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The Dixie Chicks, "Shut Up and Sing" and the Cost of Dissent

By   Follow Me on Twitter     Message Joan Brunwasser       (Page 1 of 2 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   21 comments

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The Dixie Chicks and the Cost of Dissent

It’s my father’s birthday, and he would have been 90 years old. This article is dedicated to him. He’s been gone for enough time that he never saw me with my activism hat on. But, I think he would have been pleased. He was always awed – and sometimes annoyed, when it personally affected him – by my persistence. He thought I was a pit-bull. Most of the time, I consider that a compliment.

Right now, I’m at the tail end (my mother would call it endless) of a month of Jewish holidays. It’s been nonstop cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping, and more cooking, interspersed by festive meals shared with family and friends. In between runs to the airport, there’s always the mini-family crisis, homework, carpool, emergency visits to the vet, and let’s not forget my day job to keep me on my toes. It’s increasingly hard to find those precious moments to organize my thoughts. But here goes.

Infamous Dixie Chicks Incident
I want to talk about the Dixie Chicks. While I am truly a fan of their latest CD, Taking the Long Way, I especially like the trajectory their career has taken lately. To recap, the Dixie Chicks were already a very successful country band in 2003. In fact, Wikipedia states that they are the most popular female band of all time, having sold over thirty million albums. Then their lead singer, Natalie Maines, made an offhand remark that made history. An April 2006 Time magazine article sums it up well:
When the Dixie Chicks played London in 2003, 10 days before the Iraq invasion, and Maines said, "Just so you know, we're ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas," the tremors in the conservative country music scene were seismic.,9171,1187173,00.html

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They received death threats, their songs disappeared from the airwaves, their CDs were trashed, and they became the target of intense vitriol focused on the war effort, but that snowballed to stand for dissent of any sort. That simplistic “You’re with us or against us” fervor clearly identified the Chicks as the enemy. “Almost overnight, one of the most successful groups of any genre was boycotted by Nashville and disappeared from country radio.” The Dixie Chicks became the band country fans and so-called red-blooded Americans loved to hate. They became a lightning rod for pro- and anti-war and pro- and anti-Bush sentiment in our country. They’ve been shunned by the Academy of Country Music since 2003. NBC refused ads for the documentary Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing, which chronicles the aftermath of the infamous 2003 concert until the release of their newest album in 2006.

While the Dixie Chicks have always been known as feisty and independent, they have not been particularly political. Ironically, the comment that set off this firestorm is notable for its total innocuousness.

Whether you agree or disagree with what Maines said, I’m pretty sure you understand why she had a right to both feel and express that sentiment. We are definitely living in a difficult time and a poisonous atmosphere. Were these folks who called the Dixie Chicks Communists and treasonous saying that freedom of speech and artistic expression should only be available for those who agree with them?

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President Bush himself commented on the controversy in an interview with Tom Brokaw a month later.
The Dixie Chicks are free to speak their mind. They can say what they want to say ... They shouldn't have their feelings hurt just because some people don't want to buy their records when they speak out ... Freedom is a two-way street ... I don't really care what the Dixie Chicks said. I want to do what I think is right for the American people, and if some singers or Hollywood stars feel like speaking out, that's fine. That's the great thing about America. It stands in stark contrast to Iraq…click here

That certainly sounds pretty reasonable. But, do we have any reason to think that he actually believes that? If you look back to what transpired at campaign rallies and public appearances, it’s clear that dissent of any type has been virtually outlawed. People sporting objectionable T-shirts or even bumper stickers (apparently, the parking lots are patrolled for this very purpose) are ejected or barred from attending.

Freedom of Expression ala W
Let’s look at an eyewitness account of a pre-election rally in the days leading up to the 2004 election held in a small town in Oregon, population 2, 245. It can be found (along with another, corroborating report) in the appendix of both editions of Mark Crispin Miller’s Fooled Again. I found the accounts unnerving. We’re not talking big city roughnecks, but about families with children and grandparents, pushed, prodded, and silenced. Retired attorney and local resident Trish Bowcock reports,
The [anti-Bush] chants were loud and apparently could be heard by President Bush. An order was issued that the anti-Bush rhetoric be quieted. The local SWAT team leapt to action. It happened fast. Clad in full riot gear, at least 50 officers moved in. Shouting indecipherable commands from a bullhorn, they formed a chain and bore down upon the people, only working to clear the side of the street appearing to be occupied by Kerry supporters. People tried to get out of their way. It was very crowded. There was nowhere to move. People were being crushed. They started flowing into the streets. Pleas to the officers, asking “where to go” fell upon deaf ears. Instead, riot police fired pellets of cayenne pepper spray into the crowd. An old man fell and couldn’t get up. When a young man stopped to help, he was shot in the back with hard pepper spray bullets. Children were shoved and herded down the street by the menacing line of armed riot police, until out of the president’s earshot.

There they remained until the President had finished his dinner and left the area. Also disturbing is the different manner in which Bush supporters were treated. Bowcock continues,
Police officers circulated, filming the crowd of “Protesters.” Some were people like me, quiet middle-aged women. Some sported anti-Bush signs, peace signs, or Kerry signs…Mixed among the “Protesters” were supporters of the president. One 19-year-old man shouted obscenities at anyone expressing dissatisfaction with the president, encouraging the police to “tazar” the “Stinking Protesters.” Neither the protestors [sic] nor the police harassed this vocal young man. Across the street, individuals shouting support for the president were allowed to continue. Officers monitored this group but allowed them to shout words of support or hurl derisions toward Kerry supporters, undisturbed. Honking cars filled with Bush supporters were left alone. A honking car full of Kerry supporters was stopped by police on the way out of town.

Does this sound like the exercise of freedom of speech or assembly? Does this sound like America, or an America that you know and love? With more of our civil liberties eroded, and the disappearance of habeus corpus, there is a growing anxiety about running afoul of the powers-that-be. People fear finding themselves thrown into a black hole, never to be seen or heard from again. One wonders what kind of comment or position would generate that kind of disproportionate response. Who knows, but who wants to find out? How does one act American enough?

A Little Closer to Home
My friend Ana had an unnerving experience last year. She was pulling her car out of the parking lot of her gym in downtown Evanston. A young girl bumped into her car and, being a nervous new driver, insisted on calling the police. When they came, they handcuffed my friend and put her in the back of a paddy wagon. They would not tell her what she was reported to have done, and repeatedly asserted that they didn’t have to. After being taken to the police station and spending several hours there, it was revealed that her husband, whose car she was driving, had forgotten to take the emissions test. That’s why she was dragged off in handcuffs, clearly a security threat to one and all. She seriously considered suing, but was advised against it by her lawyer because her son was still living at home. She was just grateful that this happened to her and not to him. He might not have fared as well had he opened his mouth to protest his treatment. The incident has left her unsettled and jittery. She no longer makes facile assumptions about people she sees pulled over by the police.

Not Shutting Up – Dixie Chicks Vindicated
The Dixie Chicks survived ostracism and came back stronger than ever. The 2007 Grammy Awards, where they won all five awards for which they were nominated, was the symbol of their vindication. Things have changed a lot since 2003. The public has caught up with their anti-war, anti-Bush sentiment, as shown by the standing ovations they received and the massive sales that greeted their newest album. They sold a million copies within four weeks of its release, despite minimal airplay. As band mate Emily Robison remarked, “We wouldn’t have done this album without everything we went through, so we have no regrets.”

I just finished watching Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing, and highly recommend it. I’ve wanted to see this documentary since I heard it had been made. I bought the controversial recording Taking the Long Way when it came out, at least partly in solidarity with their freedom of expression. I wasn’t even sure that I would like it, having heard no more than snippets, but I was willing to take a chance while making a statement. I was angered by the way they were treated by the country music stations, their former fans, and the right-wing spin machine. Watching the documentary, I came away with a renewed enthusiasm for this gutsy trio. My daughter watched with me, and while she is hardly a country fan, she decided to buy the CD for much of the same reasons.

Shut Up and Sing traces the three years after “The Comment.” Startled by the ferocity of ill will shown by their country base, the Dixie Chicks were forced to regroup. They wrote new songs, explored new directions, and grew beyond the limitations of country music to reach out to a different, broader audience. Despite everything, they have stood by one another and by the conviction that they must be able to speak their minds in order to be true to themselves. In the process, they have achieved new levels of authenticity and maturity, and their songs resonate with passion. They’re emphatically not going to shut up and, if we’re lucky, they’ll keep on singing for a long time.

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The documentary underscores how normal these women are. These are no prima donnas, but hardworking professionals, as well as mothers, wives, sisters, and friends. They are also strong-willed, outspoken females. The Dixie Chicks upheld the precious right to speak their minds, to exercise their artistic freedom. When we no longer feel comfortable expressing our opposition because of fear of retribution, one of the last strongholds of freedom slips away. We go from being an active, participatory citizenry to a helpless, powerless throng. Apathy is not far behind. The Dixie Chicks protested the actions of those who would take us where the vast majority does not want to go. The real traitors are those who would squelch free speech.

Who doubts that it is the easier path to just go with the flow and not rock the boat? But patriotism, like parenting, demands far more from us, if we are to do it well. There is no such thing as either democracy or parenthood by remote control. As I have often told my own children, my job is to guide and advise, not to befriend them. While it’s wonderful when we are in sync, the tough part is when circumstances demand that I step in and voice an unwanted, often unsolicited, opinion. I do it because I must – it’s part of the parent-child compact, no matter how old the child. If I don’t speak up, I’m simply not doing my job. Like a mother seeing her wayward child heading in the wrong direction, Natalie Maines took the unpopular path, acting with love and strength. To have done otherwise is not a sign of patriotism, but of cowardice and complicity. She could have said nothing, enjoying the fruits of her music career, and treading on no toes. And she wouldn’t have been alone in that choice.

Reality Check
I like to think about what happened with the Dixie Chicks when I’m looking for inspiration. But the sad truth is that bringing about real change is a much harder nut to crack. In case anyone hasn’t noticed, we’re still in Iraq with no end in sight. The president has already admitted that he plans to leave this mess for his successor. Our soldiers are dying daily, and our economy is hemorrhaging from the weight of the war. Our nation has never been more polarized, and our elections are in such a sorry state that I look ahead to 2008 with great dread.

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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