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SHUT UP OR STAND UP
When Natalie Maines spoke out, opposing the war before it had started, it was at the very least a dangerous career move. (As their media adviser says of Bush in early April 2003, "Heís got a very high approval rating. The war couldnít be going better.") The comment surely sounded like treason to many of her country music fans. In Shut Up & Sing we see a protester outside one of their concerts shouting, "Be proud of your country. Be ashamed of the Dixie Chicks." Another said of Natalie: "They should send her over to Iraq, strap her to a bomb and drop her over Baghdad." One patriot summed up the anti-Chicks sentiment: "Freedom of speech is fine... but not in public."
Part of the opposition must have come from sheer surprise that political controversy would come from a group with such a friendly, chirpy name. (Dixie? Chicks!? Itís a double affront to political correctness.) And maybe they expected that the two other, older band members would disassociate themselves from Maines. Briefly, in the film, Emily has the attitude of the good student who doesnít care to be kept after class because the bad girl mouthed off. "If anybody asks me ĎI didnít say it. Talk to her.í" But thatís not really an option. "Weíre a sisterhood," Emily says. "We go through the good, the bad and the ugly all together."
It had been good for the Chicks. Their albums were top sellers, and six weeks before Shepherdís Bush they had performed at the Super Bowl. But it got bad, and then ugly, in a hurry. The "ashamed" aside soured and angered their conservative fans. Not since 1958, when Jerry Lee Lewis mentioned during a tour of England that he had married his 13-year-old second cousin, had a country act returned from London in such disgrace.
"I just could not believe people cared what I said," Maines says in the film. But after issuing two statements first a clarification, then an apology within three days of the original blast, she got her feist back. When country star Toby Keith posted a doctored photo of her with Saddam Hussein, Natalie donned a T shirt emblazoned with the acronym F.U.T.K. (In the movie she sees an anti-Chick protester wearing another T shirt, one that reads F.U.D.C., and wonders, "Whaddaya have against Dick Cheney?") She also held onto her sense of humor when the death threats came. Read one: "Natalie Maines will be shot Sunday July 6 in Dallas. On the phone with her husband, she says, "Iíll call ya tonight if I donít get shot." And when shown a photo of the threat suspect, he says she thinks heís kinda cute.
Shut Up & Sing ricochets from the 2003 fracas to the 2005 recording of their new CD and up to this summer. It reveals the pressure on the group not only to keep their families together during the controversy but to come up with an album that will appeal to fans beyond their depleted core of country fans. The album did go to Number 1, the Chicks did make the cover of TIME , and instead of making the rounds of the Southern stations that wouldnít play their stuff, they appeared on satellite radio with a clearly smitten Howard Stern. He takes their politics to heart, then asks the Chicks if itís true theyíre not wearing panties. Natalie, ever the crusader, says with mock defiance, "I will not wear panties till the war is over."
I canít say how Shut Up & Sing will play in the heartland or, for that matter, whether an old leftie like me would have been as charmed by the film if I didnít share the groupís political sentiments. Iíd like to think Iíd respect their gumption and be charmed by their perseverance. The movie ends in June 2006, when the Chicks are back at the Shepherdís Bush Empire, the scene of the crime, with everyone wondering what incendiary remark Natalie will make this time. Letís just say she replayed one of her greatest hits.