Ten years later: What we learned from the Dixie Chicks controversy

It looks like the Dixie Chicks” Natalie Maines is still not ready to make nice. On Sunday night, she tweeted:


As you may recall, 10 years ago on March 10, the Dixie Chicks were on tour in London.  Under President George W. Bush”s command, the U.S. was preparing to invade Iraq under the alleged belief that Saddam Hussein was hiding “weapons of mass destruction.”  Like many people in the U.S.  and the rest of the world who opposed the war from the start, more than 1 million Brits had marched again the impending invasion. Maines looked out over the audience at Shepherd”s Bush Empire Theater and 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.”

That”s it. Since then, the level of discourse between politicians has sunk so low that it”s hard to believe it even registered a blip. It was painful to watch as the press piled on and she had to make an apology that felt forced and ultimately did no good anyway. Her fellow Dixie Chicks, Emily Robison and Martie Maguire, publicly stood by her as they watched their career go down; Innocent bystanders standing too close to the flame

I remember exactly where I was when I learned of her remarks. I was in Texas at South By Southwest in Austin. I remember reading about it online that night and having that feeling of “This is either going to blow over” or “This is going to be a disaster.” It was that kind of hold-your-breath feeling, like when you watch a baby fall and you wait to see her reaction to see how spooked she is before you react.  Sometimes the baby gets back up and laughs, and sometimes the exact same fall can provoke screams and an avalanche of tears.

Maines” comments were a country career killer. The reaction was swift, brutal and ongoing. It included stations boycotting the group and fans burning their CDs.  Regardless of whether one agreed with her views, the unofficial blacklisting, which continues to this day, was a ridiculously knee-jerk overreaction in a format that wraps itself in jingoistic patriotism often defined in one very narrow, conservative way with little tolerance for opposing views.  And I say that as a great fan of country music.  But its long-held embrace of this vision of America that no longer exists, if it ever did other than in the movies or on “The Andy Griffith Show,”  is antiquated and damaging.

Contrast country radio”s response to Natalie Maines” comments, in which she merely expressed her opinion, and a relatively mild one at that, with how R&B and pop radio treated Chris Brown, who actually broke the law and horribly abused a woman in 2009. He”s been welcomed back into the fold with all kinds of back-slapping and merriment. Hmmm.

Plus, for all the cries of Un-Americanism that occurred when Maines criticized Bush, the same rules clearly don”t apply to criticizing Obama. Otherwise, how do you explain Ted Nugent? Yes, Hank Williams Jr. got dumped by ESPN in 2011 for comparing Obama to Hitler, but those remarks were far more egregious than anything Maines ever said and no classic country stations pulled his music for any duration.  At least Maines” comments never required the Secret Service to launch an investigation they were so incendiary.

Does that tell us something about how female artists who voice an opinion are considered too strident, whereas their male counterparts don”t fall under the same confines?

 The Dixie Chicks made one more album, 2006″s “Taking the Long Way Home,” which included the song “Not Ready To Make Nice.” The tune addressed the Iraq controversy in this verse: “And how in the world/can the words that I said/Send somebody so over the edge/That they”d write me a letter/ Saying that I better shut up and sing/Or my life will be over.”  The song received little country airplay.

The tune went on to win song and record of the year at the 2007 Grammy Awards, while “Taking the Long Way Home” won album of the year. It was a clear mandate from the mainstream Grammy voters that they supported The Chicks both musically and politically.

A 2006 Cecilia Peck-directed documentary, the excellent “Shut Up & Sing,” chronicled the ordeal. Maines, who, to be honest, does not always come off as particularly likable (and God only knows what prompted her to open back up this can of worms via Twitter yesterday), vacillates between incredulity and anger that her words caused such a firestorm. Indeed, a decade later, it is really impossible to believe that the statement caused so much destruction.

So how have things changed? In the country world, sadly, I would say not at all.  If anything, country artists are even more close-mouthed today for fear of offending their fans in the fly-over states, many of whom are conservative.  I”ve had conversations with country superstars who were Obama supporters and yet they would no more announce that publicly in 2008 or 2012 than they would insult your mama. Sometimes, even playing at Obama”s White House is enough to set off reactionary fans.

In fact, I know of no way to make a country artist clam up faster than to ask him or her about his political views. They will voice their support for the troops (Make no mistake about it, country artists have really done wonderful work that way and many of them put their lives on the line going to perform for the troops), but that”s about it.

Maines” solo album comes out in May and, as one would expect, she”s staying a country mile away from country radio. The set, “Mother,” leans more toward rock. Maybe all her Twitter talk was simply a way of calling attention to herself.

So a decade later we seem to be no wiser and no more tolerant of opposing political views.  I wish instead of flippantly mouthing off on Twitter (Typical follow up: someone tweeted back “You”re a dumbass,” Maines responded “You are”) Maines had written a serious piece about what she had learned from this experience 10 years down the road.  I”m not  sure the rest of us learned anything.