If you haven’t heard of the Dixie Chicks, then something must be wrong with you, man. Even before lead singer Natalie Maines’s infamous slip of the tongue, they were everywhere:
The vanguard of New Country (or Pop Country) that could draw new customers to the genre? The group of Texas bad girls that was willing to take on the record execs to get their fair share? The violent femmes who gave the world “Earl Had To Die,” a whimsical number about a battered wife who poisons her husband? The music video featured the Chicks dancing with the reanimated corpse of Earl. Surely you’ve heard of that?
If not then there is a 94.9 percent probability that you heard of the Chicks after Maines set up the song “Travelin’ Soldier” before an audience at 2,2000 seat venue in London on March 10, 2003, by saying, “Just so you know, we’re ashamed the president of the United states is from Texas.”
That tore it. According to Entertainment Weekly senior writer Chris Willman’s plucky book Rednecks & Bluenecks: The Politics of Country Music, the reaction to Maines’s remarks was fast and furious and sometimes baffling. U.S. wires picked up the story from London’s Guardian and talk radio hosts and morning shock jocks spread the story. Then the boycotts began and CD smashing parties were organized around the country, often by conservative activists. Country stations dropped Chicks music from their play lists in response to complaints from angry listeners and even those few stations that continued to play the Chicks tended to recycle older, less radioactive songs. And, yes, the death threats started trickling in.
Their then-latest album Home had been certified platinum six times over. “At the rapid clip at which the CD was then selling,” Willman wrote, “eight or nine million seemed within easy reach…But two years after the controversy unfolded the album still hadn’t officially been bumped up to seven million.” And their current album isn’t likely to sell anywhere near that many units.
One of the questions that Williams tried to answer is, Why were country fans so upset? It couldn’t have been simply that the Chicks were against the war in Iraq. “Travelin’ Soldier” was a song about a young man who went to Vietnam and died, breaking a young girl’s tender heart; and “More Love” took a jab at “people fightin’ their wars” who “think they’ll be happy/ When they’ve settled their scores.” Both songs were on Home, which sold briskly until Maines opened her mouth to talk. Also, other country mainstays — such as Merle Haggard — managed to be openly anti-war without alienating their audience.
The Chicks manage to provoke such a reaction because, one, Maines had signaled not just disagreement with President Bush, but contempt for him. Most of the critics of President Bush simply cannot comprehend how a lot of ordinary, Southern and middle American folks identify with the man. He’s a plain-talking evangelical Christian, and they don’t like seeing one of their own being kicked around. Two, she did it on foreign soil. Many, many Americans have a visceral loathing for people who go to other countries and criticize their nation in time of war (see Jane Fonda). It’s like dragging perfect strangers into a family dispute.
But those two reasons don’t explain the full grand mal reaction to the Chicks. The girls tried to be conciliatory at first but they’ve long since stopped trying. Instead, they have embraced their status as free speech “martyrs,” in the original sense of the word (“to bear witness”).
Left-leaning culture vultures including Michael Moore to Frank Rich took up their cause and argued that, contrary to all observable evidence, the boycott wasn’t hurting record sales. Half of the members of the Madison, Wisconsin city counsel co-sponsored a resolution stipulating that (a) the Chicks should receive the keys to the city; (b) their music should be played during recesses; (c) if Chicks should ever choose to visit, they should be feted with food and French wine; and (d) they should consider changing their name to the “Dairyland Chicks.” Since people aren’t burnt at the stake in the U.S., the Chicks opted for the next best thing: The trio posed nude for the cover of Entertainment Weekly with various cheers and jeers stenciled on their bodies (i.e., “DIXIE SLUTS,” “TRAITORS,” “PROUD AMERICANS”).
You might think that the group would have worked it out of their system by now but, alas, no such luck. Maybe some of the ink was permanent. The first song on their new album Taking the Long Way declares that their way has been made harder because they wouldn’t “Kiss all the asses they told me to.” It may have been “two long years now/ Since the top of the world came crashing down,” but the Chicks have decided to linger in that moment. The song “Not Ready to Make Nice” is exactly what you would expect: a stew of shock and anger and righteous indignation. The singer is “through with doubt” and “mad as hell” and other such things. “Lubbock or Leave It” is an attack on awful hypocrisy (sigh) of the West Texas town. And the final song, “I Hope,” begins like so:
Sunday morning, I heard the preacher say
Thou shall not kill
I don’t wanna, hear nothin’ else, about killin’
And that it’s God’s will
In isolation, that’s a beautiful sentiment, and it’s not a bad song. But the Chicks are pretty good at ignoring that “preacher” unless he agrees with them. Opinions about the Iraq war have shifted a bit in the U.S. since 2003, so country fans might have let it drop, but the Dixie Chicks made a conscious choice not to give them that option. The album is a giant middle finger to critics. To add inflection to this point, the group kicked off the new tour at what their own website describes as “the scene of the crime,” the Shepherd’s Bush (really, that’s its name) theatre in London.
As the U.S. leg of the tour gets into full swing, the Chicks won’t have to stare down the sort of massive negative PR buzz saw that they did last time because many of the group’s former fans have lost interest. Maines can now talk, or sing, or yodel all she wants, but fewer people will be listening.