Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it — the Chicks have learned

Interesting review of the 2006 documentary about the then Dixie Chicks who were recovering from having been too outspoken for their fans. Partisanship is not a recent issue.

Shut Up and Sing: why the Chicks’ 2006 documentary means more now than ever

It’s been 14 years since the Chicks released a documentary on their country radio cancellation – but the film still has a lot to say on how we got here

Adrian Horton

Tue 21 Jul 2020 11.57 EDTLast modified on Tue 21 Jul 2020 12.24 EDT

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The Chicks in 2018 in Austin, Texas.
 The Chicks in 2018 in Austin, Texas. Photograph: Rick Kern/WireImage

When the Chicks, the Texas trio of singer Natalie Maines and sisters Emily Strayer and Martie Maguire, abruptly dropped the “Dixie” from their name in late June, they set forth a crystalline, encompassing mantra: “We want to meet this moment.”

The band, whose thumping proto-feminist, bluegrass-pop ballads made them the highest-selling female group of all time in the United States, made the decision partly in response to America’s racial reckoning after the death of George Floyd in police custody and partly due to longstanding discomfort with name’s romanticization of the Confederacy. It also mirrors the release of their first new music in 14 years: unbowed, unapologetic yet open to growth, soundtracked by a scorched-earth record of divorce and resilience with a title, Gaslighter, oft-invoked in the Trump presidency.

The Chicks: ‘We were used and abused by everybody who wanted to make money off us’

 Read more

But coverage of Gaslighter invariably invoked another moment, 17 years away. The Chicks’ return and rebrand in 2020 could not be untethered from 2003, when backlash to Maines’s offhand criticism of the then president, George W Bush, in the days before the invasion of Iraq derailed one of country music’s most lucrative and popular acts. Which is why it’s worth revisiting Shut Up and Sing, the documentary which tracked arguably the swiftest backlash in modern pop music, what has become shorthand for career suicide by outspokenness in country music.

Shut Up and Sing, directed by Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck, was released in 2006 and recalled the tribulations of the Chicks’ prior three years; the New York Times called it a “sad commentary on pop culture and public relations”, a fly-on-the-wall look at how “reason is drowned out by noise, and there can be hell to pay”. Watching the film now, 14 years and ten thousand layers of internet sediment later, feels like tracing an underground cable to our frenzied, hyper-political, roiling present of the internet’s collapse of scale, political identity and celebrity, the lines between on and offline already blurred and consequential in 2003.https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/udF-CKxzCF0?wmode=opaque&feature=oembedFacebookTwitterPinterest

The film – all cinéma vérité footage, no talking heads, filmed as the Chicks recoil and recover for a new album and tour from 2003 to 2006 – blazes like a signal flare of cultural strands which have since cemented and metastasized: anonymous harassment campaigns incited online; how mass media greases the tracks for pile-ons; the ferocity with which said campaigns target women (or other marginalized groups – the Chicks were blonde, white women from the south associated with a genre notoriously resistant to non-white, non-male performers – imagine if they weren’t); the conservative dogma of patriotism as unwavering, unquestioning and deeply insecure devotion to military power and jingoism; celebrity statements as arenas for the culture wars (“shut up and sing,” the criticism levied often at Maines, foreshadows Fox News host Laura Ingraham’s derision for LeBron James to “shut up and dribble”).

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To backtrack: in 2003, the Chicks were on top of the world. They sang the national anthem at the Super Bowl, scored a No 1 record, Home, while their previous record, Fly, remained No 2. There were sold-out arena shows, a lucrative partnership with Lipton Iced Tea, tens of millions of physical album copies sold. That March, the Chicks kicked off their tour in London, as TVs backstage played updates of American troops poised to invade Iraq. After playing their No 1 hit at the time, Travelin’ Soldier, Maines spitballed with the crowd: “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all,” she says. “We do not want this war, this violence. And we’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas.” The crowd cheered, she giggled and they launched into the next song. The scene backstage after the show, captured on camera, is breezy and relieved.

But in a strange harbinger of disproportionate, staggeringly targeted repudiations to come, the banter, first quoted by the print Guardian in London and then disseminated by the Associated Press, ricocheted back to the States. Shut Up and Sing traces what becomes a mushroom cloud of recrimination: local news segments quote Maines derisively, a rightwing group called Free Republic demands a boycott of their music and their concerts, radio stations – the backbone of recognition in country music – heed calls to ban their music. Their single plummets from the top 10. Their website, overwhelmed with traffic, is forced to shut down. They return to Texas, and have a roundtable with a Lipton representative concerned for the tea brand. “It’s not about our point of view,” says Emily Strayer, the band’s banjo player, to pressure for a more apologetic or comprehensive apology from the group. “The story is about how out of hand it’s gotten, isn’t it? It’s snowballed.”

The Chicks in 2003.
 The Dixie Chicks in 2003. Photograph: Frank Franklin Ii/AP

The snowball kept rolling, and the incident cast a long shadow over country music and its listeners. In her 2020 Netflix documentary Miss Americana, Taylor Swift, a lifelong Chicks fan, cited her fear of getting “Dixie Chick-ed” as the reason why she remained politically reticent – a “good girl”, agreeable – even past the 2016 election; the film returns to Shut Up and Sing like formative bedrock. Even the indomitable Dolly Parton has invoked the incident as a reason to placate rather than provoke. (“Of course I have my opinion about everything, but I learned years ago to keep your mouth shut about things. I saw what happened to the Dixie Chicks,” she told NPR in 2019 for the “Dollitics” episode of the Dolly Parton’s America podcast).

Watching the blowback to Maines’s words unfold on screen feels, even in 2020, absurd in its precipitousness, especially for criticism of the president that is now so commonplace in public as to be unrevealing. But in 2003, less than a year and a half removed from 9/11, “political” words against the president by a band supposedly (though as the Chicks say in the film, inaccurately) representing the American heartland curdled with startling momentum. Radio stations set up garbage bins for people to toss their CDs. People protested at their US shows with signs (“shut up dixie twits”) or bedazzled shirts (“I’m only here because I couldn’t get my $$$ back”). The Fox News host Bill O’Reilly called them “callow, foolish women who deserve to be slapped around”, on air.

In one horrifyingly mundane sequence, the Chicks are briefed on a death threat against Maines reported for their Dallas concert deemed credible enough to loop in the FBI; fiddler Martie Maguire and Renshaw ponder how someone could easily get a handgun past pat-downs – tucked into their crotch, maybe? Tied to their ankle? The FBI recommends cancelling the show. They don’t.

“Everything was so bizarre it was almost humorous,” Maines reflects in the film, just two years removed from the exile. The comment feels as apt now as it probably did then, and one of the film’s enduring fascinations is how it’s at once recognizable in its dynamics – a comment spinning out of control, strangers resorting to their worst impulses, media rehashing the story as one of proportional debate rather than internet-fueled harassment campaign – and of a totally different time. Elements of the backlash to the Chicks seem laughably homespun now – delivering physical CDs to trash cans outside radio stations and running them over with a tractor? Who has the time for that? – even if the outsize anger, especially directed at three women, remains disturbing.The Chicks in 2020.

The boycotting of the Chicks is often referred to in any article written about the Chicks in the 2010s as one the first internet “cancellations”, but the film reveals, in detail, how this is a misnomer. It’s not so much “cancel culture”, a bogeyman often reductively invoked by powerful people unused to and upset by substantive and consistent challenges to their platform, or an umbrella term more descriptive of the person using it, than an early, visceral, scarring example of a relentless, exacting identity-forming cycle of harassment, that we’ve seen many times since.

Maines’s indirect comments about Bush in 2003 now feel airy, quaint; it’s a striking, and hopeful, testament to the engagement and expectations of audiences now that popular music has shifted from a norm of “apolitical” to political authenticity as near-requirement to be taken seriously. That is, with the notable, frustrating exception of country music, from which the Chicks long ago divested. The country music industry in general has, from its overwhelmingly white and male ranks to the queasy attempt by Lady Antebellum to rebrand as Lady A (while suing the black blues singer from Seattle who goes by the name), has failed to meet this moment of reckoning or celebrated the genre’s black roots. Country music radio might be forced to forgive the still-popular Chicks, but the radio scene in Nashville for female and non-white performers remains downright dismal.

At 14 years old, Shut Up and Sing acts like an old mirror – clear, if warped – a strange reflection for a band that has grown up and on, even as country music has struggled to follow suit; an artifact of stricter bounds for critiques of power, the mechanisms for online rage less baked in. In press for Gaslighter, Maguire told NPR that she recently allowed her teenage daughters to watch the film for the first time. “They’re like, ‘I don’t get it. Why couldn’t you say that? Why couldn’t she say that?’” They were confused by a time graspable but mostly gone. “Things have changed so much, and that is not their world,” she said, though I’d argue Shut Up and Sing shows the path to this one.

Shut Up and Sing: why the Chicks’ 2006 documentary means more now than ever

It’s been 14 years since the Chicks released a documentary on their country radio cancellation – but the film still has a lot to say on how we got here

Adrian Horton

Tue 21 Jul 2020 11.57 EDTLast modified on Tue 21 Jul 2020 12.24 EDT

Shares21

The Chicks in 2018 in Austin, Texas.
 The Chicks in 2018 in Austin, Texas. Photograph: Rick Kern/WireImage

When the Chicks, the Texas trio of singer Natalie Maines and sisters Emily Strayer and Martie Maguire, abruptly dropped the “Dixie” from their name in late June, they set forth a crystalline, encompassing mantra: “We want to meet this moment.”

The band, whose thumping proto-feminist, bluegrass-pop ballads made them the highest-selling female group of all time in the United States, made the decision partly in response to America’s racial reckoning after the death of George Floyd in police custody and partly due to longstanding discomfort with name’s romanticization of the Confederacy. It also mirrors the release of their first new music in 14 years: unbowed, unapologetic yet open to growth, soundtracked by a scorched-earth record of divorce and resilience with a title, Gaslighter, oft-invoked in the Trump presidency.

The Chicks: ‘We were used and abused by everybody who wanted to make money off us’

 Read more

But coverage of Gaslighter invariably invoked another moment, 17 years away. The Chicks’ return and rebrand in 2020 could not be untethered from 2003, when backlash to Maines’s offhand criticism of the then president, George W Bush, in the days before the invasion of Iraq derailed one of country music’s most lucrative and popular acts. Which is why it’s worth revisiting Shut Up and Sing, the documentary which tracked arguably the swiftest backlash in modern pop music, what has become shorthand for career suicide by outspokenness in country music.

Shut Up and Sing, directed by Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck, was released in 2006 and recalled the tribulations of the Chicks’ prior three years; the New York Times called it a “sad commentary on pop culture and public relations”, a fly-on-the-wall look at how “reason is drowned out by noise, and there can be hell to pay”. Watching the film now, 14 years and ten thousand layers of internet sediment later, feels like tracing an underground cable to our frenzied, hyper-political, roiling present of the internet’s collapse of scale, political identity and celebrity, the lines between on and offline already blurred and consequential in 2003.https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/udF-CKxzCF0?wmode=opaque&feature=oembedFacebookTwitterPinterest

The film – all cinéma vérité footage, no talking heads, filmed as the Chicks recoil and recover for a new album and tour from 2003 to 2006 – blazes like a signal flare of cultural strands which have since cemented and metastasized: anonymous harassment campaigns incited online; how mass media greases the tracks for pile-ons; the ferocity with which said campaigns target women (or other marginalized groups – the Chicks were blonde, white women from the south associated with a genre notoriously resistant to non-white, non-male performers – imagine if they weren’t); the conservative dogma of patriotism as unwavering, unquestioning and deeply insecure devotion to military power and jingoism; celebrity statements as arenas for the culture wars (“shut up and sing,” the criticism levied often at Maines, foreshadows Fox News host Laura Ingraham’s derision for LeBron James to “shut up and dribble”).

Sign up for the Guardian documentaries update

 Read more

To backtrack: in 2003, the Chicks were on top of the world. They sang the national anthem at the Super Bowl, scored a No 1 record, Home, while their previous record, Fly, remained No 2. There were sold-out arena shows, a lucrative partnership with Lipton Iced Tea, tens of millions of physical album copies sold. That March, the Chicks kicked off their tour in London, as TVs backstage played updates of American troops poised to invade Iraq. After playing their No 1 hit at the time, Travelin’ Soldier, Maines spitballed with the crowd: “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all,” she says. “We do not want this war, this violence. And we’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas.” The crowd cheered, she giggled and they launched into the next song. The scene backstage after the show, captured on camera, is breezy and relieved.

But in a strange harbinger of disproportionate, staggeringly targeted repudiations to come, the banter, first quoted by the print Guardian in London and then disseminated by the Associated Press, ricocheted back to the States. Shut Up and Sing traces what becomes a mushroom cloud of recrimination: local news segments quote Maines derisively, a rightwing group called Free Republic demands a boycott of their music and their concerts, radio stations – the backbone of recognition in country music – heed calls to ban their music. Their single plummets from the top 10. Their website, overwhelmed with traffic, is forced to shut down. They return to Texas, and have a roundtable with a Lipton representative concerned for the tea brand. “It’s not about our point of view,” says Emily Strayer, the band’s banjo player, to pressure for a more apologetic or comprehensive apology from the group. “The story is about how out of hand it’s gotten, isn’t it? It’s snowballed.”

The Chicks in 2003.
 The Dixie Chicks in 2003. Photograph: Frank Franklin Ii/AP

The snowball kept rolling, and the incident cast a long shadow over country music and its listeners. In her 2020 Netflix documentary Miss Americana, Taylor Swift, a lifelong Chicks fan, cited her fear of getting “Dixie Chick-ed” as the reason why she remained politically reticent – a “good girl”, agreeable – even past the 2016 election; the film returns to Shut Up and Sing like formative bedrock. Even the indomitable Dolly Parton has invoked the incident as a reason to placate rather than provoke. (“Of course I have my opinion about everything, but I learned years ago to keep your mouth shut about things. I saw what happened to the Dixie Chicks,” she told NPR in 2019 for the “Dollitics” episode of the Dolly Parton’s America podcast).

Watching the blowback to Maines’s words unfold on screen feels, even in 2020, absurd in its precipitousness, especially for criticism of the president that is now so commonplace in public as to be unrevealing. But in 2003, less than a year and a half removed from 9/11, “political” words against the president by a band supposedly (though as the Chicks say in the film, inaccurately) representing the American heartland curdled with startling momentum. Radio stations set up garbage bins for people to toss their CDs. People protested at their US shows with signs (“shut up dixie twits”) or bedazzled shirts (“I’m only here because I couldn’t get my $$$ back”). The Fox News host Bill O’Reilly called them “callow, foolish women who deserve to be slapped around”, on air.

In one horrifyingly mundane sequence, the Chicks are briefed on a death threat against Maines reported for their Dallas concert deemed credible enough to loop in the FBI; fiddler Martie Maguire and Renshaw ponder how someone could easily get a handgun past pat-downs – tucked into their crotch, maybe? Tied to their ankle? The FBI recommends cancelling the show. They don’t.

“Everything was so bizarre it was almost humorous,” Maines reflects in the film, just two years removed from the exile. The comment feels as apt now as it probably did then, and one of the film’s enduring fascinations is how it’s at once recognizable in its dynamics – a comment spinning out of control, strangers resorting to their worst impulses, media rehashing the story as one of proportional debate rather than internet-fueled harassment campaign – and of a totally different time. Elements of the backlash to the Chicks seem laughably homespun now – delivering physical CDs to trash cans outside radio stations and running them over with a tractor? Who has the time for that? – even if the outsize anger, especially directed at three women, remains disturbing.The Chicks in 2020.

The boycotting of the Chicks is often referred to in any article written about the Chicks in the 2010s as one the first internet “cancellations”, but the film reveals, in detail, how this is a misnomer. It’s not so much “cancel culture”, a bogeyman often reductively invoked by powerful people unused to and upset by substantive and consistent challenges to their platform, or an umbrella term more descriptive of the person using it, than an early, visceral, scarring example of a relentless, exacting identity-forming cycle of harassment, that we’ve seen many times since.

Maines’s indirect comments about Bush in 2003 now feel airy, quaint; it’s a striking, and hopeful, testament to the engagement and expectations of audiences now that popular music has shifted from a norm of “apolitical” to political authenticity as near-requirement to be taken seriously. That is, with the notable, frustrating exception of country music, from which the Chicks long ago divested. The country music industry in general has, from its overwhelmingly white and male ranks to the queasy attempt by Lady Antebellum to rebrand as Lady A (while suing the black blues singer from Seattle who goes by the name), has failed to meet this moment of reckoning or celebrated the genre’s black roots. Country music radio might be forced to forgive the still-popular Chicks, but the radio scene in Nashville for female and non-white performers remains downright dismal.

At 14 years old, Shut Up and Sing acts like an old mirror – clear, if warped – a strange reflection for a band that has grown up and on, even as country music has struggled to follow suit; an artifact of stricter bounds for critiques of power, the mechanisms for online rage less baked in. In press for Gaslighter, Maguire told NPR that she recently allowed her teenage daughters to watch the film for the first time. “They’re like, ‘I don’t get it. Why couldn’t you say that? Why couldn’t she say that?’” They were confused by a time graspable but mostly gone. “Things have changed so much, and that is not their world,” she said, though I’d argue Shut Up and Sing shows the path to this one.

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