Bush, shame and the Dixie Chicks

The arch-conservative country music biz forced Natalie Maines to apologize to the president. But for a moment she was the bravest American entertainer.

Topics: George W. Bush, Music,

Bush, shame and the Dixie Chicks

It’s common knowledge how conservative the country music industry is: The bulk (though not all) of country music is about home and hearth and heartache, and particularly given how flat sales of recorded music are these days, the industry has a lot riding on that image. Toby Keith, whose hit “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (the Angry American)” is suitably, fulsomely flag-waving, must be the golden boy of the country establishment right about now.

So what on earth are they going to do with a willful kid like Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks? Maines, a native of Lubbock, Texas, got herself into trouble last week when she told a London audience, “Just so you know, we’re ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas.” The London papers barely blinked an eye, but the American media caught on fast. A Nashville radio station was deluged with phone calls on Thursday, some of those callers demanding a boycott of the Dixie Chicks’ music. Two radio stations in Dallas reportedly stopped playing Dixie Chicks’ music — for that day, at least. (The group’s latest LP, “Home,” took three Grammys last month and has been lodged firmly in the No. 1 slot on the Billboard country charts for the past 28 weeks.)

Maines didn’t even rush to clean up the damage. “I feel the president is ignoring the opinion of many in the U.S. and alienating the rest of the world,” she said on Thursday. “My comments were made in frustration, and one of the privileges of being an American is you are free to voice your own point of view.”

Apparently that’s not a privilege afforded to Grammy-winning singers with top-10 records. By Friday the suits at Sony, the group’s record label, must have gotten to Maines. In a “Manchurian Candidate” style “I hear and I obey” statement — the sort of thing you might hear from someone with electrodes affixed to her temples — she said, “As a concerned American citizen, I apologize to President Bush because my remark was disrespectful. I feel that whoever holds that office should be treated with the utmost respect.”

You could criticize Maines for backing down, and there may be plenty on the left who’d just as soon do that as give her credit for speaking up in the first place. And I’m sure there are people out there who feel it’s ridiculous that a singer should step out of bounds to make a political statement at all. Sure, you’d expect it from Elvis Costello, who, as a guest host on the David Letterman show last week, performed a very pointed version of “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.”



But entertainers in the mainstream, the common wisdom goes, must never dare to do anything but entertain. Other than making pleasantly ambiguous statements like, “Let’s all hope for peace” (would that be before or after we kick Iraq’s ass?), it’s best for any artist who hopes to hang onto one of those precious ancient documents called a recording contract to keep mum.

Which is exactly why Maines’ comment — one she made, incidentally, in a country whose citizens are suffering a collective crisis of conscience thanks to events our president set in motion — stands as the boldest thing anyone in the entertainment industry has said since the war flap began. It’s not simply what she said, but the words she chose. I keep circling back to her startlingly succinct choice of words: She used the word ashamed. She didn’t say, “We have complicated feelings about the war” or “We hope the war will not happen” or “May peace prevail” (Costello’s signoff during his Letterman broadcast).

Maines’ statement wasn’t about hope, that most steadfast of country values, at all. It was about shame — and who, particularly in the entertainment industry, ever uses so strong a word? Against the ongoing blanding out of America, a massive country star actually had the guts, for a moment, to say exactly what she thinks.

Because the Dixie Chicks are huge mainstream stars, they’re expected to hold mainstream, down-home, Middle American values. (In so vast a country, where, exactly, is the middle?) Criticism of the president surely doesn’t fit into that scheme. And of course, by extension, Maines and the other Chicks must be against not just the president but the troops getting ready to fight. Why else would a few hundred protesters in Bossier City, La., gather to run over a heap of Dixie Chicks CDs with a 33,000-pound tractor, as they did yesterday. The tractor activists said they were supporters of President Bush and of nearby Barksdale Air Force Base.

If it takes a tractor to make your point, so be it. But you have to wonder: Have the Bossier City protesters actually listened to the Dixie Chicks’ “Travelin’ Soldier” (currently the nation’s No. 1 country song)? The song, written by Bruce Robison, is about a Vietnam soldier who doesn’t come back. You couldn’t find a song that’s more sensitive not just to the men who actually have to fight wars, but to the people at home who suffer as they wait for them.

Country music, despite what its detractors will tell you, is filled with nuance. But unfortunately, some of country’s most steadfast fans are also the very people who’d kill what’s great about it: These are people who can’t be bothered to listen between the notes of “Travelin’ Soldier” — particularly when it’s Toby Keith who’s spelling out what they really want to hear.

Singers aren’t always witty pundits or great thinkers. But I believe that, perhaps because they’re so used to using words in very specific ways, they sometimes have a knack for cutting to the core of our most unspeakable thoughts and feelings.

Maybe the American left would think more of Maines (if they think of her at all) if she hadn’t backed down and offered that apology. But by speaking out so spontaneously, and by saying words that hadn’t been mulled over or chewed over or processed to the point of meaning nothing, Maines took a step that few other contemporary country singers would have dared to. It doesn’t matter at all whether she did so out of naiveté. And what’s so naive, anyway, about thinking that as an American she should be free to speak her mind? The tradition of making incendiary statements generally belongs to rock ‘n’ rollers, but as Maines knows by now, there’s always a price to pay for saying what you really think. The Beatles were bigger than Jesus. It was coming right out and saying it that got John Lennon into trouble.

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>