Punished For Speaking Out, The Dixie Chicks Changed Our Expectations Of Pop Stars

We should ask more of our pop stars. The Dixie Chicks taught us that.

dixie chicks photo

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On March 10, 2003, Martie Erwin Maguire, Emily Erwin Robison, and Natalie Maines told an assembled London audience that they weren’t going to put up with the invasion of Iraq; with more war; with wanton American greed. The Dixie Chicks were taking a stand.

“Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all,” Maines calmly told the audience. “We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.”

All things told, it was a brief moment in a long concert. The Dixie Chicks played a standard set that night, and their anti-Bush comments took up about three minutes of it. The British audience, themselves staring down the barrel of the same war, similarly led by an incompetent charlatan of a leader, seemed pleased by the call-out. The night proceeded as usual.

Then the American media found out.

It’s easy to think that ‘going viral’ is a very recent concept, something that the ubiquity of the internet has allowed. But in truth, stories were going viral long before we kept the internet on a tiny device in our pocket at all times. Way back in 2003, long before the digital world saturated our culture, the Dixie Chicks found themselves going viral.

Dixie Chicks: Public Enemy Number One

Following the comments, the 24-hour-news cycle picked through every past one of the band’s so-called indiscretions. A rotating parade of columnists and pundits stepped in front of the cameras to denounce them in new and unusual ways.

Enraged conservative country fans staged public demonstrations, hurling the band’s most recent album, Home, into public piles. Many radio stations around the country embarked upon a still-standing boycott of the Dixie Chick’s music. Home plummeted in the charts. The news did a circle around the globe.

Needless to say, it wasn’t just that the Dixie Chicks had spoken out against the President. It’s that they were women, and more than that, it’s that they were Texan women. The country music genre has its long history of Southern Belles, and they’re all expected to act the same way — speaking only when spoken to, and singing pretty songs about their devastation over the actions of a man. The Dixie Chicks weren’t behaving, and they were punished for it.

As a result, much of the criticism of the three musicians was coded in deeply sexist language. Fellow country musician Toby Keith posted a photograph of Maines standing next to Saddam Hussein, implying a sexual relationship between the two. Violent young men — essentially alt-right trolls, before we had the language to refer to them as such — started making death threats against the group.

Moreover, these threats were highly specific. “There was one death threat on Natalie,” Robison explained to the press. “It had a time, had a place, had a weapon. I mean, everything. ‘You will be shot dead at your show in Dallas’.”

And yet the band didn’t let the threats slow them. They played that show in Dallas, shuffled from a large convoy of cars to the stage and then back to the cars. They just did it alone.

They had some defenders, of course, and even back in 2003 public sentiment around the globe was broadly against another useless war. But the band’s reputation was changed. A few days after the comments, Maines issued something like an apology for them. And she did it alone.

Politics and Pop

These days, it’s commonplace for modern pop musicians to take a political stand. In fact, we are often disgusted when they’re not — take the case of Taylor Swift, whose silence on such matters was interpreted as a tacit endorsement of fascist elements of her fanbase.

Throwing out an offhanded comment against Donald Trump or the fossil fuel magnates wrecking the planets has become utterly commodified; an easy way to harvest some glowing press, and a little time in the media sun. Everybody from The 1975 to Lily Allen has done it, usually as some easy promotion for a forthcoming album.

That’s a problem. For the most part, celebrities aren’t our friends. They are rich and entitled, and that puts them in a class entirely of their own, separate from us. They’re oligarchs, and we should always question any kind of political action or comment that they make.

Asking, ‘but who does this benefit?’ is a good way of sorting the wheat from the chaff; the committed, action-oriented Danny DeVitos of the world from the tokenistic Chers, those dropping an odd soundbite to ride a wave of goodwill.

The actions of the Dixie Chicks 17 years ago fall into the former category. These days, lazily using a, ‘Go Bernie!’ Instagram filter buys celebrities a bit of cultural capital. In 2003, speaking out against the government made the Dixie Chicks lose all of theirs. Who stood to benefit from their comments? An anti-war movement not being given fair dues by pockets of the American press. Who stood to suffer from it? The Dixie Chicks.

That is the way it should be. Our pop music system unfairly and disproportionately awards a lucky few a great deal of money, respect, and attention. In an ugly, dangerous political scene, they should risk that capital; lay it down on the line.

Someone like Swift dropping back into the cultural conversation to use a newfound political bent to shape a reformation narrative doesn’t deserve our praise. After all, where has the newly-minted Taylor The Activist been during the democratic primaries?

Aside from one brief instruction that her followers go out to vote, what has Swift actually used her vast wealth and public attention to do? No, pop stars don’t automatically deserve our honour all the time. But the decision to speak up by the Dixie Chicks does.

The Comeback

The Dixie Chicks are back this week with a new single. Entitled ‘Gaslighter’, the song is explicitly personal — it is, first and foremost, about Maines’ very public separation from her ex-husband.

Of course, releasing a song with that title, given who the President of the United States is, has another meaning too. The Dixie Chicks are back to making sharply political criticisms, this time as much through their music as their onstage comments.

That’s good. They deserve some plaudits, finally, for doing what they did back in 2003.

But we should also make sure that we demand more of them. We should always be asking more of our pop stars; asking them to risk for us, to use their capital for us. The Dixie Chicks, standing on that London stage back in 2003, taught us that.

Joseph Earp is a staff writer at Junkee. He tweets @Joseph_O_Earp.