Friday, November 30, 2007

Malcolm cuts-and-pastes the Chicks

Malcolm has been rude about The First Post in the past, but he has to admit it musters a fine list of contributors. It doesn't give them much space in which to develop an argument, but let's be grateful for small mercies.

Today's was the headline piece by Charles Laurence, From Red State to Gap Red. This took precedence even over the ritual evisceration of Harriet Harman.

Laurence comments upon the way the Dixie Chicks moved from C&W fluffiness to being the darlings of liberals, on the back of one sentence by Natalie Maines:

"Just so you know, we're ashamed that President Bush is from Texas."

Whoaa! The Dixie Chicks were famously banned from the airwaves, concerts were cancelled, and death threats were taken absolutely seriously as Maines and her partners -- 'six strong hands on the steering wheel', as she sings -- retreated to their Texas ranches and their husbands in cowboy hats got ready to pull out the Winchester rifles.

And now -- onward and upward! --
Maines is among the latest celebs to be featured in the Gap Red 'You can Change the World' campaign. The ads appear in glossy magazines from People to Vanity Fair, arbiter of the New Establishment, which would have been unthinkable back when the Dixie Chicks were good ole girls pandering to the Country and Western mainstream.
As well as all that, there's a link to the trailer for last year's documentary, Shut Up and Sing.

Malcolm confesses to being a long-time fan, and has the Dixie Chicks recordings, from Thank Heavens for Dale Evans (1990) to Taking the Long Way (2007). The former of those, by the way, is off-the-catalogue and originals are changing hands at $100 a time. The album-covers alone tell a story:
  • from the down-the-bill, support-act saccharine and kitsch of 1990 to
  • Clinton's first (of, surely, at least three) Presidential Inaugural (they also did the Texas Governor Inaugural Gala in 1995 -- Yup, that's Dubya)
  • the commercial success of signing with Sony and Wide Open Spaces,
  • the gritty urban sophistication and realism of their latest stuff.
Nobody outside the hard-core Texan country-music community took a great deal of interest in the Chicks before they signed for Sony (which would come back to haunt them); what interest there was focused on their dress sense, which amounted to a pastiche of the rodeo gal.

Malcolm digs out a well-thumbed copy of the 1997 MusicHound Country Album Guide, to see what the opinion was then, and finds it worth quoting at length:
The original concept for Dallas' Dixie Chicks was a stroke of genius -- four female singer/songwriters and multi-instrumentalists with a penchant for conveying the peaceful yet picturesque quality of the Old West. It worked swingingly for the quartet's first tow locally produced CDs, 1990's Thank Heavens for Dale Evans and 1992's Little Ol' Cowgirl. Working from its bluegrass base -- banjo and mandolin figured prominently on those albums -- the Dixie Chicks recorded Western songs, country classics and a few revamped pop and soul nuggets. Sam Cooke's "You Send Me" is a totally different song on Little Ol' Cowgirl. Patsy Montana's "I Want to be a Cowboy's Sweetheart" is a wonderful part of Thank Heavens for Dale Evans. A few originals -- particularly the haunting "Aunt Mattie's Quilt" and the sassy "Pink Toenails" -- helped make them more than just a covers band. The package, though, was the Chicks' most irresistible selling point: picture four attractive women dressed in frilly Western gear, singing flawless four-part harmony and playing their fingers numb. Also, internal strife took its toll on the ensemble by the middle of 1992. Robin Macy, who had done the bulk of the song-writing, rejected the new, slicker, country-pop direction and exited in August. Down to a trio, the Chicks recorded another album, 1993's Shouldn't a Told You That, which presented a more commercial version of the original sound; essentially, the Chicks were trying to attract major label interest in Nashville. By the end of 1995 lead vocalist Laura Lynch was also gone, her departure shrouded in a myriad of rumors that she was booted out. Enter fresh-faced singer Natalie Maines, who radically changed the image of the group. Now, the Dixie Chicks is a trio of fresh-faced blondes dressed in 1990s clothing.
The result was a 12m seller: Wide Open Spaces. Eric O'Shea continues the narrative for
They went through a succession of lead singers before settling on Natalie Maines in the late-1990s. Maines' country pedigree is impressive, beginning with her father Lloyd Maines, a legendary pedal steel guitarist and studio luminary who has produced and played with Uncle Tupelo, Richard Buckner and Joe Ely, among others. With Maines in place, the Chicks dropped some of their bluegrass trappings in favor of a more conventional New Country sound. The fine-tuning paid off. Wide Open Spaces rocketed to the top of the charts, as did its follow-up Fly. But 2002's aptly titled Home found the girls returning to their bluegrass roots (despite the pop-friendly cover of Stevie Nicks' "Landslide"), which was a well-timed choice considering that by then, country music fans were caught up in old-timey fever thanks to the O Brother, Where Art Thou phenomenon. Top of the World Tour: Live was released in November of 2003, perfectly capturing the unstoppable energy and undying love for country music the Dixie Chicks exude on the live stage. Unfortunately, it was overshadowed and even boycotted by many media outlets after Maines test-drove the First Amendment on a London stage when she stated: "Just so you know, we're ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas." Following the short-lived Dixie Chicks boycott, the band released "I Hope" in 2005, a hit single recorded to garner charity funds for victims of Hurricane Katrina. Their seventh studio album, Taking the Long Way, was released in late May of 2006.
And that was about when Rolling Stone, through a piece by Christian Hoard, deigned to take note of the Chicks, and bring its readers up-to-date:
Nine-time Grammy-winners the Dixie Chicks will release their long-awaited new album, appropriately titled Taking the Long Way, on May 23rd.

"It's more of a rock record with country leanings than a country record with rock leanings," says Rick Rubin, who produced the Dixie Chicks' fourth studio album. "The Byrds, Tom Petty: Those are the points of reference."

Rubin met with the Chicks in the summer of 2004; he had seen them perform a concert that he describes as "punk-rock country." When he first met the band, it was moving beyond the fallout over singer Natalie Maines' criticism of President Bush, which resulted in a tide of hatred from country fans. "They had a platform to talk about important stuff," Rubin says. "We talked about personalizing the songs."

Rubin introduced the Dixie Chicks to a team of co-writers that included the Heartbreakers' Mike Campbell. Among the new songs is the likely first single and most provocative, "Not Ready to Make Nice," a plaintive, slow-burning track in which Maines asks, "How in the world can the words that I said/Send somebody over the edge?" Other standouts include "Baby Hold On," an acoustic rocker with John Mayer on guitar, and the roadhouse-style "Lubbock or Leave it."

The group attributes the warm, easy feel to Rubin's production style. "Rick's very much about capturing the moment," says Dixie Chick Emily Robison. "And if the moment's not happening, you forget it and come back tomorrow."

To complete "the story so far", last year's documentary by Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck, Shut Up and Sing, was generally well-reviewed by the liberal press (and by the cinephiles), even if most critics were at a loss to match the music and the politics. This reduced the New Times's Luke Thompson to cop out with:
Look, to be honest, I could watch 93 minutes of Natalie Maines doing housework. That she has fantastic vocal chops is a major bonus, and her disdain for Bush is merely icing atop a significantly layered cake.
Such a liberated new-man view from the alternative press!

Stephen Holden in the New York Times was, predictably more thoughtful and balanced, while still positive:

On the surface, “Shut Up & Sing” is a modest film with no obvious axes to grind. As it follows the Dixie Chicks around for three years, it takes Ms. Kopple’s usual route and lets events speak for themselves. No talking heads appear to debate the politics of the Bush administration...

The movie suggests how pop stars are marketed like politicians to targeted constituencies. Given the echo chamber of mass media feeding a public addiction to high drama, when an act like the Dixie Chicks goes against the beliefs of its “base” (to use a word favored by Republican strategists), reason is drowned out by noise, and there can be hell to pay.

The movie also implies that there is a double standard when it comes to celebrities’ speaking out: women are condescendingly assumed not to know their place.

Until he re-read that review, Malcolm had failed to register that the US rating of the film was 17+ "for language" (even in the UK, it was rated "15").

One of the most polemic UK reviews was Tim Robey's in the t style="font-style: italic;">Telegraph, expanding on that last point from Stephen Holden:

Shut Up and Sing is a music documentary with a difference. You don't have to love Texas-born country three-piece the Dixie Chicks, but you'll be in good company if you really hate them. Half of America thinks they're in league with Satan - or at least Saddam.

They've been branded "Dixie Sluts" and "traitors", boycotted on almost every country radio station across the States, and dislodged from a position of gold-star popularity - this is easily the most successful female rock band in history - to watch their ticket sales plummet...

It's not hard to detect an undertone of misogyny in the vilification. We live in an era which fully expects male stadium acts such as U2 to mount the soapbox, but, when this unassuming fem-rock trio try and get a word in, they're told to can it.

This a frank, and slightly scary film about one of America's most cherished democratic privileges - freedom of speech - and how you're more than welcome to it as long as you don't say anything controversial. Then you're off the air.

Malcolm makes no apology for liking the Chicks, and feels he now has the added justification that they are not just acoustic wall-paper. Now for that other non-apology:

I’m not ready to make nice.
I’m not ready to back down.
I’m still mad as hell and
I don’t have time to go round and round and round.
It’s too late to make it right,
I probably wouldn’t if I could,
Cause I’m mad as hell.
Can’t bring myself to do what it is you think I should.

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