I was watching 60 Minutes the other night. I love that fiesty old kermudgin, Andy Rooney and his insightful witticisms. Not really, but I thought that sounded good.
Anyway, I tuned in to catch Steve Croft’s interview with the Dixie Chicks. I’m no country fan or a fan of the Chicks for that matter, but the whole “I’m ashamed the president is from Texas” flap that happened three years ago makes for an interesting diversion on a Sunday night.
Croft pressed singer Natalie Maines over and over about her choice to say what she said and to, with co-writers and bandmates, write a decidedly unapologetic, even pissed off record three years later.
What I found to be interesting was the double standard that seems to exist in music. If this, for example, Trent Reznor or Bono that said this, no one would bat an eyelash. We’d all just sit around and say, “Typical rebellious rock musicians.” But, when a popular country singer blasts away at her target audience…uh oh.
What I find most intriguing about this – and even moreso after reading reviews of the first single, “Not Ready to Make Nice,” on iTunes – is the fact that most of the complaints don’t really center on the comments Maines made or on her right to speak her mind. They focus, instead, on how the band has chosen to write songs about anger, frustration and other such uncomfortable themes; and more importantly, how it will effect the band’s career and how it will alienate fans.
Maines said during the interview a couple of times that they don’t sit and plan out songs and arrangements based on what they think people will like. They write what they feel. And this seemed as shocking a concept to Croft as it it did to many former fans and reviewers.
Look, I know that country music has always been a heartland kind of music, but you can’t look at the beer drinkin’, hell raisin’ artists of the past and tell me that they sat around composing songs only because they thought people would love them. In fact, most people didn’t at the time.
Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Mearle Haggard, George Jones, the king of them all, Johnny Cash? These guys didn’t give a crap about what people thought. They wrote what they knew and how they felt. When Cash sung about Fulsom Prison, he wasn’t kidding! And they didn’t have to care because the country music biz wasn’t the mainstay of middle America like it is today.
Maines also brought up honesty in music. What a novel concept. You mean that writing something that you feel is more important than pandering to demographics? Hard to imagine a creative endeavor being anything but creative, but listening to country and pop radio today quickly disspells the myth that popular music is still as creative as it was in the past.
There is great music out there – lots of it. But, it isn’t in the mainstream and it certainly isn’t in the mainstream of country music.
And I should mention that it is not uncommon for bands to consider their audience when writing and performing. In fact, it happens a lot. But the most memorable songs and recordings are those that were driven by desire and artistry rather than the bottom line.
Marvin Gaye was told by Motown chief Barry Gordy that he should abandon his idea for a protest album because it would kill his career. That was right before Gaye released What’s Going On, one of the greatest and most influential r&b/pop albums ever recorded. If Gaye would’ve chosen the safe route, we wouldn’t be blessed with such a masterpiece.
When we, as fans, become shocked at the actions of musicians because they don’t appease an audience or cater to the lowest common denominator, it further bears out the belief I have that, in today’s world, celebrity is far more important than artistry. To some degree, that has always been true. After all, they don’t call it POP music for nothing.
But, we seem to have reverted to a time when stars were manufactured, not discovered. Now, singers are expected to look great, say the right things, sing well, dance well, do the right kind of songs…oh, and they should be able to act, walk a red carpet in style and always smile for the cameras. Who cares if they are mediocre at virtually everything? At least they’ll look fabulous doing it.
While I don’t expect to become a fan of the Dixie Chicks’ music, I do applaud their decision to be who they are in spite of the pressure they are under to cave and play nice. I’ll take the real thing – a hard livin’ bad ass like Cash over a wannabe poser like Toby Keith – any day of the week and twice on Sundays. Pah’dnah.