Friday, December 12, 2008

Not Ready To Make Nice by the Dixie Chicks

Multiple choice:

If a popular singer that you like makes a joke about a politician that you support, which is an appropriate response?

a. disagree with the comments but still support the artist’s
b. boycott the artist’s music and dispose of any of the artists merchandise that you may own
c. send a threat stating you will shoot the artist dead during a performance

If you chose “a,” I agree with you as I look to musicians for their art and not their political opinions. If you chose “b,” I disagree with you but I completely respect and understand your choice to not support someone that makes statements that you disagree with. If you chose “c,” then I am concerned about your lack of moral judgment and strongly suggest that you seek professionally help for your inclination to threaten people’s lives for what they say.

In 2003, after the United States invasions of Iraq, Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks stated in front of a live audience in London, “Just so you know, we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas.” Natalie Maines made her comment during a time when President Bush had some of the highest approval ratings of any United States president. At that time, few Americans spoke out against the war in Iraq and unlike now when it almost seems fashionable to criticize President Bush, it was not common to make jokes about the President.

I’m not going to get into my opinion about Bush or the war in Iraq, that’s not the point of this post. But what I do what to point out is the shameful reactions by many Americans who disregarded the Natalie Maines rights to free speech. Yes, freedom comes with responsibility and as much as Natalie had a right to make her comment, people had a right to disagree, but no one had the right organize illegal radio boycotts and send death threats to the Dixie Chicks.

In reaction to all the fervor and criticism the Dixie Chicks did what they did best, create music. In 2006, the released the album Taking The Long Way which featured songs reacting to the controversy including “Not Ready To Make Nice.”

“Not Ready To Make Nice” is a song that refuses to be ignored. The lyrics are direct and raw. The background instruments have a clarity and immediacy that instantly draws the focus to the singer. The song takes us on a journey through Natalie’s feeling playing with our expectations of the tradition song form. The song starts with a first verse, then a chorus and then the second verse. Halfway through the second verse the music changes and it builds to a climax at the end of the verse. This leads into an instrumental break that brings soars into the following chorus. Climaxes in popular music are more often in bridges or choruses. You can make the argument that the build up in the middle of the second verse is actually the bridge. If that is the case, it is still unusual, as this bridge cuts the second verse short.

One of the key instruments in the building to the climax is the violin. It starts playing long notes and then transitions into chords on every other beat. Next, the violin plays these chords on every beat and finally the chords double in their speed. Right before the instrumental break slowly another violin line enters with a long note, getting louder and releasing into a soaring melody. When chords are played on a violin, they have an aggressive almost grainy quality to them and when they speed up it creates an driving tension making the release of the following violin melody line that much more satisfying.

Natalie Maines has a big voice. She sings with so much resolve that it seems to lack restraint at times. But moments like this build up to the climax remind us of the skill in her singing. When she starts “I made my bed. . .” she sings the notes with a certain swing by giving push to the certain words (i.e. made, baby, no). She keeps her voice gentle and open until she hit “sad, sad story” when adds an edge of insistence to her voice. Natalie hits the first syllable of “daughter” pulling the pitch flat on purpose. Instead of resolving the note by raising the pitch up into tune, she stays flat on that pitch creating tension between her voice and the harmony. She continues to maintain this flat pitch while adding a slight edge to her voice. Instead of emphasizing syllables with a push as she does earlier, she starts emphatically punching words out turning her swing of her voice into a declaration.

She twists the word “send” mixing her singing with a tortured scream. Finally, she raises the pitch back up in this line but maintains the intensity. “Write me a letter, sayin’ that I better” are closer to being spoken then sung. Natalie lightens up her voice lifting at the end of both of these lines before slamming down on “shut up and sing.” At this point, Natalie has reached the height of her intensity and the instrument take over the final steps to the climax. Natalie begins singing “over” with a harsh scream like tone, which opens up and clears to a full and pure tone as she resolves the held note downward.

The lyrics in this song are clear and direct. If know the story there is no doubt what she is talking about. Even if you don’t it is still a powerful statement about regret, resolve, independence and empowerment.

The Dixie Chicks represent the best in popular music. They are true musicians. All three play their instruments at a high level and are accomplished songwriters. They are true artists. There music shows invention, development, courage and an uncompromising dedication to creating genuine and meaningful art. And they are inspiring people, who have accomplished amazing feats in their music but feel their priority in life to each other and their families.

In 2006 Academy Award winning director Barbara Kopple released her documentary on the Dixie Chicks, Shut Up And Sing. This film followed the Dixie Chicks from before the comment on push was made all they way through the making of Taking The Long Way. This is a phenomenal film that I recommend to everyone. This film is not just for Dixie Chicks or music fans but for anyone interested the power of friendship and witnessing three phenomenal woman working through an unimaginable situation.

Martie’s comments twenty seconds into this clip sum up what is so powerful about this group and “Not Ready To Be Nice.”

Martie, Natalie and Emliy, you are my heroes and thanks for never giving up and sharing your music and yourselves with the world.

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