by carl wilson

Clarification: Chix Trix Need Fix

13gram.jpg

I hadn't seen my colleague Robert Everett-Green's comment in response to my post about his Dixie Chicks/Grammys article until today. I want to clarify publicly that I in no way intended to insinuate that he was "a tool of the Patriot Act" or that his article served such ends. I thought his article presented a set of left-intellectual expectations about how politically engaged artists ought to present themselves, which I felt were unfair in their own right. That's what I meant by saying that the band was still being punished for breaking expectations. But I did not mean that one set of expectations was morally or forcibly equivalent to the other, and if my rhetoric was heavy-handed enough to make it seem so, I blush at my clumsiness and offer heartfelt apologies. I also felt his article was overly dismissive of the attacks that were made on the band in the past few years; the Patriot Act was raised only as context for that point, specifically because I assumed, and felt sure readers would see, that Robert abhors the Patriot Act and all it represents. I'm sorry if that was at all unclear.

[Edit: Further rehashing removed due to tediousness.]

I'm a great admirer of Robert's writing, of its seriousness and elegance, and feel proud to work at the same publication. My disagreement with the tone of one piece (at least a bit influenced by something not his own, its headline, "Celebrating the Pablum Protest") doesn't alter that admiration an iota. After all, good criticism should provoke lively and substantial debate, and my post was meant solely in that spirit.

| Posted by zoilus on Sunday, March 04 at 5:22 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (7)

 

COMMENTS

Carl - Yes, I was a little irked by some of what I read in your initial post, but not so much as to want to engage in a chapter-and-verse refutation. Hence the brevity of my response, which I offered in the spirit of a Man-Who-Came-To-Dinner, "I may vomit," retort. In retrospect, I should have realized that you might see a degree of anger in my words that I did not feel.

I didn't set out to criticize the Dixie Chicks for failing to satisfy "a set of left-intellectual expectations about how politically engaged artists ought to present themselves," as you say. I don't expect musicians or other artists to be public political actors. I don't know what Neko Case's politics are, and I don't care that she's less vocal about the affairs of the day than Billy Bragg is. What prompted my piece was the way the Grammy broadcast instructed us to believe that the Chicks are political artists, the way Joan Baez and Woody Guthrie were. Having Baez liken them to Guthrie was, I thought, a key moment in the evening, and the obvious frame for the awards heaped upon the group at the end of the night.

It seemed worthwhile to examine that claim, made by the Academy on the Chicks' behalf, by looking at what the Chicks did and said after Maines' one-liner in London. I think it's clear that they didn't set out to cause a fuss, and reached for the most expedient means to defuse it (Maines' apology, and her characterization of her remark as a joke). Only when that didn't work, and the broader political mood shifted, did they decide to "wear" what Maines had said. The group and their management acted opportunistically to save the situation and their careers, and I don't fault them for that (I don't admire them for it either).

But if they're not political artists (and I repeat: there's no substantive political material on their latest disc), why did the Academy want us to think that they were? You know my answer, though I should add that by invoking Neil Young I wasn't suggesting that he should have gotten more recognition at the awards because he made a political record. I think that outcome would have been no more satisfactory than if the 2004 Grammy awards had rewarded Toby Keith simply because he was writing songs from the other, then-dominant, end of the political spectrum.

Some of your other comments, eg. about my having denigrated country music as a whole, make no sense to me. I just don't know where you think you saw that in my piece. I can assure you that I don't think the Chicks moved up any sort of musical hierarchy by hiring Rick Rubin to make them more attractive to a rock audience. I would have thought that the fact that I could praise the Raconteurs one day, and review the first part of the Ring cycle a couple of days later (as I did last fall) might prove that hierarchies of that sort don't interest me. That's why I described your reading as sloppy, by which I meant that you seemed to be responding more to your own assumptions, than to what I actually said.

But I defend everyone's basic right to do their own reading and come to their own conclusions, however wack they may be! In short, no harm done, no grudges held. I value your work, and am glad to have you as a colleague.

Posted by Robert EG on March 7, 2007 1:19 AM

 

 

Since the mainstream music business has only come in to "support" the Chicks after the controversy was basically over, rather than standing up for them in any way when the serious attacks were happening, the whole affair just carries a sense of smugness and borrowed glory. But I don't want to exaggerate the degree to which that's directed at the country field as such - it's a side effect, not the prime effect.

There were people in country who stood up in support of the Chicks' right to speak at the time - Vince Gill, Faith Hill - but certainly far too few. Then again, how many comedians or TV personalities stood up in any serious way for Bill Maher when he was Dixie Chicked out of his TV gig awhile after Sept 11? When the heat is on, commercial entertainers in general don't tend to act so brave.

Posted by zoilus on March 5, 2007 10:22 AM

 

 

Carl, you're right to extract the racist usages of country from its lively & humane interactions with the daily life of family, work, home, and the rest; and I share your anger at Hollywood's (and Jay Leno's) bigotry against white southerners and the working poor. I understand what you're saying about Hollywood's belatedness in embracing the Chix, but just what should they do instead? The country music industry treated them like traitors. They got death threats. Did the country music industry do anything to try to calm the situation, to stand up against the people terrorizing the Chix, to tell people to knock it off, to say that, "Hey, in America, people have the right to disagree"? Maybe they did, and maybe I'm just unaware of it.

I guess treating this as a matter of sorrow rather than gloating would have been better. But it's hard to take a conciliatory stance with people who whip up hatred and condone death threats against others. It's frankly beyond me.

Posted by john on March 5, 2007 1:57 AM

 

 

Complicated, John, exactly. Country may be associated with "the culture of white supremacy," but it's also associated with rural and working-class people, housewives, truck drivers, service workers, especially in the south and especially in non-urban areas. It's also associated with various values around patriotism, work, family, fun, etc. etc. which shouldn't be reduced to racism. Politicians use country music as a symbol of solidarity with those people, not just as coded racism, although those things can overlap and intertwine. As for "sectionalist bigotries," for every country song denouncing city people you can find plenty of rock songs and Hollywood movies & TV making fun of hicks. (And by the way, you'll find that openly acknowledging the suburban/exurban context is standard in country songs these days.) There's plenty of ressentiment to go around.

For the coastal music biz to shake the Chicks' hands, four years late, with the attitude, "Congratulations, you're well out of that country-music ghetto, welcome to the enlightened classes," implying the Chicks have come out ahead, is to assume they didn't care about being part of the country field and don't feel a sense of exile from it. Country music was better off with them than it is without them, and they were better off with country music than they are without it. Of course, the fact that they are able to carry on their career and be seen to do so successfully is better than if they couldn't. But the Chicks' story served to harden the ideological and regional divides you're talking about, John, and from that point of view the Grammys were just another step in that process, not a salve or a solution.

Posted by zoilus on March 4, 2007 9:11 PM

 

 

That was a pretty intense and probably unnecessary self-sonning, Carl.

Posted by KS on March 4, 2007 8:11 PM

 

 

To clarify: By "honest bigotry," I was referring to Wilson's honesty in ID-ing her fan base as exurban and suburban, rather than the usual country fiction that country fans live in, you know, the "country." Not to take anything away from her rural fans -- it's just that they are numerically few.


Posted by john on March 4, 2007 1:24 PM

 

 

[[Explanatory note from Carl: The first few comments here relate to the excess-rehashing middle bit of the post that I later decided to cut. One of the things I said was that an unpleasant subtext of the Grammys was the coastal pop-music industry putting the country industry in its "place," which occasioned this response.]]

I'm confused. Country radio -- and many many thousands of fans -- punished the Chix for their honest revulsion against Bush. What is wrong with putting that tendency in its place?

Country music has . . . for many decades . . . (I almost said "always") been associated with the culture of white supremacy. In 1968, the majority of country stars backed George Wallace, and Chet Atkins was one of Nashville's only prominent liberals. American politicians to this day use country music as a sign of cultural solidarity with white supremacists. George Allen and George Bush spring to mind as people who single out country as their favorite music, and hipster-endorsed country rockers like Gretchen Wilson (some of whose songs I like) use their platform explicitly to reinforce sectionalist bigotries, in her case the honest -- and politically and commercially expedient -- bigotry of the exurbs against the cities, in her song denouncing the California coast.

This is not to say that liking country makes you racist, or that all country musicians are racist, or that there's anything wrong with country music in itself. And I agree that mainstream culture has a tendency to scapegoat the "white trash" for deep-seated institutional racism. And I'm wary of bigotry against rural people, and stereotyping against white southerners. But the political uses of country music sure do make it complicated.

Posted by john on March 4, 2007 1:00 PM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson