult.

1 comment:

Naomi said...

I strongly agree that this is how we should comport ourselves in life: how we should not back down when we know what is right and when our actions were, indeed, in the right. In a country of freedom of speech, it seems very much against that freedom when singers can recieve death threats just from speaking their minds, intelligent minds at that. Therefore, their example of sticking it out and knowing there will be better days can be an inspiration to us all.