Dixie Chicks controversy
At a 2003 performance in London, Natalie Maines of the American country band the Dixie Chicks, now known as the Chicks, made a statement criticizing President George W. Bush and the imminent Allied invasion of Iraq. The criticism led to backlash from country listeners, who were mostly right-wing and supported the war. The Dixie Chicks were blacklisted by thousands of country radio stations, and the band members received death threats. The backlash damaged sales of the Dixie Chicks' music and concert tickets. Maines issued an apology, saying her remark had been disrespectful; in 2006, she rescinded the apology, saying she felt Bush deserved no respect.
The Dixie Chicks formed in 1989 in Dallas, Texas. By the turn of the millennium, they had become one of the most popular American country acts and the bestselling female band of all time. According to Guardian journalist Betty Clarke, the Dixie Chicks were among the most controversial stars of country music; the country establishment disapproved of their "feisty songs, their provocative style or the fact they were selling huge numbers of progressive bluegrass records to pop kids".
Following the September 11 attacks in 2001, American country music featured more patriotic sentiment than normal, in hits such as Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)" and Darryl Worley's "Have You Forgotten?". Many American country fans and country radio stations supported President George W. Bush and the imminent Allied invasion of Iraq. Market research found that the average country listener was white, suburban and right-wing.
On March 10, 2003, nine days before the invasion of Iraq, the Dixie Chicks performed at the Shepherds Bush Empire theater in London, England. It was the first concert of their Top of the World tour in support of their sixth album, Home. Introducing their song "Travelin' Soldier", vocalist Natalie Maines told the audience:
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.
Reviewing the concert for the British newspaper The Guardian, journalist Betty Clarke reported Maines's comment and said that the audience cheered. Clarke wrote: "At a time when country stars are rushing to release pro-war anthems, this is practically punk rock." After Maines made her comment, another band member stepped forward on the stage and added: "But you know we're behind the troops 100 percent." The second comment was not widely reported.
Maines's remark triggered a backlash in the United States. Many country fans saw Maines as traitorous for not supporting the president. Focus tests by Country Music Television found that audiences felt abandoned by Maines's comment. They particularly disliked that she had criticized Bush on foreign soil, feeling it was cowardly. Maines said she made the statement in London because "that's where I was".
The Dixie Chicks single "Landslide" fell from number 10 to 43 on the Billboard Hot 100 in one week, and exited the chart a week later. The Dixie Chicks were blacklisted by thousands of country radio stations. On May 6, Colorado radio station KKCS suspended two DJs for playing their music. WTDR-FM in Talladega, Alabama, dropped the Dixie Chicks after more than 250 listeners called on a single day to complain about Maines's comments. Jim Jacobs, president of Jacobs Broadcast Group, which includes WTDR, described emotional callers describing family members who were members of the American armed forces. Dixie Chicks manager Simon Renshaw noted that, by contrast, the stations continued to play the music of Tracy Lawrence, who had been convicted of spousal abuse in 1998.
In a poll by an Atlanta radio station, 76 percent of listeners who participated responded they would return their Dixie Chicks CDs if they could. Protesters in Bossier City, Louisiana, used a tractor to destroy Dixie Chicks CDs and other items. The Kansas City station WDAF-AM placed trashcans outside its office for listeners to dispose of their CDs, and displayed hundreds of emails from listeners supporting the boycott.
The drinks manufacturer Lipton canceled its promotional contract with the Dixie Chicks. Maguire's tour bus driver resigned in protest of their remarks. Maines said: "It seems unfathomable that someone would not want to drive us because of our political views. But we're learning more and more that it's not that unfathomable to a large percentage of the population."
On March 12, two days after she had made her statement, Maines issued a disclaimer:
While we support our troops, there is nothing more frightening than the notion of going to war with Iraq and the prospect of all the innocent lives that will be lost. I feel the president is ignoring the opinions of many in the US and alienating the rest of the world. My comments were made in frustration, and one of the privileges of being an American is you are free to voice your own point of view.
As a concerned American citizen, I apologize to President Bush because my remark was disrespectful. I feel that whoever holds that office should be treated with the utmost respect. We are currently in Europe and witnessing a huge anti-American sentiment as a result of the perceived rush to war. While war may remain a viable option, as a mother, I just want to see every possible alternative exhausted before children and American soldiers' lives are lost. I love my country. I am a proud American.
The Dixie Chicks are free to speak their mind. They can say what they want to say ... they shouldn't have their feelings hurt just because some people don't want to buy their records when they speak out ... Freedom is a two-way street ... I don't really care what the Dixie Chicks said. I want to do what I think is right for the American people, and if some singers or Hollywood stars feel like speaking out, that's fine. That's the great thing about America.
On the same day, the Dixie Chicks launched a publicity campaign to respond to the criticism. During a prime time interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC, Maines said she remained proud of her statement. The band appeared naked on the May 2 cover of Entertainment Weekly, covered in words and phrased ascribed to them during the controversy, including "Traitors", "Saddam's Angels", "Dixie Sluts", "Proud Americans", "Hero", "Free Speech", and "Brave". The cover further alienated fans.
Maines said that the band had "nothing but support for the troops" and did not hate people who supported the war. All the band supported her, saying: "Natalie's comment came from frustration that we all shared — we were apparently days away from war and still left with a lot of questions."
At their first show of the Dixie Chicks' American tour, on May 1 in Greenville, South Carolina, Maines wore a T-shirt bearing the words "Dare to Be Free". An anti-Dixie Chicks concert was held in a neighbouring town. Following death threats, metal detectors were installed at the Dixie Chicks shows, and in Dallas Maines had to be escorted by police to a concert and then the airport. She installed 24-hour security outside her home, and trash was dumped outside Robison's home.
On May 21, at the Academy of Country Music Awards ceremony in Las Vegas, the Dixie Chicks' nomination for Entertainer of the Year was announced to boos. The award was given to Toby Keith, who had displayed a doctored photo of Maines and Iraqi president Saddam Hussein at his concerts. During their performance at the ceremony, Maines wore a T-shirt with the letters "FUTK". Many took this to mean "Fuck you Toby Keith". Some Dixie Chicks critics responded by wearing T-shirts bearing the letters "FUDC". A Dixie Chicks spokesperson later said that the acronym stood for "Friends United in Truth and Kindness". In a 2004 interview on Real Time with Bill Maher, Maines said that she had believed that no one would understand the T-shirt. The performance drew further criticism from country music stations.
A few months after Maines's comment, the Dixie Chicks performed and donated $10,000 for Rock the Vote, a website designed to encourage young adults to register to vote. Maines said, "We always felt like we were searching for ways to make an impact outside of music ... I believe everything that's happened in the last few months happened for a reason. A lot of positive things have come from it, and this is just one of them."
In September 2003, Maguire told the German magazine Der Spiegel that the band no longer felt part of the country music scene. She cited a lack of support from country stars and the experience at the Academy of Country Music Awards, and said: "Instead, we won three Grammys against much stronger competition. So we now consider ourselves part of the big rock 'n' roll family."
Response from other artists
Toby Keith displayed a doctored photo of Maines and Iraqi president Saddam Hussein at his concerts. Maines had criticized Keith the previous year, calling his music "blatantly jingostic". Musicians Bruce Springsteen and Madonna expressed support for the Dixie Chicks' right to express their opinions. Following the backlash, Madonna postponed the release of her "American Life" video, in which she threw a hand grenade at a Bush lookalike, and later released it in altered form.
Country musician Merle Haggard, who that year released a song criticizing American media coverage of the Iraq War, said the backlash had been "like a verbal witch hunt and lynching", and insulting to those who had died in wars "when almost the majority of America jumped down their throats for simply voicing an opinion".
The events of the controversy were documented in the 2006 documentary film Shut Up and Sing. In 2006, Maines rescinded the apology she had made in 2003, saying: "I don't feel that way any more. I don't feel [Bush] is owed any respect whatsoever."
As of 2006, many stations still refused to play the Dixie Chicks. Focus tests by KFKF-FM in Kansas City found that listeners still disliked them; their program director said: "It's not the music, because we're playing them the hits they used to love. It's something visceral. I've never seen anything like it." Maguire said: "I'd rather have a smaller following of really cool people who get it, who will grow with us as we grow and are fans for life, than people that have us in their five-disc changer with Reba McEntire and Toby Keith. We don't want those kinds of fans. They limit what you can do." The Guardian connected the blacklisting to a fall in female artists in the annual top 100 country songs, from 38% in 1999 to 18% in 2015.
In 2006, Dixie Chicks released "Not Ready to Make Nice", addressing the criticism. In June, they returned to Shepherd's Bush Empire and sold T-shirts with the legend "The Only Bush we Trust is Shepherd's Bush". Maines reiterated that the band were ashamed that Bush came from Texas. Sales of their next album, Taking the Long Way, and tour fell short of expectations, but won five Grammy Awards (including Album of the Year). After their performance at the 2007 Grammy Awards, the Dixie Chicks went on hiatus until 2013. The Dixie Chicks and their position on Bush was cited as an influence by later country artists including Taylor Swift, Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves. Pitchfork described this as "a legacy tied both to their music and their message of integrity".
In a 2007 retrospective piece by Betty Clarke, the Guardian journalist who had first quoted Maines's statement, she wrote that she stood by her decision to include the quote and that the "modern-day witch trial" had been surreal and unnerving. Entertainment Weekly speculated that if Clarke had not quoted the remark it would not have been picked up by American media.
In 2016, Maines told the New York Times: "I look at how much more polarized and intolerant people have become now. With social media, opinions all start becoming noise, but at that point, people weren't really supposed to have an opinion." Robison said that the controversy "feels like another lifetime to me, it doesn't even feel real—our country's changed, we've changed, the fans definitely have."
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