Why We Should Still be “Mad as Hell” About Their 2003 Boycott
The Chicks are back.
After an initial delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic, “Gaslighter” their first album in 14 years, drops this week and if the first singles off the album; the seething title track “Gaslighter” and the anthemic call to action “March March” are any indication, the Chicks, who dropped “Dixie” from their name last month, still aren’t ready to make nice. And nor should they be. What happened to them in 2003 was total bullshit and we should still be, to quote The Chicks themselves, “mad as hell” at what happened to them.
It was just over 17 years ago, March 10th, 2003 to be exact, when, on stage at London’s Shepherds Bush Empire, Natalie Maines looked out into the crowd and before launching into their song “Travelin’ Soldier” uttered the words that would go down in pop culture infamy: “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 the President of the United States is from Texas.” The US was, at the time, mere days away from invading Iraq on a mission (backed by coalition forces including those from the UK) to rid Iraq of “weapons of mass destruction.” The UK was equally as divided as the US about the war and Natalie’s comments were met with thunderous applause from the crowd.
In a world before Twitter, the comments went largely unnoticed until, two days later, on March 12th, a reporter from The Guardian published a review of the show praising the Chicks as “renegade ladies of country” and quoting Natalie’s (condensed) comment writing, “at a time when country stars are rushing to release pro-war anthems – this is practically punk rock.” The review was picked up by the Associated Press after which it spread like wildfire across the United States and in a matter of days, the top-selling female band of all time went from top of the world (literally, they were launching a tour called “Top of The World”) to the bottom of the barrel.
The backlash was as severe as it was swift. Country music radio stations not only refused to play them, many also organized public stunts during which the group’s albums were destroyed in mass quantities through a variety of elaborate methods. The trio, who just months earlier performed The Star Spangled Banner at that year’s Super Bowl, were accused of being unpatriotic, anti-American traitors. Lipton Tea, the sponsor of their upcoming tour was threatened with boycotts if they continued to support the band. In a single week, the trio saw their hit cover of the Fleetwood Mac song “Landslide” slide down the Billboard Hot 100 chart from number 10 to number 43 while their song “Travelin’ Soldier” disappeared off the country music charts entirely. Fellow country singer, and human beer fridge, Toby Keith took aim at the group, repeatedly performing in front of a doctored image of Natalie Maines embracing Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. Most insane of all, Natalie Maines received a credible death threat as the group prepared to play her home state of Texas.
Television pundits naturally had plenty to say about The Chicks. Pat Buchanan, a former Holocaust denier who once called for the hanging and horse-whipping of the Central Park Five, opined on air, ‘I think they’re the Dixie Twits. They’re the dumbest, dumbest bimbos I have seen,” while Bill O’Reilly used his show to call them “foolish women who deserve to be slapped around.” Sadly, ‘Ol Bill doesn’t have a TV platform anymore to regale us with his thoughts about the group’s new album since he was ousted from Fox News in 2017 amid a series of sexual harassment allegations and multi-million-dollar hush money payouts.
The Chicks’ spectacular fall from grace was documented in the terrific 2006 documentary “Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing.” Looking back at the film in 2020, it’s hard not to notice “The Weinstein Company” credited as its distributor. That company’s co-founder currently sits in jail after being convicted of felony sex crime and rape. Long before we started throwing around the term “cancel culture”, the Dixie Chicks truly were canceled. You could argue Harvey Weinstein has also been cancelled but when you compare their sins, it’s infuriating the group was punished so severely for simply speaking their minds while Weinstein preyed on women for years with impunity. It took decades, the #MeToo movement, and a sweeping, industry-wide reckoning to cancel Harvey Weinstein. All Natalie Maines had to do to get cancelled was open her mouth. Don’t you just loathe the smell of misogyny in the morning?
But country music radio has always been a safe haven for sexism with female artists notoriously receiving less airtime than their male counterparts. “Seventeen years later, country music radio has a problem with women.” says Raina Douris, host of NPR’s World Cafe and formerly of CBC Radio and Indie 88. “In 2019, only 10 percent of daily spins on country stations were songs by women artists,” she explains. “Even someone like Kacey Musgraves, whose last album won a bevy of awards, had disappointing results when it came to actual spins. This doesn’t just show a depressing lack of imagination by program directors,” says Douris, “what it really demonstrates is an undervaluing of women’s voices.” Musgraves (a six-time Grammy award winner) herself once called out what she called “white male bullshit.”
“When those women, who have effectively been silenced by a conservative, male-dominated radio market decide to speak up – and speak up loudly and controversially,” adds Douris, “it’s going to make those people in power angry. Women speaking up in country radio is an affront to an established system, and the fact that the Dixie Chicks weren’t just speaking up – they were speaking up about politics and expressing an opinion that ran against the dominant ideology in that time and place – made them a perfect target for all of that rage.”
One can’t help but wonder if a male artist speaking out against the impending war in Iraq would have been subjected to the same harsh backlash. “Not long ago, Garth Brooks posted a picture of himself on Instagram wearing a Detroit Lions jersey, bearing the last name of player Barry Sanders,” says Douris, “many of his followers were outraged, mistakenly believing it was an endorsement of politician Bernie Sanders. However, while a lot of people were saying ‘you’ve lost a fan!’ – any kind of gendered vitriol was noticeably absent. Men are allowed to lose fans, but still be respected. Women are not.”
So here we are in 2020 and the divisive climate of 2003 looks positively quaint in comparison to the raging dumpster fire of our current world. The Chicks have reentered the zeitgeist and their unabashedly unapologetic nature feels much more welcomed than it did 17 years ago. While the album’s title track Gaslighter is a blistering breakup anthem about Natalie’s ugly split from her ex-husband, actor Adrian Pasdar (just what the fuck did you do on that boat, dude?) the album isn’t without its political messages as evidenced in their second single, March March with its references to gun control and “‘ol boys in the white bread lobby.”
What makes The Chicks so admirable is, in addition to their undeniable talent, they refused to back down or “make nice” even when their livelihoods, and quite literally, their lives, were at stake. They refused to pander to the community that brought them more fame and success than they likely could ever have imagined, the very community that then turned its back on them so swiftly and so brutally. By dropping the “Dixie” from their name, The Chicks have shed the last vestiges of their former selves and are forging forward stronger than ever, reminding us that they “march to my own drum.” Lesser groups would have crumbled under everything The Chicks have endured, but as Emily Strayer explains in Shut Up And Sing, “people don’t understand how tight we are. We’re a sisterhood. We go through the good, the bad,and the ugly all together.”
Let’s hope Gaslighter brings The Chicks some good. They deserve it.