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Ready to Make Nice?

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Ready to Make Nice?

I’ve always liked the Dixie Chicks—if not for their music then for their outspokenness and refusal to play by Nashville’s rules. So it was heartening to see them vindicated at the Grammy Awards last night after being vilified and unfairly maligned simply because their opinions were different from those of most country music fans and radio programmers. But while I find nothing particularly offensive or fantastic about Taking The Long Way, you’d be kidding yourself if you thought their wins, particularly in the general field categories, was anything other than political. As I said in our Grammy winner predictions: “Now that America has come to its senses perhaps [the Academy] should re-title [the Album of the Year] category We’re Sorry, You Were Right All Along And Now Here’s A Grammy.” Hell, I would have voted for them.

When Slant music scribe Jonathan Keefe submitted his review of the album a full one month after its street date, I was concerned it would get lost in the shuffle of newer releases. Not to mention, almost every other major publication had already gone on record praising the Chicks’ supposedly bold musical statement. While I largely disagreed with Keefe’s take on the album, I thought it was 2,500 words of music criticism worth considering. Keefe’s wasn’t the only negative review (it averages a good but not stellar 72% on Metacritic), but it was certainly the most critical and in-depth analysis of the Chicks’ foray into post-Country and the album managed to crack the Top 20 of this year’s emaciated Village Voice Pazz & Jop Critics Poll, which was unveiled this week.

Keefe’s review was featured prominently but, surprisingly, we didn’t receive as much flack as I expected. Following our predictions and particularly after the Dixie Chicks’ sweep last night, however, fans of the album took it upon themselves to let us know just what they thought of Keefe and his review. One email suggested he quit writing for Slant or issue a public apology to the Dixie Chicks. As if winning Album of the Year at the Grammys makes an album “good” or a negative review “wrong.” Most troubling is the fact that these ostensible Dixie Chicks fans, who presumably support the trio’s right to free speech and political dissension, are completely oblivious to their own hypocrisy. I doubt they think Natalie Maines should quit her job or issue an apology to George W. Bush.

One reader, a fellow critic and former editor of a certain legendary publication Keefe criticized in his review, offered this: “I couldn’t disagree more with Keefe’s conclusion, but his persuasive argument made me think about mine.” Isn’t that the whole point? One would think that fans of such opinionated, forthright artists would respect, even encourage, opposing views and welcome the discussions they might provoke. Perhaps the first paragraph of Keefe’s review says it best:

“There’s a trend in current pop culture criticism toward ’consumer reviews,’ which amount to little more than recitations of a few key details and two or three descriptive phrases, often lifted verbatim from a press kit, to give the ’average’ reader an idea of whether or not he or she might like to spend his or her hard-earned money on the product. No one wants to read analyses of form or content or broader context; they want a star rating that validates their own tastes. It’s the reason Roger Ebert and Rolling Stone give three stars or better ratings to fully three-quarters of what they review—it’s not that the products in question really merit such praise, it’s that in trying to validate everyone else’s opinions, you can’t really have one of your own. It’s a reductive and ugly line of unthinking, really, but buried in it is the idea that there’s a certain value to critical objectivity. Since any fanboy can set up a website, it’s important to establish some distance, right?”

This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.