Failure of initial apology for Bush insult led to victim strategy
I feel badly for James Blunt and Rascal Flatts, who felt the sharp end of the gramophone needle last night, thanks to the American recording industry’s determination to also stick it to George W. Bush. They even trotted out Al Gore to compliment the “entertainment community” – usually known for their penchant for Escalades and Gulfstreams – on their environmental activism (God, I hope it’s 20 below when he comes to Toronto next week).
The Dixie Chicks are to be congratulated, however, for successfully recovering from a potentially career-ending blunder, and rebranding themselves from record-breaking crossover band into courageous truth-tellers.
Their repositioning has been so successful, in fact, that most have forgotten that the single “Not Ready to Make Nice” and documentary “Shut Up and Sing” (which I have not seen) were the result of the failure of lead singer Natalie Maines’ initial attempt to “make nice” after this offhand comment to a London audience in 2003: “Just so you know, we're ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas,”
Maines actually did apologize shortly after, but the controversy did not blow over. It was just beginning. Angry country fans demanded that the Chicks be struck from country radio play lists and vowed to never buy their records or concert tickets again. The Chicks decided to make soup out of the vegetables being hurled in their direction: Maines retracted her apology, and the band famously posed nude for the cover of Entertainment Weekly with phrases such as “free speech” and “censorship” painted on their bodies. Later came a low-level feud with aggressively patriotic country singer Toby Keith.
Frankly, I didn’t give a hoot about Natalie Maines’ opinion about Bush then and I don’t now. Even before the Iraq war, it was rare that a month went by without some celebrity making a vicious personal comment about Bush. Just last night, "60 Minutes" did a profile of singer Norah Jones, noting that one of the songs on her new album contains a lyric referring to Bush, “maybe he’s not deranged.” Ha ha.
But for me, what raised the Chicks above the usual Robin Williams-Alec Baldwin-Sean Penn din is their portrayal of themselves as victims of censorship, simply because their fans chose to exercise their freedom to vote with their dollars, and radio stations with their airtime.
Their donning of hair shirts (to be removed only for nude cover shots) insults and trivializes the genuinely silenced, such as the Cubans and Iranians who are jailed and/or tortured for criticizing their leaders and regimes. But what about the death threats? Celebrities get death threats all the time.
The fact that the Chicks were able to successfully portray themselves as victims and thus recover from their own carelessness, should give hope to anyone who is afraid that 9/11 signalled the end of the public’s appetite for self-pitying public figures, and the unquestioned sympathy owed to anyone who’s gone through a public embarrassment.
Indeed, since this incident we have been treated to the verbal meltdowns of Mel Gibson, Michael Richards and Isaiah Washington. Yes, some of their excuses and damage control tactics (rehab for homophobia?) strain credulity, but unlike the Chicks, they didn’t try to spin their screw-ups into a condemnation of vast segments of the American public. (Though Richards did lamely attempt to hitch his racist outburst to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.)
By permanently alienating so many country fans, the Chicks will likely never regain their previous level of success. But they have provided an interesting case study in turning raspberries into jam.