article originally appeared at http://www.salon.com/ent/music/feature/2003/04/28/chicks_sawyer/
Chicks Against the Machine
Forget the apology Maines issued to Bush a few days after the Associated Press first reported her words, or the stories that her comments had brought the band to the point of dissolution. Offered the chance to take it all back and make nice, the Dixie Chicks instead chose to turn the interview around. Sawyer wanted answers; the Chicks offered questions, hard questions. Sawyer wanted to talk about the damage they may have done to their career; the Chicks talked about the damage being done to America in an era where Vice President Dick Cheney has proclaimed "You're either with us or against us."
The band may have gotten more attention posing nude for the cover of the current Entertainment Weekly, with phrases like "Dixie Sluts," "Saddam's Angels" and "Traitors" stamped on their bodies. But it was the stubborn refusal they showed Sawyer that cut deepest. Yes, Maines, as she did in her apology, said that her statement was "disrespectful" and "the wrong wording with genuine emotion and question and concern behind it." But she didn't apologize for those questions. "I ask questions. That's smart, that's intelligent, to find out facts," she said.
The sisters, Emily and particularly Martie, not only defended Maines but amplified her comments. Given an hour for prime-time damage control, the Dixie Chicks instead stopped the network cheerleading for the war dead in its tracks and expressed the honest confusion many people are feeling far more effectively than any of the strident rhetoric that has emanated from the left as well as the right.
With the Chicks not following the preset P.R. script for smoothing over a public brouhaha, it was up to Sawyer to provide the pornography. You couldn't find it in her connecting narration, which was simply the typical pap that passes for writing in television journalism -- "Freewheeling ... high-spirits ... the famously untamed lead singer ... the rebel daughter of a renowned steel-guitar player ... the refined sisters ... in that friendly, country way, we know all about their lives ... There would be frightening threats, towering rage, in the words of another of their hit songs, a landslide." The pornography came from the way Sawyer, frustrated in her attempt to offer the band up for ritual sacrifice, chose to stand in for the bullies.
Since Maines' comment, the band has received death threats and had round-the-clock security posted at their homes. The people who attend their upcoming concert tour will have to pass through metal detectors. The threats haven't just come from yahoos, like the caller to a radio show heard during the "Primetime" interview who said, "I think they should send Natalie over to Eye-rack, strap 'er to a bomb, and just drop 'er over Baghdad." A San Antonio DJ claimed to know where Maines lived and said a posse should go over to her house and straighten her out. And in South Carolina, where the band will open its tour later this week, a legislator rose in the state assembly and said, "Anyone who thinks about going to that concert ought to be ready, ready, ready to run away from it."
Sawyer didn't descend to this level of bullying. And she didn't adopt the strategies of the higher thugs like Bill O'Reilly, who simply talk their opponents into submission. Sawyer's tactics were subtler, more insidious. Instead of journalist, the role Sawyer chose to play was the junior high school principal who aims to shame you into jelly with a combination of starch and steel.
From the beginning, Sawyer aimed to put the Dixie Chicks in
their place. She began the show by saying, "They're not
exactly the people your civics teacher would expect to find at
the center of a raging debate over free speech in America."
These are just country singers, after all, she was saying. Who
would expect thought from them? And then, at every turn, the
Dixie Chicks simply outthought Diane Sawyer.
Schoolmarm Sawyer wasn't having it. The aghast subtext of nearly every question was, "I knew you were spirited girls, but what could you possibly have been thinking?" It was all faux, of course, the journalist as devil's advocate, but Sawyer's condescension was real, certainly not ameliorated by her midshow comment that she grew up in Kentucky and loves country music. It reached a pinnacle of sorts when Sawyer repeated Maines' comments and asked, "Ashamed? Ashamed?" as if contrition were the only appropriate response to questioning the president of the United States. And when she didn't get contrition from Maines, she turned on Maguire and Robison, expressing disbelief that "neither of you listening to [Maines' remarks]" were shocked, as if they had all just taken part in the locker-room scene from the movie "Carrie."
Finally, Sawyer said, "I feel something not quite wholehearted when you talk about apologizing for what you said about the president." It's a moment that can stand with the great scene in Frederick Wiseman's documentary "High School," when a teacher rejects a young boy's apology because "There's no sincereness [sic] behind it." This was the assertion of an authority that aims to strip its target of all self-respect, all ability to think for themselves.
The trouble, though, with playing devil's advocate as enthusiastically as Sawyer did is that you begin to ape the nonthought of the role you are playing. Setting the stage for Maines' comments, Sawyer talked of the week before the war started and said, "Seventy percent of Americans were clear that the protesters were wrong." Look at the language. Not "Seventy percent of Americans expressed the opinion that the protesters were wrong," but "Seventy percent of Americans were clear that the protesters were wrong." Case closed. And then later, "But even people who said it's fine to question the war were shocked that someone would stand on a stage and attack the commander in chief." Certainly that is what many people felt. But Sawyer presents the shock as if it were logical. It's all right to question government policy -- which, in Sawyer's formulation, somehow comes into being of its own accord -- but not the person who formulates the policy and puts it into action. And not "the president" but "the commander in chief."
Sawyer seemed on a personal mission here to defend George
W. Bush. Maines said, of the buildup to war, "I had a lot
of questions that I felt were unanswered," and later, "I
just personally felt like, 'Why tomorrow?' It's not like I don't
ever want you to go over there ... why can't we find the chemical
weapons first?" Sawyer then asked, if they were against
the war, what they would have done about Iraq. Calling it an
unfair question, Maguire said it was not her place to make foreign
policy decisions. Sawyer replied, "If you're going to criticize
the president for his own decision, you'd better have your own."
Had Sawyer been interviewing someone who supported the war, she wouldn't have felt the need to ask what battle plan they believed the Pentagon should have adopted, and it would have been ludicrous if she had. But obedience to power would not, in Sawyer's view, have necessitated such a question. It's not surprising then that after Maguire read this quote from Theodore Roosevelt, "To announce that there must be no criticism of the president or that we are to stand by the president right or wrong is not only unpatriotic and servile but is morally treasonable to the American public," the camera simply cut away. There was nothing Diane Sawyer could say to that.
One of the remarkable things about the interview was the Chicks'
lack of invective -- toward the troops, toward people who supported
the war and even toward Bush. What they expressed about the president
was honest disappointment. At one point, Maines imagined what
she would have liked to have heard Bush say about the protesters.
"You know," she imagined the president saying, "I
saw them. I appreciate the sentiment that they're coming from.
I appreciate that these are passionate citizens of the United
States. But I feel, I really feel, that this is the right thing
to do." Sawyer attempted to counter by saying the president
had affirmed the right to protest.
At one point in the interview, Maines said, "People have died to give you this right. That's what I'm doing. I'm using that right." But she is speaking at a particularly ugly time in American history, when using that right is enough to get you branded a traitor. As Dick Cheney has said, "You're either with us or against us."
"That's not true -- it's not true," Maines said of Cheney's comment. Though to many Americans, it is true. This weekend, I was walking through the central New York town of Clinton and came upon a flier in a store window for a rally in support of the troops. The legend on the top of the flier read "Loyalty Day." The meaning was clear: If you don't support the war, you're a disloyal American.
This is what public discourse has come down to in America
right now. The litany is depressing and familiar, from Ari Fleischer's
admonition to Bill Maher after 9/11 that Americans have to watch
what they say, to the suspension of habeas corpus for thousands
of people who've been arrested, to the even more onerous dissolution
of civil liberties that would come under the PATRIOT II act.
In the New York Times on April 27, Thomas Friedman wrote, "It
feels as if some people want to use this war to create a multiparty
democracy in Iraq and a one-party state in America."
Wreszin writes, "Anyone seriously engaged in activist
politics wants to develop a constituency and see it grow. But
did Kazin expect [Martin Luther] King to communicate with the
average white citizen in racist Mississippi and Cicero, Illinois?"
The vision of politics that this statement reveals is remarkable.
Wreszin apparently believes that Martin Luther King was preaching
only to the choir, that he didn't try to communicate to the people
who disagreed with him. (How then, you wonder, did he expect
to change anything?) It's the opposite of the belief that politics
is about engagement, and an affirmation of a politics that speaks
only to true believers. In other words, it's a rejection of everything
that it reasonably means to be political.
It's not just the clarity and persistence of what they've said that marks their bravery, but who they are. As "Primetime" pointed out, they are hardly the only celebrities to have spoken out against the war. The show noted that Susan Sarandon had been disinvited from a United Way fundraiser, and that her partner, Tim Robbins, had been barred from a celebration of "Bull Durham" at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. But nobody is bulldozing cassettes of Sarandon and Robbins' movies, or Sean Penn's, who took a trip to Iraq a few months back. Nobody is boycotting "The West Wing," although Martin Sheen is a longtime activist. And nobody is burning Michael Moore's book "Angry White Men." Not to suggest that those celebrities haven't taken grief, but it's no surprise when Sarandon or Robbins or Sheen or Moore speak out against the war. That's a logical action, given their very public politics.
But none of these people reach as wide an audience as the Dixie Chicks, who are the biggest-selling female recording artists of all time. When my Salon colleague Stephanie Zacharek wrote a few weeks back that the backlash against the Chicks was certainly due in part to the traditional conservatism of country music, she got letters accusing her of painting country fans as a bunch of ignorant hicks. Those responses fail to take into account the simple fact of the disapproval that has traditionally been leveled at country stars who don't toe the line.
In the '60s, after saying he was a fan of the Beatles and recording versions of Chuck Berry's "Memphis" and "Johnny B. Goode," Buck Owens took out an ad in a Nashville fan magazine called "Pledge to Country Music" where, among other things, he said, "I Shall Sing No Song That Is Not a Country Song." Johnny Cash alienated many country fans with songs like "The Ballad of Ira Hayes" and later protest numbers like "Man in Black" and "Singin' in Vietnam Talkin' Blues" (an amazing song that has much to say about how you can be against a war and care about the safety of the troops). That didn't fit in with a format where a song like Merle Haggard's "Okie From Muskogee" (reactionary as hell and still a great song) could he a huge hit, or where, at the height of Watergate, Nixon was welcomed by Roy Acuff onto the stage of the Grand Ole Opry.
The simple fact is that country plays to a huge demographic,
and often an older one, and the majority of Americans support
the war. It was inevitable that the Dixie Chicks were bound to
have, among their fans, people who would be upset by any antiwar
statements. In the "Primetime" interview, Maguire talked
about trying to convert friends to country music, people who
said, "That's redneck music, those people are so backward
and conservative." It was obvious how that attitude pained
her. But it's hardly painting a large segment of the country
audience as rednecks to acknowledge the conservatism of country
On March 20, RCA Nashville publicity sent out an e-mail headed "Sara Evans Voices Her Views in Glamour Magazine," in which the country singer is quoted as saying, "I trust [President Bush] to do whatever is necessary to protect our nation from al-Qaeda, Saddam Hussein and other terrorists. It's disheartening to me to hear negativity about our President during this highly critical time -- and it is especially disheartening to hear comments made outside the United States. Republican or Democrat, we have an immediate duty as Americans to rally around our President and troops." Wonder whom she was talking about?
For all the talk about how the Dixie Chicks have destroyed
their career, people haven't pointed out (or pointed out tangentially,
as Sawyer did) that "Home" is still No. 3 on the country
charts and selling about 33,000 copies a week, and that most
of the shows on their upcoming tour have sold out. It makes no
business sense for country radio to ban the band, but I think
that the boycott was just the excuse that country radio was looking
for to stick it back to the Dixie Chicks. The trio had already
challenged the format with "Long Time Gone," the first
single from "Home." One of the verses went "We
listen to the radio to hear what's cookin'/ But the music ain't
got no soul/ Now they sound tired but they don't sound haggard/
They got money but they don't have cash/ They got Junior but
they don't have Hank."
Given their huge success -- which shows no signs of dissipating
-- you have to be a special kind of ass to claim, as some have
done, that all this has been a bid for publicity. The biggest
stars in country music didn't need publicity, especially coming
off an album that debuted at No. 1 on the pop charts and stayed
there for weeks. You would have to be very cynical or very stupid
to believe that anyone would choose the kind of publicity that
would bring them death threats.
I don't mean to lessen the determination to find their own voice that characterized riot-grrrl bands like Bikini Kill, and Heavens to Betsy, Excuse 17, and that still characterizes Sleater-Kinney. But the fringe offers a safer place for people to pursue that voice. As the Dixie Chicks have seen, there is more at stake for mainstream performers who decide not to play by the rules. Implicitly, they call everything around them into question. And so it seems a harbinger when you go back and listen to "Home" and hear Natalie Maines sing "You don't like the sound of the truth/ Coming from my mouth ... I don't think that I'm afraid anymore to say that I would rather die trying," or see the roadside sign on the back of the CD booklet "We Are Changing the Way We Do Business."
But it's not just the terms of their own success, or even the terms of pop music, in which the Dixie Chicks are causing tremors. It's the very terms in which public discourse is conducted -- or not conducted -- in America at the moment. "The people who are calling for a boycott are also exercising their right to free speech," some are bound to write to me. Of course they are. But I question anyone's dedication to free speech when they express it by trying to shut down other voices -- not by engaging them or debating them or making a case why they're wrong, but just trying to shut them down. "In wartime only the clandestine press can be truly free," Marcus wrote in an earlier essay about punk. For all the willingness of the mainstream press to roll over and frolic at the feet of the Bush administration, for all the ways in which Bush and Ashcroft are using the Constitution as a piece of toilet paper, I do not believe that a fascist takeover is imminent in America. That is an excuse to shy away from the work that needs to be done to defeat Bush and restore the civil liberties he has trashed.
What I do believe is that for all the fear in the air, fear
of the terror without and the repression within, there is also
open to us at this moment the chance of exhilaration. Freedom
may never seem so alluring as when it is most threatened, when
the Republic reaches a moment where, as Norman Mailer wrote in
1968, it can bring forth "the most fearsome totalitarianism
the world has ever known ... or a babe of a new world brave and
tender, artful and wild." There's exhilaration in any moment
when the country has the choice of living up to either the best
or the worst version of itself. I'm grateful to the Dixie Chicks
for reminding us of that exhilaration, for carrying on, aware
of the social limits that have been placed on doubt and dissent,
and still insisting that questioning and digging for facts are
the mark of patriotism.