Once upon a time in the 1960s on "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," in a bit preserved on the album of the same name, Tommy Smothers was explaining that "We have the freedom of speech in America," before quickly adding in a threatening voice, "and you had better say what you're supposed to say." As a case study in exactly that some four decades down the road we have the 2006 documentary, "Dixie Chicks: Shut Up & Sing." Ten days before the invasion of Iraq in 2003 at a concern in London, England, Natalie Maines of the Chicks said, "We do not want this war, this violence, and we're ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas." The next thing everybody knew the best selling music group in the country was being denounced for disrespecting President Bush on foreign soil, supporters of the war were destroying Dixie Chicks albums, Country radio stations stopped playing their songs, and the women appeared on the cover of "Entertainment Weekly," their nude bodies covered with covered with slogans reflecting both sides of the controversy.
What I found most interesting in the first half of this documentary is that nobody ever tries to make sense out of the comment made by Maines, specifically about being ashamed that Bush was from Texas. I mean we are talking about a state that has the most executions each year, so you would assume it is a state that would extend the idea of justice being served even if it extends to the other side of the globe. Later in the documentary a woman at a Dixie Chicks concert holds up a sign proclaiming, "You Were Right." But what Maines said had nothing to do with there not being weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and being right for the wrong reasons is not exactly a position you want to take, although clearly the bottom line here is about free speech and the right to say whatever you want in this country without people making death threats against you. Then again, it was the sentiment and not the specifics that outraged those people who were outraged by what was said. The initial position of the documentary is not that Maines was right, but that those who attacked her and the other Chicks were more wrong. However, in the end the implicit argument is that Maines was indeed right, proven by the success of their next album if not by what we know about the war in Iraq.
You could tell what side the documentary takes by which side only gets the sound bites. One guy attacking the Dixie Chicks declares them to be "Communists," probably because that was the worst thing you could call somebody where he grew up, never mind that it hardly seems to apply to millionaire women who go to church. Another explains that it is wrong to disrespect the president and anybody who does so should leave the country, which makes me wonder how many people left the U.S. because they could not talk about being ashamed by what President Clinton did with Monica Lewinsky (I suspect that number is very low). When the chief spokesperson for the other point of view ends up being Toby Keith and the debate descends to the level of abbreviated obscenity, the level of discourse hardly seems worthy of speech, free or otherwise. The documentary even manages to turn Senator John McCain into a Dixie Chick supporter without him ever mentioning their name (but rather by his implying that squelching dissent is not how we play the game in this country).
Ultimately the most interesting part of this documentary is how the Dixie Chicks ended up with a new audience because of the controversy. If radio stations in the South were not going to play their music then they would head north of the Mason-Dixon line (not to mention north of the U.S.-Canadian border) to keep playing to sold-out concerts. Normally these stories, whether they are the subject of documentaries or not, end badly for their subjects, and a defiant single like "Not Ready to Make Nice" would be the last thing you say before the Dixie Chicks went down for the third time. But the directors, veteran Barbara Kopple ("Harlan County, U.S.A.") and first timer Celica Peck, not only get a happy ending, but see the story come full circle with Maines and the Chicks return "to the scene of the crime" in London. Fans of the Dixie Chicks will root them on through their ordeal, which includes the birth of twins thrown into the whole effort to keep their careers from blowing up in their faces, while those who still consider them traitors are hardly likely to buy the DVD just to be able to destroy it. The gulf that exists between the two sides clearly continues to this day.
P.S. This week's issue of "Entertainment Weekly" ranks the 25 most "Shocking Moments From the Past 25 Years!" and number 7 on the list was "Dixie Chicks Dis Bush--Country Goes Crazy!" This game beteen number 8, "Britney's Bizarre Buzz Cut!" and number 6, "Woody Allen Marries Soon-Yi!" The top of the list is "Nipplegate," a.k.a. Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" at the 2004 Super Bowl. What is interesting is that the Chicks and the Woodman are seen as having "minor" career impacts, which begs the question for why they are top ten scandals.