On March 10, 2003, the Dixie Chicks performed a concert in London. Introducing the song Travelin’ Soldier, Natalie Maines said, “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” The first half of that statement was quickly forgotten, as was the context – George W. Bush had recently authorized the invasion of Iraq, spurring massive protests in England. The Dixie Chicks were subject to intense backlash, including death threats. Commentator Laura Ingraham subsequently coined the phrase that became the title of her 2003 book, Shut Up & Sing: How Elites from Hollywood, Politics, and the UN Are Subverting America.
Shut up and sing. Dance, monkey. We pay you to entertain us, not for your opinions. What right do singers, athletes, or actors have to editorialize? Let’s back up – what is a performer doing in the first place? Conveying a work of art that expresses an opinion, a perception of the world. They present their work within a context.
Travelin’ Soldier was written by Bruce Robison, and the Dixie Chicks’ version was a big radio hit. It’s a schmaltzy number about a young man who goes to Vietnam and writes letters home to a teenaged waitress; spoiler alert, he dies. Its focus is the human cost of war. Singing in front of an audience in England, just after the U.S. President had announced war, Maines made an anti-war statement that added context to the song. She did her job.
Last November, Vice President-elect Mike Pence attended the Broadway show Hamilton, an explicitly political musical. Afterward, a member of the cast delivered a speech that had been written by the show’s creators, which contextualized the musical’s themes in light of the recent election. They did their job.
On Sunday night, Meryl Streep accepted a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes. In her speech, she highlighted someone else’s performance, then-presidential candidate Trump’s mockery of a reporter’s disability. Predictably, her speech was reported and condensed to its most inflammatory elements, praised and condemned apart from its purpose and context. What right does an actress have to make a political statement when she’s receiving a lifetime achievement award? Shut up and sing.
Streep is an expert performer because she digs deep into the characters she portrays, understands them from the inside out, and expresses their complex humanity within a larger cinematic or theatrical work. As a performer being honored, essentially, for her empathy, it’s entirely appropriate for Streep to highlight a performance anathema to her life’s work. In context, she was saying “performers have great power and great responsibility.” That’s a little deeper than “Thanks to everyone who made this possible,” but it’s in keeping with the work of an artist. She did her job.