Top of the Docs #15 – ‘Shut Up and Sing’ and ‘Miss Americana’

When you’re a young woman in the music industry, who also happens to be a household name, there are two extremes that can happen if you decide to speak publicly about a controversial subject: you could inspire a media frenzy of people telling you to stick to singing, or you could be heralded as “brave” and “outspoken”. If you’re country music band The Dixie Chicks or country/pop crossover artist Taylor Swift, you experience both to a degree that drastically alters the course of your career. The aftermath of these turning points are the subject of the music documentaries Shut Up and Sing, directed by Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck, and Miss Americana, directed by Lana Wilson. 

Shut Up and Sing follows The Dixie Chicks over a three-year period after their highly controversial London concert during their 2003 Top of the World tour, in which lead singer Natalie Maines told the audience, “We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” The concert occurred not long after President George W. Bush announced his authorization of the invasion of Iraq. Natalie and her fellow members, Martie Maguire and Emily Robison, received immediate and ongoing backlash for speaking out, even threats of violence from (primarily) Conversative groups in America. 

They had an album, Home, at the top of the Billboard music charts, including a song (“Travelin’ Soldier”, respectively) that was number one on the country charts, but was quickly banned by many of the country music stations that previously showed them full support. The film documents what day-to-day life looks like for The Dixie Chicks after experiencing such a sudden decline in approval by fans and listeners of country music in general, shifting the focus onto the process of writing and creating their 2006 album Taking the Long Way

(Image courtesy of AP File Photo)

By giving the filmmakers access to their candid thoughts and conversations, The Dixie Chicks offer a meaningful insight into everything that went into making Taking the Long Way, including the dilemma of having to decide whether or not it’s worth it to publicly speak their minds.There’s a crucial moment early on when the trio are working in the recording studio and Emily comments, “Almost anything that isn’t written by us now – at least on this album – seems a little bit false almost,” and Natalie and Martie agree. That concept of the three women giving weight to the importance of telling their own stories is established as the driving force of the documentary, becoming more evident as they fight back against anyone who tries to tell them what kind of artists to be. 

Although Shut Up and Sing has a fairly straightforward narrative, it still manages to effectively build on the frustration and anger The Dixie Chicks experience to a point where it feels undeniably cathartic to hear Natalie Maines sing “Not Ready to Make Nice” with an emotional ferocity that you can feel in your bones. 

Miss Americana takes a different approach stylistically and narratively, but attempts a similar goal of documenting a wildly popular musician – in this case, Taylor Swift – as she deals with the aftermath of controversy and the process of creating her 2019 album Lover. It’s personal and raw in a way that feels new for Swift, considering that she has never shied away from wearing her heart on her sleeve when it comes to her music. She opens up about serious issues with body image, her mom’s cancer diagnosis, her private relationship with her partner, and the passion she feels about speaking in favor of certain political candidates or issues. Additionally, Swift addresses how it felt to have millions of Twitter users get #TaylorSwiftIsOverParty trending worldwide after a video of a phone call between her and Kanye West was leaked by Kim Kardashian-West, implying that she was “playing a victim” in her conflict with him. 

(Image courtesy of Netflix)

The documentary utilizes old home videos and interviews from the beginning of her career combined with concert footage from recent years to remind us how much Taylor Swift has grown and evolved over the course of her career, setting up the idea that she’s at a major turning point in both her professional and personal lives. When looking back at the happiness she felt during the release of her 1989 album – her official departure from country into pop music – and the tour that followed, Swift admits that there was a hollowness to that experience. She says, “When you’re living for the approval of strangers and that is where you derive all of your joy and fulfillment, one bad thing can cause everything to crumble.” 

There’s an ease in how Taylor Swift is captured throughout Miss Americana because of how evident the change in attitude about her career and mental health has been. We are also given an example of this in the comparison between footage of her recording her 2017 album reputation, which is punchier and more bitter than any of her other work, and the footage of her working on Lover, when she’s visibly happier and comfortable with where she is. 

What Shut Up and Sing and Miss Americana do best is humanize their subjects by giving them the opportunity to be vulnerable and reclaim their own narratives that had been tampered by controversy and criticism. It’s interesting to see the similarities and differences between how The Dixie Chicks and Taylor Swift were treated by their longtime fans, especially those from the country music genre who tend to lean more Conversative. Although Swift has received considerable criticism on social media, she also has the luxury of being able to see the support and positive discourse surrounding her comments as they’re expressed in real time. Unless you count message boards and early chat rooms, social media didn’t exist at the time of The Dixie Chicks’ controversy in 2003. It’s worth questioning whether or not the band would have been more active in the years following Taking the Long Way if they were able to see more support from fans rather than overwhelming backlash in traditional media.

Both films focus heavily on capturing the weight and difficulty of the decisions The Dixie Chicks and Taylor Swift faced about whether or not it was worth the risk of isolating their listeners by speaking out against what they believed to be injustice. In documenting these artists and pop culture icons at undeniably crucial points in their careers, the filmmakers succeed in creating music documentaries that act as both insightful time capsules and portraits of empathy.