David Fillingim writes in his book Redneck Liberation that the Dixie Chicks are “the female act that best embodies the new ideal of Country Womanhood.” This involves a new look–(wardrobe, makeup, hair) which is control of their image, control of their sexuality, and I’ll say a new attitude. That new attitude involves a woman’s desire and ability to speak her mind whereever she wants. This, and the community-bond between band members are essentially the heart of the movie Dixie Chicks: Shut Up & Sing.
Let me preface my thoughts by admitting that I’m not yet a true Dixie Chicks fan. I don’t yet own one of their albums. I have heard singles here and there and seen music videos. Watching the trailer for this movie on Youtube made me want to own it, you see, I am probably more fascinated with Natalie Mains attitude than her songs. I think any Texas girl willing to stick her neck out in England and say what she really thinks about the President has the sort of sass that can draw my attention.
As David’s book was published in 2003, I assume the whole controversy depicted in Shut Up & Sing had only just begun to surface. The movie takes us on the road, in their homes, backstage and in the birthing room for a biopic full of lusty anger, fear, protest, rage, that balances family and road life, and image/brand management. First Amendment rights are thrown up against market appeal and the question lays naked on the table: “How much attitude will music buyers stomach from the world’s first female superstar band?”
The Chicks clearly don’t want record sales and concert tickets to slip at any cost. Emily Robison says at one point that with seven children there is no way they’re going back to the pink RV. So the whole thing seems like some sort of heroic experiment. (That word heroic is so en vogue now isn’t it?) The Dixie Chicks are braving new ground for the rest of the music industry, testing the limits of their brand appeal and showing the world that a new Country Woman need never apologize for her beliefs.
The battle between Natalie Mains and Toby Keith is particularly enjoyable to watch, albeit in an annoying sort of way. Its clear that Keith and Mains both represent decidedly different political attitudes. Neither are lacking in motzy and not since the Outlaw movement have fans been treated to such salacious image rivalry.
A deeper question than that of freedom of speech and image control seems to be “What do the Dixie Chicks reveal about who is or is not in the Country Music Scene?” This question seems to have a simple answer at first. One could argue that Country Music has always been about a certain acceptable image dictated by the buying public tastes at a given point in history. But more important than what listeners want to buy is what listeners relate to.
Country music, then covers a multitude of sins—or at least encompasses a multitude of musical styles, themes, and backgrounds. Part of my challenge in this book will be to argue convincingly that country music really is the music of a marginalized people, when, at the time of this writing, country enjoys the widest popularity of all American radio formats and appeals to the wealthiest and best-educated of radio audiences. (p. 13)
In Shut Up & Sing we encounter Natalie Mains arguing to the Dixie Chicks manager that if Country music is finished with the Dixie Chicks than the Dixie Chicks will just be finished with Country music. They admit that what they are playing could be considered country music, but that if the people buying their albums aren’t country, than neither will their music be. The connection between the Chicks and their fans is a question mark in the movie. The bond between the band members is stronger than ever, but the political backlash for Natalie’s statement seems to drive a wedge of fear between the band and their audience. Maybe this is not true. Maybe its just the movie emphasis. Either way, in this instance the very genre of music in question is up for grabs because of the tension.
I’d like to point out here that this image tension is nothing new to Country music audiences. Its interesting that Rick Rubin produced the latest Dixie Chicks album. Rubin is the man behind the successful reworking of another controversial Country cross-over stylist, Johnny Cash. Johnny Cash made several careers out of controversy, with some folks believing perhaps up unto the day he died that he’d actually done time at San Quentin prison for the murders he sang about in his songs.
I really don’t know what to do with the image tension involved in Country music. If Country music is for poor white rural southerners, if it is supposed to tell their story, than someone should let radio stations know! Let’s face it. Since the late 1990s the demographic audience has shifted in radio. The internet and the IPod have made previously hard to find music much more readily available. So Country music need no longer be dictated by over the counter sales and radio polls. I would venture to say that many folks are like me in that they don’t even listen to the radio anymore. They have an IPod playlist. What constitutes Country is up for grabs like never before.
Maybe image tension reflects something deeper about human need and belonging. A singer relates to the songs as a part of herself on an intimate level and the listener is drawn to that. The listener is drawn into the bond between the singer and the song and feels a part of it. With enough of these songs an image develops and the singer is indebted both to the image and to the audience. Now, throw in enough money to set the singer’s lifestyle comfortably and an awful lot is at stake! Any number of things can get between the singer, the image, and the audience to hurt the expected bond. Maybe this whole tension, when it happens as often as it does in Country music, reveals a profound theological truth: We humans are never the sum of our creative expressions. While song has powerful spiritual effectiveness it is always limited to being symbolic. It points to ultimates but always falls victim to offering more than can be delivered.