Taking the Long WayThe Price of Political Dissent in Country Music

The Dixie Chicks in the “Gaslighter” music video (Photo credit: Screenshot from YouTube/Dixie Chicks)

The Dixie Chicks are back. After a 14-year hiatus, the trio released “Gaslighter,” a triumph for country fans who came of age in the 1990s, when the Chicks epitomized the genre. Throughout their career, lead singer Natalie Maines has delivered sass and twang, while background singers Emily Robison and Martie Maguire have been virtuosos on, respectively, the banjo and the fiddle, among other instruments. And if you never heard of them before this year, it might be because, despite their status as one of the bestselling female bands, their political views nearly drove them into early retirement.

The Chicks arrived on the scene at a time when female storytellers were dominating country music, writing about everything from pining for a man’s attention to dumping an abusive husband’s body in the lake. Sure, there were lovelorn ballads and tales of infatuation, but there was also Shania Twain (who wasn’t much impressed); Jo Dee Messina (who’d catch love later); Martina McBride (who was celebrating her independence day); and the Dixie Chicks (who wanted room to make a big mistake) joined them. This group of singers could be treacly when it came to the actual experience of love, but when their relationships didn’t work out, they hit the road—on to something bigger and better. Unlike many women in men’s country songs who kept house while their partners lived their best lives, these women messily, disastrously and happily did whatever they damn well pleased.

Though there were still fewer women artists than male artists being signed to major labels in the ’90s (41 to 67, respectively), female artists were crafting as many—and sometimes, slightly more—Billboard-charting hits. This meant, of course, that they were getting as much radio play as their male counterparts. But that changed in the early aughts: While the ratio of male to female artists didn’t change much, the number of women artists writing hits did. According to research commissioned by Change the Conversation, a group that aims to increase gender parity in country music, 40 percent of country music’s hits in 2016 were crafted by women artists, compared to 55 percent of hits by men.

The Guardian, when it reported on Change the Conversation’s study, accurately notes that this period coincides with the Obama presidency, but then insists “there is no clear explanation for the imbalance.” Their summation fails to note or consider the politics of country music, not just in the 21st century but in the long arc of conservatism in the 20th, leading up to George W. Bush’s presidency, the September 11 terrorist attacks, the invasion of Iraq, and an infamous comment made by the Dixie Chicks. During a London concert in March 2003, Maines told the crowd, “We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas.” If you were a Dixie Chicks fan who opposed the Iraq invasion, the comment might have seemed relatively mild and certainly righteous, but the swift and exacting punishment for their disloyalty—to war, the United States, to Bush, and to Texas—lasted the rest of the decade.

Pundits who’d never noticed them before weighed in: Former Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly said they “deserve(d) to be slapped around;” the group was blacklisted by country radio stations, who put out trash cans for their listeners to toss the band’s CDs in; they received death threats; and protesters dogged their remaining concert dates. Shut Up and Sing, the 2006 documentary about the controversy, features footage of the band discussing the potential fallout with their manager, gauging the risks and potential reward of challenging the status quo, but no one could have anticipated the extent of the backlash. At the time, the war in Iraq was still ostensibly about weapons of mass destruction, and post-9/11 loyalty to Bush was surging, so the Dixie Chicks were viewed as traitors.

Taylor Swift grew up amid that controversy. If the timeline checks out, she would’ve been 14 and signing with Sony as a budding songwriter and performer within months of Dixie Chicks’s statement at that fateful concert. In her recently released Netflix documentary, Miss Americana, Swift notes that observing the backlash to the Chicks’s comments taught her about acceptable forms of political expression for country artists. Swift wasn’t the only female musician who got the message: “A lot of artists cashed in on being against what we said or what we stood for because that was promoting their career, which was a horrible thing to do,” Robison told The Telegraph in 2006. “A lot of pandering started going on, and you’d see soldiers and the American flag in every video. It became a sickening display of ultra-patriotism.”

After the Dixie Chicks were blackballed, the country-music industry drew a line in the sand of political dissent, and most artists scrambled to be on the financially sound side of it. This led to a decline in women’s voices on the airwaves: In 2019, only 11 percent of the songs on the year-end country charts were performed by women, compared to 33 percent in 2000; and of the top-15 played songs of this past year, not one was by a female solo artist. In fact, as Change the Conversation notes on its homepage, “[W]omen haven’t been well represented on the country charts since Taylor Swift was known for making country music.” The rise of “bro-country” has been discussed in recent years, but it’s not just the beer-drinking and truck-driving that’s on the rise—that’s always been part of country music. While male voices dominate, women’s voices and stories have nearly disappeared.

Swift’s eponymous first album, released when she was 16, is an offspring of ’90s country: Despite (or maybe because of) Swift’s teenage angst, it’s deeply rooted in a female experience, ranging from lovesick longing to angry breakups. It’s a nearly perfect album that twangs like mad. It also evinces a cleverness that’s undoubtedly influenced by the Dixie Chicks: (“You’re Just Another) Picture to Burn” reflects both the Chicks’s ability to riff on their instrumental predecessors—banjo and drums—and presages the lyrical sensibilities that would serve Swift so well on future albums, particularly 1989. The Dixie Chicks are featured on the song “Soon You’ll Get Better” from Swift’s 2019 album Lover, and there’s also a portrait of the trio in the music video for “Me!” Finally, Swift opened her Artist of the Decade performance at the 2019 American Music Awards wearing a shirt with her album titles printed on it in bold black—a nod to the 2003 cover of Entertainment Weekly that pictured the Dixie Chicks with their naked bodies scrawled with the slurs and epithets that greeted them everywhere.

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Swift’s choice to break her notorious silence on politics is best illustrated by a scene in Miss Americana that evokes both intense sympathy and frustration. Upset by homophobia, racism, and the dismantling of the Violence Against Women Act, Swift tries to convince her father and her business advisors that she should post her political opinions on Instagram to her more than 110 million followers. She’s on the verge of tears as she argues her case, and finally she says, “Dad, I need you to forgive me, because I’m doing it.” It’s heartbreaking to watch Swift realize that it’s possible to be indoctrinated into a system of oppression by someone she loves and trusts; and while most people have this revelation earlier in life than Swift did, it’s still moving to watch her stand up for herself.

At the same time, it’s hard not to wonder: What took you so long? The documentary connects Swift’s reticence, political and otherwise, to a desperate need to be liked; when Swift insists that her pathology is based on wanting to please “everybody,” she really means her fans. For a long time, Swift enjoyed the particular adoration of conservatives, some of whom dubbed her an “Aryan goddess,” a designation she did nothing to actively encourage but never attempted to decry. Swift never articulates whom, exactly, she was afraid of offending, but she had seen, with the Dixie Chicks, the punishment meted out to women who break with the same systems of power that elevated them to begin with. The severity of the punishment wasn’t retaliation for an act of dissent but rather one of betrayal; and to commit a betrayal, one has to first be a loyal soldier.

“It had to be somebody or some group that seemed like the all-American girls,” Maguire said in Shut Up and Sing, referring to the enthusiasm of the attacks on the band. Both the Dixie Chicks and Swift are not just women. They’re thin, blond, (mostly) blue-eyed, and have access to wealth and other resources. Swift wasn’t just addicted to approval; she wanted validation for looking the part and for not biting the hand that fed her. Swift broke with country music a long time ago, straddling the country-pop border as early as 2008 and crossing over completely in 2014 with 1989. Leaving country created room for Swift to reveal more of her political inclinations—the Nashville industry had already lost her, so it couldn’t punish her. In fact, despite Miss Americana’s suggestion that Swift speaks out at great risk, there haven’t been significant repercussions, in part because it’s always been more acceptable for pop stars to express opinions. The Instagram post mentioned in the film, in fact, drove up voter registration in the days after the posted it, and she continues to make music as much and as lucratively as she wants.

The cost of political action was very real for the Dixie Chicks, and still they’re creating songs built for infinite listens, and, most important, being as unapologetically angry as they were on Taking the Long Way. 

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By working with the Dixie Chicks on her album and channeling them in her music video and performances, Swift actively draws a parallel between their political action and hers. It’s clear she’s embracing her power as a megastar and giving herself permission to be a grown-up person with opinions; but perhaps she saw the success of Taking the Long Way—which won five Grammys in 2007—as the triumph due to the Chicks after a long battle and wants a taste of it for herself. As Maines said of the blowback in 2003, “It sort of opened the door for us to do anything musically we want to do now, without feeling any pressures that we have to please.” One can’t blame Swift for wanting that kind of freedom, but freedom, especially artistic freedom, isn’t always rewarded.

In the opening to the new Dixie Chicks single and video, “Gaslighter,” a female voice says, “I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me/ Gaslighter.” Clips from old movies and commercials are spliced together: shots of militant women in uniform—in one instance with pink hats—and several with them in pink sashes, multiplying. There’s anger in this militancy, as well as the suggestion of solidarity; in 2020, no song could be titled “Gaslighter” without evoking the last three years of #MeToo, Donald Trump, and Harvey Weinstein. But the lyrics tell a different story: “Gaslighter/ Denier/ Doing anything to get your ass farther…Gaslighter/ You broke me/ Yeah, I’m broken.” It’s not much of an anthem for female solidarity or power, even though it’s insanely catchy. The song actually just sounds… exhausted. The cost of political action was very real for the Dixie Chicks, and still they’re creating songs built for infinite listens, and, most important, being as unapologetically angry as they were on Taking the Long Way.

While their most famous single from that album is “Not Ready to Make Nice,” it’s the title track that always makes me sad and frustrated before helping me get through the day. As the title suggests, it’s about watching other people be content with what they’re presented with, and refusing to kiss the asses you’re told to—about finding where you’re going not in spite of taking the hard road but because of it. I’m not sure Swift really has reconciled herself to the long way around; she certainly still wants our approval, even if the terms of that approval has changed. It’s evident how difficult she still finds articulating everyday sexism, and her feminism remains one-dimensional in its whiteness. Miss Americana shows an artist who seems to believe she’s at the end of a long road instead of at the start of it, having internalized the idea that her career might end after 30. If she really wants to take a page out of the Dixie Chicks’ playbook, she’ll realize that she’s just beginning.

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by Torrey Crim
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Torrey Crim is based in Brooklyn, New York, where she’s at work on her first novel.