Liz Phair faced a subculture war, the kind that's been raging in Bohemia even before Allen Ginsberg declared that the best minds of his generation were "poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high." Liz Phair went public with the fact that she wanted to go pop, and wanted to appeal to a mass audience; she hired the Matrix, a trio of hit-making producers, to work on some of her songs. For these actions, she was exiled from Bohemia. Natalie Maines (Dixie Chicks) publicly declared her distaste for the commander-in-chief in concert, uttering that she was, "ashamed that the president of the United States of America is from Texas." For this, her band was banished from much of country radio.
Neither of these acts is pop, per se, but I'm interested in the way generic distinctions shape our responses to public proclamations by musicians.
The Dixie Chicks kafuffle is infamous: a popular female country band who'd already raised eyebrows with their zestful tune about spousal homicide (and spawned a line of "Earl's in the Trunk" bumper stickers) simply apologized to their (foreign) audience for American foreign policy. It was stage banter. I'm sure we've all heard much worse. But the point was not the words, it was the speaker, or, more importantly, the audience. Eminem can declare "Fuck Bush" openly, but country musicians do not diss their president (though reportedly, Maines' comments were well received in the room).
The faux-outrage engineered by ClearChannel in defense of patriotic America reminded me, humorously, of All You Need Is Cash, the piss-funny documentary Eric Idle made in the 70's about "The Rutles," Dirk, Nasty, Stig, and Barry, who together "created a legend that would last a lunchtime." In the episode mirroring Lennon's famous "more popular than Jesus" statement, Idle's sonorous narration informs us that, "people were buying albums just to burn them. Sales skyrocketed." Hee hee.
But I also had a serious response, the standard liberal intellectual recoil from the sight of any conflagration of media, even that in which I don't personally indulge. In that sense, I follow Andy Partridge:
I believe the printed word is more than sacred
Beyond the gauge of good or bad
The human right to let your soul fly free and naked
Above the violence of the fearful and sad
The church of matches
Anoints in ignorance with gasoline
The church of matches
Grows fat by breathing in the smoke of dreams
It's quite obscene
The problem was that the audience for country and country-pop does tend to be of the yellow-ribbon magnet variety (though in those giddy days of 2003, we lived in a largely ribbon-free society), and not so eager to hear the political opinions of a bunch of girl singers, no matter how kickass the fiddle. Had the Dixie Chicks been a pop act, or the Dixie Dudes, they would not have been, as the resultant coinage became, "dixie-chicked." (I first heard this term from Salman Rushdie, though Thers assures me it was current in the blogosphere before that. Still, I attribute it to Rushdie, because the man who wrote The Satanic Verses and Midnight's Children can pretty much get anything from me. Linguistically, that is. But I still have to read The Ground Beneath Her Feet, his rock-and-roll novel.)
The parallel Brown draws between these events and the Liz Phair implosion seems absurd, at the outset. I mean, Phair knew her audience, chose her path. But Brown lays it out differently:
This is about time and place and action and reaction. This may be about fans (what happens when the performer you idolize turns out to be something different than you expect?) and it may or may not be about boundaries (who gets to set them, who gets to move them, and are they sometimes fluid). This may be about the glories of war, about how it sometimes it takes a culture war to really find yourself, and how a real war influences culture.
I liked Liz Phair in the mid-90's; I thought Whip-smart was a great record, and "Supernova" one of the greatest love songs ever written ("Your kisses are as wicked as an M-16/And you fuck like a volcano and you're everything to me"). I do, however, remember once hearing her cover of "Turning Japanese" on the radio on my way to work, stalking into the classroom fuming, and cursing my students that their lives should become kitsch while they were still young enough to realize it. They were bemused, and rightly so. In any case, I worked backward through Exile in Guyville and I liked what she did and who she was, though I was also aware that she resisted her social position. I once heard her interviewed and she said she had no interest in being "the next feminist spokesmodel" or something like that.
I had no strong feelings about The Matrix intervention, except that it seemed silly to me to hire someone to do for you what you seemed perfectly capable of doing for yourself, like hiring a personal shopper or something. Decadent and unnecessary, kind of. And I do take the general point that she's getting a bit long in the tooth to do the whole Avril Lavigne thing--Christ, she's my age (within about 6 months). But she looks good, and the record doesn't suck. I have it, but it's not something I go back to often, like probably 90% of the stuff I own.
But then it was not the resultant record that people objected to; it was the violation of a code, a moment Brown compares to Dylan going electric, though I wouldn't grant it such epic status myself. In that sense, it never mattered what the record sounded like, merely that it existed. Similarly, the Dixie Chicks violated an idea (or ideal)--and paid the price.
The inequity here is that the Dixie Chicks' transgression seems to have paid off, while Phair's hasn't, at least not to the satisfaction of her (now major) label. This is getting long, but I want to propose one other thing that Brown, I think, leaves out: the idea of cultural capital. According to Pierre Bourdieu, both of these artists were caught up in struggles for capital within their respective fields. Now,I'm not the Bourdieuian around here, and we're traveling today, but I'm going to try and get Thers to come on here and explain this to you all in a comment.