Bigger Than Badnarik

The Dixie Chicks in their usual hanging-out-in-an-alley wear

The Dixie Chicks in their usual hanging-out-in-an-alley wear

The Dixie Chicks
Taking the Long Way

This spring, liberal bloggers have obsessively tracked two numbers: the dwindling approval rating of George W. Bush and the rising number of Amazon pre-orders for the Dixie Chicks' Taking the Long Way. Crooks and Liars asks us to show the country trio "some support for speaking out when they did," while over at Eschaton, Duncan Black fumes about how poorly the Chicks have been "treated in the alternate universe of our mainstream media," adding smugly that "America buys the CD" anyway. And both sites link to the online store that has become for the wonkosphere what TRL is for teenyboppers, what American Idol is for middle America: a chance to vote your champions to a symbolic victory, to reassure yourself that others think and feel like you do.

Well, the Chicks are number one now, not just on Amazon but in Billboard, so I guess democracy has, like, triumphed, or something. (As for the Red Hot Chili Peppers' two-week chart-topping stint earlier in May—uh, maybe someone at Daily Kos can explain what that might portend for the '06 midterms.) Lefties rarely go to bat for a mainstream country act, but Natalie Maines, Martie Maguire, and Emily Robison are, apparently, different. Or at least they became different, as a result of what the group, with playful melodrama, refers to in interviews as "the incident."

"Just so you know, we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas," Maines told a British audience barely a week before the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Even if you've never heard a lick from the Chicks, you know about the virulent backlash afterward—disc-smashing rallies, death threats, sexist taunts, a fierce back-and-forth with wryly thuggish lug Toby Keith. If you harbored any nightmarish fears about redneck yahoos, this confirmed 'em.

The trio's belated musical response to "the incident," the new single "Not Ready to Make Nice," has been fatuously classified as a "protest song," though all it really protests is spiteful treatment of the Dixie Chicks. In fact, it belongs to a far less cherished category of song: the oppressed megastar's lament. Compared to classics of that genre like Michael Jackson's "Leave Me Alone" or Britney Spears's remake of "My Prerogative," which offer glamorously unhinged peeks into the singers' megalomania, it's an uncommonly plainspoken and honest riposte to a hostile public. "It's a sad, sad story when a mother can teach her/Daughter that she oughta hate a perfect stranger," Maines sings. Later, she growls in disbelief that someone could "write me a letter/Sayin' I better/Shut up and sing or my life will be over." But far from storming into the political fray, Maines sounds almost reluctantly stubborn, angry by default, flat-out exhausted—and unaware that self-pity can be off-putting even at its most righteously justified.

Maines, Maguire, and Robison wrote that one, with Dan Wilson's assistance. For the first time, in fact, they've written every song on their album. Unfortunately, just 'cause you've got a right to speak your mind doesn't mean you'll do so effectively, and as song doctors go, neither Wilson nor Gary Louris, not to mention Sheryl Crow and Neil Finn, are ideal candidates to help accentuate the Chicks' insights. As Sasha Frere-Jones noted in the New Yorker, "What's missing from 'Not Ready to Make Nice' and the album's other lovely but overly impressionistic songs are the straightforward lyrics of a professional Nashville songwriter." And that's only half the problem. If these songs aren't specific enough to espouse any clear beliefs or sentiments, they aren't general enough that we can find our own lives traced in them either.

No one becomes a country star by highlighting how different she is from her fans, yet the Dixie Chicks had a unique relationship with their audience. To the country crowd, they were certainly "our kind of people," though maybe reminiscent of that slightly screwy younger sister who respected her country roots even as she reported back from her cross-country adventures. On 1998's "Wide Open Spaces," parents watched understandingly as their young daughter left home to find "room to make big mistakes," and Fly's "Ready to Run" was an unusually ambivalent take on marriage for a country hit.

On "The Long Way Around," the new disc's almost-title track, Maines inhabits that same restless persona. Her friends married out of high school; she's happily "lived like a gypsy" but doesn't sound like she's ruled out settling down eventually. Then, with two lines, it's almost ruined: "It's been two long years now/Since the top of the world came crashing down." With that reference to "the incident," the mildly rebellious everygirl who invites identification is elbowed out of the way by the star who pleads for sympathy.

Taking the Long Way consolidates the Dixie Chicks' sonic and ideological move away from Nashville—and toward a "better" class of country fan—that began on their heartrending 2002 album, Home. But if Home's pristine, glossy bluegrass sought to win over both NPR and CMT, Rick Rubin's production on the new disc sands the edges away from the Chicks' banjo and fiddle, neutralizes the tartness of their harmonies' tautness, and blends everything into a tuneful prettiness that's all Lite Rock all the time. We Democrats grown suspicious of our party's shortsightedness should find that gentrification of sensibility familiar.

And we progressives grown tired of living within an echo chamber should be suspicious of the blog-bred notion that the Chicks' rebirth proves "America" agrees with "us." After all, America hardly buys any CDs—compare the roughly 500,000 consumers the Chicks reached in their first week with the roughly 30,000,000 who watch American Idol each week. Or, to put that in political terms, the Chicks' share of the electorate not only falls far behind Kerry's 59,000,000 votes, but puts them neck and neck with Nader. It barely surpasses the nearly 400,000 people who voted for Libertarian Michael Badnarik.

That's not to say that the Chicks' music doesn't still resonate with a large audience: They'll attract hundreds of thousands more in the following weeks. But between supporter-come-latelys uncovering political subtext where none exists and the Chicks' own insistence on personalizing their lyrics, you can easily miss the mainstream American sensibility that Take the Long Way does channel. This is a weary album. Aside from a few unconvincing feints at engaging the world—the Bible Belt-bashing "Lubbock or Leave It" and the deracinated gospel closer "I Hope"—which points out helpfully that the Bible says God doesn't want us to kill—these songs repeatedly recoil in disgust from the ugliness of public life and seek a cocoon of gently melodic privacy.

As the lullaby vocals of its chorus soothe the ticking rhythms of its verses, "Easy Silence" celebrates a retreat from everyday battles to a safely loving domestic space. It's the best song here, and it's also evidence that while the Dixie Chicks once ran toward the big old stupid world outside, now they run away. Can't say I blame them. Can't say it's been good for their art, though, either. And if their rejection of the messy realities of public life and political discourse really do resonate with a good chunk of this country, we're in more trouble than we thought.