Protesting the Dixie Chicks

YOU WANT TO KNOW HOW to start some #!@%? Ask Dixie Chicks singer, Natalie Maines. Her infamous one-liner attacking the President ignited a fire-storm of controversy, enraging their fan base, inspiring a nationwide corporate ban of their music, and ultimately turning country music into one long episode of professional wrestling. In Christopher Fleeger's funny, and frequently ominous film, PROTESTING THE DIXIE CHICKS, country music fans reveal their quirky conceptions of freedom and patriotism, as well as the anger and violence which accompany the impulse to defend them. Here, we discover a distinctive American discourse on discourse itself. When and where is criticism acceptable? And by whom? If you think you've heard it all before, you've never been to a Dixie Chicks concert.

On May 1st, 2003, with much of the normally sedate country music community outraged by Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines' critical dig at the President, filmmaker Christopher Fleeger began an odyssey across the country, interviewing protesters at concerts and radio stations. What emerged is a fascinating look at a distinctly American discourse on discourse itself. Fleeger's film, "Protesting the Dixie Chicks," is not that other Dixie Chicks documentary being released by The Weinstein Company, which examines the impact of this controversy on the careers of these famous celebrities, but is instead a film that focuses on the people who were inspired to add their voices and views to this storm of controversy. Importantly, the film has also captured a crucial moment when many Americans sought to battle dissenting voices, believing it was the highest form of patriotism.

With a vicious debate circulating around a simple question, whether or not it was proper for Natalie Maines to have criticized the President on foreign soil, one might expect to find homogenous sound bites - particularly in the conservative country music community. However, in the rich pageant of characters of "Protesting the Dixie Chicks," one begins to feel that the experiment of American civilization has been executed like the party game where a message is passed through whispers and arrives at its destination more than a little distorted. Time after time characters appear with a truly peculiar version of an otherwise predictable ideal. More than once you may find yourself seduced by the music of these American voices, be they charming or sinister. Occasionally Fleeger's protesters speak their scariest truths when they are dead wrong, such as when one man asks "Where were you on 9-11? Do you remember? That's why our troops went to Iraq."

In one of the most energetic scenes in the film, we see two blond forty-somethings after a Dixie Chicks concert in Anaheim chatting with a handsome young Brit on holiday with some of his mates. When he admits that he has only a fuzzy idea of who the Dixie Chicks are and that the souvenir Dixie Chicks concert T-shirt he's wearing had simply been found in the street, cultures collide. "Protesting the Dixie Chicks" gives us its one legitimate chase scene as the women, embodying a full sense of American entitlement, decide to strip the boy on the spot. His mates rescue him and along the way we are treated to much good-natured international trash talking. The revolutionary war is, of course, invoked. The Americans are politely asked to try and speak English. At one point the Brits, seeking to retaliate against the politically motivated burning of Beatles records in the mid sixties, attempt to set fire to the coveted shirt but are thwarted by an "inferior American cigarette lighter." A window opens in the mayhem just long enough for the boy to share a few impressions from his American holiday, leavened thickly with a popular European sensibility that Americans have replaced money as the root of all evil. It's plain to see that all the participants in this moment of sport are having a blast, but when the boys finally tuck the ladies into their limo, kicking the doors and waving the t-shirt in the window one last time, the boy tosses out a final flippant taunt that hangs in the air like a menacing ghost. "Peace in the Middle East."

"Protesting the Dixie Chicks" is a portrait of a moment when the American dialogue was largely preoccupied with or distracted by concepts such as patriotism and support. A man in Nashville describes an audience's response to a Toby Keith (the Dixie Chick's antithesis in a running feud over patriotism) performance as bordering on Nazism. Later a woman in Memphis wearing an improvised bridal gown and Raybans says, "We still love the Dixie Chicks, if they'd just keep their mouths shut and just sing..." Earlier in the film a rowdy group of protesters from Tampa, resembling a pack of dogs caged behind security barricades, howl for conformity.

The film ends with an overview of public support for the President's handling of the war since Natalie's comment (peaking at the war's beginning at around 80% and dropping below 30% for the first time mid-summer 2006). Focusing on the dialogue that has taken place on Capitol Hill for the last three years, Fleeger highlights some of the key political statements regarding the war in Iraq. In stark contrast to much of the concert parking lot discourse, we hear from Senator John McCain at a commencement address, "Americans should argue about this war. If an American feels the decision was unwise, then they should state their opposition, and argue for another course. It is your right and your obligation. I would not respect you if you chose to ignore such an important responsibility."

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