30 May 2006

Dixie Chicks : Honest-to-God Rebels on the Radio

Though they copped the attitude for years, Dixie Chicks have at last become true rebels. Their new album, “Taking The Long Way,” is one of the boldest, most defiant artistic statements a popular recording act has made in… well… in as long as I can remember. As many have noted, it would have been easy for them to release an apologetic record or one that pretended like the last few years haven’t happened. But they didn’t. Instead, they threw up six middle fingers at everyone who jeered them and then got the best revenge of all by making an amazing record.

But let me take a breath. Background first. While they were selling almost ten million copies apiece of their albums “Wide Open Spaces” and “Fly,” the Dixie Chicks were like the most outrageous girls in church. They made songs about getting laid and killing abusive husbands, but their sassy attitudes and multiple tattoos always seemed like a winking prank. Something to rustle grandma’s skirts as they appealed to masses of country music fans with their very traditional sound.

Now that doesn’t mean their music was safe or boring. To the contrary, the Chicks distinguished themselves by recording country tunes that were more steeped in musicianship than those of other superstar acts like Shania Twain and Tim McGraw, who were happily pulling their cowboy-pop off the Nashville assembly line. Ironically enough, despite their so-called rebellion, it was the Chicks’ musical traditionalism that made them stand out. They played their own fiddles. They chose excellent covers by unsung songwriters. They were making honest-to-god country music in an industry that was, at best, making nods to Patsy and Hank as it sashayed over to MTV.

And so the Dixie Chicks were easy to love. They respected their elders and their roots, but they were just hip enough to make the entire scene seem a little bit cooler. Again, though, this is not a slam. I love the albums mentioned above, and I’ve always liked the Chicks for asserting themselves as smart, witty women who feel no need to tart up their enormous talent or bend it to the latest musical trend. It just never really seemed like they were all that dangerous.

Then, of course, came what the group now calls “The Incident,” in which lead singer Natalie Maines publicly criticized President Bush at a 2003 concert for sending us to war. In response, most everyone in country lost their minds. Radio stations banned them and former fans burned their CDs. Toby Keith even became a superstar by deriding the Chicks and asserting that his brand of patriotism was the only way to go. He released a song called “The Angry American” about “putting a boot in [the] ass” of anyone who disagreed with our nation’s leaders, and an entire redneck culture sprang up to join him on the radio.

And so the Dixie Chicks sank into exile, names blackened for exercising free speech. Then the rest of the country started agreeing with them. Suddenly, hating the war was the thing to do. Even Faith Hill and Tim McGraw criticized President Bush, albeit for failing to support Katrina victims. It would have been easy for the tainted ladies to quietly say “I told you so,” release another album of lovely and respectable Dixie tunes, and sail right back to the top of the charts.

But instead, the group stayed pissed. Song after song on “Taking the Long Way” directly addresses the controversy, including the pointed single “Not Ready to Make Nice.” For the first time, the women co-write all the material themselves, and the album is more serious and focused than any they’ve released before. They are artists who, for the first time, have really got something to talk about.

And while everyone has noticed that the album sounds great—which it does—these women deserve a little more credit for rebelling so completely against the world they inhabited. It’s remarkable for country artists to disagree with a Republican president and then decry the ensuing backlash. Fewer people notice when Eddie Vedder impales a mask of Dubya on a mike stand—as he did just weeks after the Chicks uproar—because everyone expects alternative rockers to rage against the machine. Their fans are likely to share their left-leaning politics, so their acts, while likely genuine, don’t carry the same potential for outrage.

Country music, however, is the most conservative of the widely popular genres. The industry markets itself as a bastion for Christian conservatives, and many of its hits are about God (listen to Brad Paisley’s “When I Get Where I’m Going” or Martina McBride’s “God’s Will”). Another popular topic is the rejection of “highbrow” culture or liberal ideas (see “Politically Uncorrect” by Gretchen Wilson or “Honkytonk Badonkadonk” by Trace Adkins). In the same way that Pearl Jam is music for radical liberals, country is the soundtrack to your red state tour.

It’s no surprise, then, that so many country fans and station programmers turned on the “outlandishly” unsupportive words of Natalie Maines. That does not, however, make it right. Put simply, the Chicks got stabbed in the back. The very people who had supported these women when they gave lip service to rebellion made them into pariahs when they dared say something unpopular. Plenty of people showed themselves to be hypocritical defenders of American “freedom” when they excommunicated three women who spoke their minds.

And now many of those same people are chastising the Chicks for saying something about what happened. This article from UPI quotes a program director who calls them “self-indulgent and selfish” for lambasting the people who sent them death threats and otherwise disavowed them.

Meanwhile, though it debuted at number one on the Billboard album chart, sales for "Taking the Long Way" are much lower than for the opening weeks of previous releases.

Surely, the Dixie Chicks knew this continued backlash could happen, and good for them for refusing to shut up and be good in order to avoid it. It’s reprehensible that so many people are telling these women that they are not allowed to disagree with what radio listeners might think. Along with death threats, they also report being harassed in public and followed by the FBI. How can it possibly be “self-indulgent and selfish” to say that this makes them mad? To the contrary, I’d say it makes the Dixie Chicks much, much braver than their attackers. They are being bullied into suppressing their opinions, but they are refusing to let the bullies win. Maybe these radio programmers and country fans don’t realize how much they sound like thought police, but it’s a victory for the American ideal of independent thought that the Dixie Chicks decided to call them on it.

And who really cares if they sell three million records instead of ten? For once, major label artists have shown integrity (not to mention their record company). Call me naïve, but I think this is more than a marketing ploy. I think that this time, an honest statement made it into record stores. The excellence of the music suggests I’m right, and so does that fact that “Taking the Long Way” is being released into a country market that will never accept it and a pop/rock market that has no reason to embrace it.

I embrace the Chicks, though. I embrace their artistry and their message. I feel comforted that the Dixie Chicks have been so truly rebellious in a society that tries to say it’s rebellious to drink Mountain Dew.

And though my politics are probably clear, I’m not saying that I necessarily embrace the Chicks because they took a less conservative stance. What’s more impressive is the fact that they spoke their minds when they knew many of their fans wouldn’t appreciate it. If Pearl Jam stopped a concert to discuss how strongly they supported the war in Iraq, no doubt their fans would boo and CD sales would slump. And if Pearl Jam refused to stop speaking what they believed to be true and even made music about it, well there would be integrity in that as well. Standing up against the power of popular opinion is veryhard, particularly in the arts, and it’s worth a cheer when someone does it.

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(Don't You) Forget About Gin Blossoms... Snow Patrol Sure Didn't

Back in 1993, while you were listening to “Hey Jealousy” as you and your friends drove at breakneck speed to try that new “Schlotsky’s” sandwich everyone was talking about, did you know that Gin Blossoms were going to sound so awesome in thirteen years? Because they really do. Especially if you consider other songs that were popular then. “Informer”? “I’ll Never Get Over You (Getting Over Me)? Aural reminders that the sainted grunge era still found room for embarrassing crap.

Even great tacks like “Mr. Wendal” or “Two Princes” now sound rooted to their era. There’s something naïve about early nineties music—like people were just discovering dance remixes and hipster posing—and the artists seem sort of cute as they stumble along.

And it’s easy to understand how Gin Blossoms singles fit right in. There’s a breezy innocence to “Alison Road” and the aforementioned “Hey Jealousy” that make them sound like simple good fun. The melodies are pretty, and lead singer Robin Wilson has that supple white man’s voice that lets him belt out a power chorus without a drop of sweat Alongside the goofy, alterna-rock fun of The Proclaimers and The Cranberries (before they became insufferably self-serious), Gin Blossoms seemed like another part of the fizzy picture.

However, they sound at home next to plenty of current acts, too. Unlike so many of their contemporaries, Gin Blossoms don’t seem to have aged. If anything, there’s an entire movement of pale white rockers who seem to be aping the best of “New Miserable Experience.” Irish act Snow Patrol, for instance, just released an excellent new album called “Eyes Open,” and damn if the first song—“You’re All I Have”—doesn’t sound exactly like the follow-up to “Follow You Down” (did you note the clever wordplay there?). Those layered harmonies! Those jangly guitars! Those depressing lyrics set to up-tempo rhythms! Why, they owe Gin Blossoms a thank you note, if not a guest spot in their video! The same goes for Keane, Travis, Coldplay, and even the New Wave-style Killers. “Hey Jealousy” was the harbinger of a musical movement.

Or if not a movement, at least a fascinating coincidence. Because while everyone has been off anointing emo and garage and whatever the hell else, an entire phalanx of Blossoms-bands have emerged. All the abovementioned groups are notable for being mopers who wrap their ache in a pop blanket. They craft lush, beautiful arrangements for songs that follow a pleasing “verse-chorus-verse” format, yet their themes almost always involve heartbreak and inward-looking sadness. This is depression at its most hummable.

And, sure, you have to give credit to The Smiths and The Cure for pioneering such tuneful gloom. But it was Gin Blossoms who polished the technique of their forbears into a format that was as suitable for the radio as it was for the blacklit recesses of your oh-so-private bedroom. What’s clearer now than in 1993 is that they had excellent songcraft. They were not cashing in on a gimmick (like Snow), nor did they ever sound self-consciously cool (like Spin Doctors). They were just good musicians with distressing thoughts.

Granted, you could also draw lines from, say, Snow Patrol to R.E.M or from The Killers to Duran Duran (Don’t laugh. It’s true). But Gin Blossoms—despite only releasing two studio albums—seem the most direct and recent ancestor of these pasty white boys. (Are women making this type of music? Besides Texas in 1997? Please let me know if they are.)

And good for all of us, really. Snow Patrol’s new album is astonishing. Every song has a grandeur that evokes a vivid emotion in me. Specifically, songs like “It’s Beginning to Get to Me” an “Counting Cars” make me feel like I’m running down, say, Twin Peaks in San Francisco, and looking over the city with the wind rushing in my face. It’s an electrifying, living sensation, and it’s only made deeper because all that energy comes from the purging of pain. For me, this is music that goes great in the background but also rewards me for paying close attention. That's also true of Keane's “Hopes and Fears” and the middle discs from Travis, “The Imaginary Band” and “The Man Who.” If this is what we get from the legacy of 1993, then we are lucky indeed.

Plus, listening to all this new music is the perfect reason to rediscover Gin Blossoms. You can make a mix of all these songs, old and new, and take it with you while you’re walking along in slightly gray, slightly rainy weather. Or while you’re cleaning up after a party that you wish hadn’t ended. Melancholy will sound beautiful.

And best of all, it will leave you with a chorus you can still remember when you’re in a better mood.


12 May 2006

On the Necessity of the Pop Music Blog

Take a look at this sweaty guy.

He is me.

This picture illuminates why I want to write this blog. It's the visual equivalent of how much I care about popular music.

I think about it all the time, and I want to discuss it with like-minded folks.

Which would be you.

Won't you join me as I roam the pop landscape? There's so much ground to cover, from rock to rap, from college folkies to all the dead hippies whose records my parents still love.

I want this website to be a place for thoughtful, exuberant discussions of pop. Let's discuss how we both feel and think about the songs, albums, and artists that matter.

Anything goes except rudeness, name-calling, or an inability to see that other people are allowed to disagree with your opinion. Beyond that, the gates are open. Let the discussion begin.