Monday, May 22, 2006

Dixie Chicks, Protest Music, Blah, Blah, Blah

I’m not quite sure who’s managing the Dixie Chicks these days, or if they’ve slipped into some strange vacuum where they’ve taken total control of their image, which is generally a bad idea for any recording artist. But the hype leading up to the release of their new album on Tuesday has a very strange ring to it that doesn’t bode well for them.

A few quotes pulled from recent articles:

Natalie Maines, in an article from the Sunday New York Times (5/21/06), addressing country radio: “Do you really think we're going to make an album for you and trust the future of our career to people who turned on us in a day?”

Martie Maguire, in Time magazine article (5/29/06 issue): “"I'd rather have a smaller following of really cool people who get it, who will grow with us as we grow and are fans for life, than people that have us in their five-disc changer with Reba McEntire and Toby Keith. We don't want those kinds of fans. They limit what you can do."

Even the way the Time article begins is combative: “Natalie Maines is one of those people born middle finger first.”

Every article I’ve read, and that’s about five or six in the past two weeks, follows the same party line. They’re “not ready to make nice” – just like the title of the lead-off single from the upcoming album. The accompanying video is all pancake make-up, wind machines and frowns. The album is stocked with meaningful topical songs about women’s issues, the occasional back-handed political swipe and hopefully some basic good country pop of the kind that made them huge stars.

Either this media approach is a stroke of genius that I’m not quite appreciating, or the band and the people handling them really need their heads examined. But with quotes along the lines of “a smaller following of really cool people,” all I can think is BULLSHIT. I’m sure everyone at Sony is banking on this album being a huge hit, despite this, “Let’s downsize our fan base even before the album comes out” line of logic employed by various band members.

Maguire should be grateful for every country fan out there who has any of their CDs in a five-disc changer with Toby Keith or Reba McEntire. Frankly, wouldn’t a fan doing that these days signify someone who got over Natalie Maines’ anti-Bush statement on a London stage on the eve of the Iraq invasion? Someone who is reasonably open-minded and simply likes their music, whatever their politics?

Frankly, it seems like the girls are going out of their way to pre-judge such fans, who may want to give them a chance again, but are basically being portrayed as gun-toting hayseeds by the band in every interview. In other words, you can’t disagree with them if you’re a sane, well-adjusted American. You’re either with them or against them … which is a condition they seem to want for themselves as opposed to the more realistic proposition that people are willing to forgive/forget/whatever and just move on. Does it occur to the band that maybe these folks might have been “ready to make nice” – but upon reading shit like this and hearing the implicit message of the lead-off single, are no doubt thinking, “You know what? Fuck them.”

If the band thinks there’s going to be some ready-made audience of left-leaning folk who are going to sweep right in and replace those millions of country fans who bought all their albums, they might want to think again. If the new Neil Young album (Living with the War, in which each song has a strong political message, along the lines of the subtle ditty “Let’s Impeach the President”) is any indication, this won’t happen. The Young album didn’t break the Top 10 in its first week and has thus far sold no more or less than his last few albums, which is to say his usual fan base ran out and bought it … not this ghost audience of people who buy albums simply because they hate the president. I suspect this "ghost audience" is middle-aged people blowing wind on the internet, who might account for sales of a few thousand at tops, not this unremitting wave of righteous zealots for the American Way.

Bruce Springsteen’s new album of Pete Seeger-themed tunes fared a little better, but dropped out of the Top 10 after two weeks. Part of this is due to the fact that many Springsteen fans don’t want to hear cover versions of folk tunes, no matter how much the Boss has tarted them up to appeal to his traditional rock audience. And The Boss is slipping uncomfortably into some weird boho Tom Waits image, complete with soul patch, funny hats and leather jackets, which look asinine on a 50+ year-old guy from Freehold. (Had he done an album of Bob Seger covers, no joke, I would have bought it!)

With the Chicks, it should be interesting to see how well they fare, not to mention their upcoming tour, which is booked into large arenas as opposed to mid-sized theaters. What I’m trying to say is there’s a mixed message being sent here between the record label and the band. The label is following the usual M.O. – a press blitz, high hopes for blockbuster sales and a tour booked into the largest venues possible for what has traditionally been one of their biggest recording acts. Meanwhile, the band itself is burning down every bridge possible in interviews, with an audience they’ve already assumed has abandoned them, probably based on country radio’s predictably luke-warm reception to the first single. I can imagine the sour, private reaction of label heads to Maguire's statement on "a smaller following of cool people": try running a massive corporation on that.

Will I buy the album? Probably not, mainly because each review stresses how they’ve abandoned their “country roots” for a sound more akin to The Eagles. Fuck the fucking Eagles, man! The only Eagles I want to hear these days are The Eagles of Death Metal, who rock.

So, they’re making a retro 70s country-rock record? It just doesn’t sound like a good idea, although I get the gist what they’ve done is probably make a more traditional adult-oriented pop record with country shadings. The charity single they put out for a Katrina benefit (“I Hope”) was fantastic, like some long-lost Bonnie Raitt song that sounded just right. I’ll have to sample the rest before passing judgment, but the “Not Ready to Make Nice” single is pretty bland stuff, like Shania Twain in a bad mood. It might be good to bring Shania up, because she’s essentially been making pop/rock records with country leanings, which sounds like what the Chicks are now shooting for, save they have a lot of issues they have to enlighten us on. I'd say country folk don't mind being preached to, but not outside of church, and not by people who don't like them.

I’m curious as hell to see how this album does. But if it does tank, or simply under-perform as compared to their previous albums, it will be a matter of weeks before you’ll start reading articles about unforgiving, close-minded country fans who can’t pull their heads out of the sand. The reality may be the band dumped on these fans before they even had a chance to decide for themselves, and the ensuing anti-country fan articles will be the sort of the thing the media enjoys dishing. In effect, nobody wins.


Jordan Hoffman said...

2 things:

1 - Should the Dixie Chicks' new CD tank (and I agree that it will, for all the reasons you mention and then some) Sony may not be as upset as you think. The album will be considered "brave" and will win all kinds of critical attention -- maybe even Grammys. Years ago, when I was still in the business end of the film business, Tim Burton was having one major flop after another, yet still had a sweet studio deal. I knew someone at that studio and asked "what's up with that?" Basically, I was told that even though no one went to Tim Burton's movies, everyone accepted that he was a genius and it was good for Warner Bros' PR to have a genius on the payroll. It gave them cred and that made up for the loss of revenue. Maybe when you have a giant corporation like that there are all sorts of ways to get to the bottom line that seem to make no sense.

2 - The Eagles of Death Metal kick fucking ass and will sodomize each of the Dixie Chicks with their fiery guitars.

William S. Repsher said...

A minor flaw in your logic could be that Burton is not to Warner Bros as the Chicks are to Sony. I gather Burton has had one or two blockbusters, like Batman or Beetlejuice, but most of his films are smaller/more quirky in scope. The Chicks would be more like an action/adventure director whose goal is to bring home the financial bacon every time. Or at least that had been their goal!

Somebody like Willie Nelson would be more of an apt Burton comparison -- some guy who hits a home run every now and then, but most of his stuff does moderately well and hits his intended audience, as opposed to serving as a huge financial engine driving a record label.

But I'd be willing to bet Burton cleans house on DVD rentals and sales -- there is no comparable second chance to make money in the recording industry.

In any event, if The Eagles of Death Metal deserve to be balls-to-the-wall rock gods and are much more deserving of all our entertainment dollars.

Joel said...

Rep, I am listening to the new Dixie Chicks right now. Whoever said it sounds like the Eagles is basically full of shit. It sounds like the Dixie Chicks except that Natalie's Dad has been shunted to the closet (no steel, more acoustic guitars). Not bad . . . the only people that won't buy it are the mouth breathers.

If you really want kick ass country music, try Hank III (Tricephus).

William S. Repsher said...

I bit the bullet and picked up the album, too. Circuit City has it for $8.99, hard to resist -- and very smart of SONY to drop down the price like that to boost what could be questionable sales. (I've since read that early projections have the album's first week sales at 300K -- which is pretty good by anyone's standards.)

It is a typical Dixie Chicks albums, save the lyrics are a bit darker, and often annoying. (How many times does Natalie Merchant have to tell us she's not like all the other girls who stayed home and got knocked up? I can't figure out if she thinks she has it better or worse ... and why people who did got out and get knocked up aren't saying, "what's she getting at with this bullshit?".

I'd give it 2-1/2 stars. Not bad, just bland in a lot of places, with about four songs I'll keep listening to ("I Hope" being the best).

But I hold nothing against ex-fans who purposely don't buy the album. The Bush shit was one thing -- the shit they've been saying and insinuating re: perceptions of their fans is entirely another. Good for them for pushing units in the first week, but they have a tour of large arenas coming up this summer, and I'll wait and see how many seats they fill.

Hank III isn't bad ... but he coulnd't shine Wayne "The Train" Hancock's shoes .. who does Hank Sr. better than Hank III does.

George Fiala said...

I like the new Neil Young as much for the music as anything else, tell you the truth. I'm a big fan when he does stuff like Living in the Free World, and this is like a whole album of it. The liner notes do not credit any guitarist, could it be that he's played all the guitars himself? In any case, there are at least two old timers who alternate between acoustic and electric albums, Neil Young and Richard Thompson, and both of them can rock the shit out of the place, at least to older ears like mine who have never heard the Eagles of Death Metal (however, I'm a big fan of the Black Keys)...

George Fiala said...

Bill - I just looked at the Amazon best seller list, and here is the top ten as of right now:

1. Taking the Long Way - Dixie Chicks
2. American Idol Season 5
3. All the Roadrunning - Emmylou Harris and Mark Knopfler
4. Stadium Aradium - Red Hot Chili Peppers
5. We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions - Bruce Springsteen
6. American Idol TBD Winners Single
7. Living With War - Neil Young
8. Surprise - Paul Simon
9. Pearl Jam (new one)
10. Some Hearts - Carrie Underwood.

So what do you think that all means?

William S. Repsher said...

I think it means old people and tasteless jackasses use Amazon to get their music. (How anyone can spend money on that "American Idol" stuff .... these are dark times.) Do you realize that if the same sort of set-up in terms of artists with 30+ year careers existed, say, in the 70s, the Top 10 would have included the Andrews Sisters, Tommy Dorsey and Roy Rogers? In the 60s, Rudy Valee would have been duking it out with Jimi Hendrix. There's something wrong here.

I haven't liked a Neil Young album since Ragged Glory, and this new one is no different for me -- he just doesn't have it the way he used to. Like I told Jordan, I went back and put on stuff like "Revolution Blues" and "Powderfinger" ... and there's just no comparison.

Re: Eagles of Death Metal. Get yourself to Emusic and download the following songs by them: Stuck in the Metal, Poor Doggie and I Like to Move in the Night. Metal is a cover of Stealers Wheel's "Stuck in the Middle." The other two are originals -- may not be your cup of tea as they lean towards both lampooning and celebrating 70s rock riffs by the likes of Bowie, T Rex, AC/DC, etc. It's incredibly fun music ... what rock originally was all about. Black Keys aren't bad ("Heavy Music" is a great song), but they're spotty for me. Try deadboy & Elephantman, who are also on Fat Possum -- sort of like David Bowie fronting the Black Keys. Interesting stuff.