Shh! Bruce Springsteen is talking. And in his serious, gravelly sort of whisper, the one he uses when singing about union cards and wedding coats and families sleepin' in cars and fact'ries closing down and grown men holding their hats in their hands while walking along highways in Rust Belt America. Just like when Pope Alexander VI issued the Papal Line of Demarcation, attention must be paid to the Boss's divine intercession into the most pressing matter of the day:
"The Dixie Chicks have taken a big hit lately for exercising their basic right to express themselves. To me, they're terrific American artists expressing American values by using their American right to free speech. For them to be banished wholesale from radio stations, and even entire radio networks, for speaking out is un-American.
"The pressure coming from the government and big business to enforce conformity of thought concerning the war and politics goes against everything that this country is about—namely freedom. Right now, we are supposedly fighting to create freedom in Iraq, at the same time that some are trying to intimidate and punish people for using that same freedom here at home.
"I don't know what happens next, but I do want to add my voice to those who think that the Dixie Chicks are getting a raw deal, and an un-American one to boot. I send them my support."
Springsteen's comments, posted on his Web site on April 24, are as misconceived as his torpid 2002 album, The Rising. For starters, we should all be hit as hard as the Dixie Chicks have been since lead singer Natalie Maines told a London audience in March that she and her bandmates were "ashamed" that George W. Bush hailed from their home state of Texas. (That many Americans are equally embarrassed that Texas is part of the United States oddly went unacknowledged.)
While the Chicks' airtime on many radio stations did hit the skids in the wake of Maines' comment, their current album, Home, remains atop the country charts and in the lofty reaches of the pop charts as well. According to the band's agent, their upcoming U.S. tour has sold out all but six of 59 shows—and those six have between "85 percent to 90 percent" of seats sold. The Chicks even got a highly promoted gig on ABC Primetime Thursday and an Entertainment Weekly cover out of the flap. Such a brutal internal exile hasn't been seen in the U.S. since a post-Hogan's Heroes Bob Crane was reduced to doing dinner theater.
More important, though, Springsteen's comments underscore that if there's anything more vomit-inducing than celebrities who bitch and moan about being attacked for making controversial public statements, it's celebrity pals who come to their defense.
This isn't to say that the Dixie Chicks and the Springsteens of the entertainment world don't have every right to speak out on topics du jour. Indeed, if anything, they have a responsibility to make such statements, whether well-informed or ill-informed. After all, they're entertainers—and comments such as Maines' (not to mention similar grievances aired by other celebs along with pro-Bush/war sentiments expressed by still other celebs), are often highly entertaining, especially when they start some sort of eminently watchable spectacle like the current one. If there's a guilty pleasure greater than watching jingoistic country hambone Toby Keith musically expostulate on U.S. foreign policy, it's watching him get bitch-slapped by another singer for doing the same.
What Springsteen—like most celebrities, politicians, and other public figures—doesn't get is what might be called the implicit contract between the star and the crowd. Celebs, pols, and the like get to live like modern royalty: They are extravagantly compensated for relatively light work loads; they get to sleep with whoever they want; they are fawned over, coddled, and told endlessly how beautiful, smart, and talented they are. On some significant level, they get to enjoy the thrill of having people live vicariously through them.
All of which is fine. But it comes at a price: That the public at least occasionally get to have sport with the stars, to mock them when they come to tough spots, whether it be through booze, drugs, sex, or public relations gaffe. The flip side of the Dixie Chicks' topping the music charts is their topping the chart at Hollywood Halfwits. That's fine, too.