Time to forgive the Dixie Chicks?

Following up on my post last week about the “woman problem” in pop music, I’m reminded of the fate of the Dixie Chicks—who are finally back this year with a headlining tour of North America, for the first time in 10 years.

The Dixie Chicks, despite being one of the world’s biggest Country music acts at the time, were banned from Country radio in 2003 after their lead singer, Natalie Maines, made some intemperate remarks from a London stage about President Bush and his preparations for a U.S. invasion of Iraq.

After being roundly vilified by Country media and fans for such uppity (and "treacherous") behavior, the Chicks took some time off, before returning in 2006 for their Accidents and Accusations Tour. Their new album Taking the Long Way, debuted at #1 on the pop charts and gave them five more Grammys (for a total of 13). After that they went into temporary retirement to pursue other projects.

It has not gone unnoticed that, with the disappearance of the Chicks from Country radio, women artists of that genre lost ground on the record charts. As The Guardian reported recently:

The Dixie Chicks’ swift removal from country radio in 2003 is one of the key reasons that country music has developed such a woman problem over the past 15 years. At the time of the Dixie Chicks’ album Fly in 1999, female-led songs made up 38% of the annual top 100 country songs. But since their ousting from the airwaves, that number has dwindled at an alarming rate. Last year, the percentage of songs led by a female vocalist on that list had sunk to just 18%.

It’s true that Country fans as a whole tend to be more chest-thumpingly jingoistic than pop or rock fans. But if a male Country band made similarly unpatriotic comments would they have been subjected to the same level of vitriol and abuse (including death threats) that the Chicks received?

No male Country act has ever done that, as far as I know. So the closest comparison we have is to an all-male punk rock band that has. That would be Green Day, who received NO blowback from their “American Idiot” single (also the title of their album) which was blatantly contemptuous of American values. (Google the lyrics here.) In fact, “American Idiot” won accolades as a song from Rolling Stone and VH1, and the album received a Grammy and was turned into a Broadway play!

The Guardian went on to suggest that it’s time for Country music to do a “full re-embracing of the Dixie Chicks.”

Whether that means allowing them to perform at the Academy of Country Music awards, reincorporating their old catalogue back on to country radio, or (fingers crossed) even playing their new material on the same stations, the powers that be in country music (including its listeners) need to admit that they overreacted, and welcome back one of the genre’s biggest acts with open arms.

The Dixie Chicks play their own instruments, write their own songs, and, before they were backed into a corner and forced to endlessly defend themselves for a single political comment made 12 years ago, they were viewed as beloved storytellers who stirred up feelings of wide-eyed romance, humorous revenge, and big-dreaming adventure. If country music doesn’t want those traits and doesn’t want pitch-perfect songs like Wide Open Spaces and Cowboy Take Me Away on its stations – and if it really can’t handle a little political commentary from grown women – then that’s the genre’s loss, and sane country fans’ loss, too.

Indeed. And it might be just the catalyst needed to get more women’s voices onto the airwaves.

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  1. I wonder if the difference between the Dixie Chicks and Green Day is that GD were critical of a situation (tenion, alienation, media control etc) whereas the DCs were critical of a specific person. As that person happened to be the President, it was always going to be much more provocative and far more likely to invoke a, "My country, right or wrong" response.

    Add to this the fact that one was a clear and direct speech and the other was a rock band, growling hard-to-hear lyrics over a loud rock background... And anyway, how many folks listening to rock music (even if they bought the GD record) really listen to - much less think about - the lyrics? I mean, lots of folk think The Police's "Every Breath You Take" is a love song!

    1. Good points, Mark. I wonder, tho, if even head bangers might intuit that a song titled "American Idiot" might be saying something critical of the homeland—if not them in particular.

  2. The Dixie Chicks should be forgiven because they were right all along! Most of the US public now condemns the invasion, which destabilized the Mideast and created ISIS. The idea of boycotting a courageous group of women who spoke truth to power and questioned the march to war is beyond stupid! They should be given a medal.

  3. It boggles my mind that The Dixie Chicks had their lives threatened over this and had to stop touring. Imagine ... they had the nerve to criticize President Bush for undertaking a war that would soon kill hundreds of thousands directly ... and lead to further violent upheavals in the region that would kill and continue to kill thousands more. Forgiveness is not enough.

    1. No argument from me on that.

      I should have made an additional point: because research shows that women in general have a fundamentally different perspective from men on so many matters, it's not a surprise that the first musician I heard speak out against the upcoming invasion of Iraq in early 2003—and deliver a critique (however inartful) of the President's leadership—was a woman (Natalie Maines). So it's our loss that there's a severe shortage of "worldview diversity" in the public square—and it extends far beyond the musical airwaves. Our businesses suffer from it and the economy as a whole has paid a heavy price for it.

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