Shut Up and Sing: The Dixie Chicks Controversy Ten Years Later

Movie poster for Shut Up and Sing

This is a guest post by Kerri French.

This month marks ten years since Natalie Maines made her infamous statement during a packed Dixie Chicks gig at Shepherd’s Bush in London, acknowledging the recent events pointing to the United States’ imminent invasion of Iraq by saying “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.” Two days later, the latter part of her statement was quoted in the British newspaper The Guardian and soon picked up by the Associated Press, grabbing headlines across the US. While the Dixie Chicks initially tried to downplay Maines’ comment in the hopes that the controversy would blow over, it quickly became evident that there was no turning back from the stand they had taken.

Targeted by the right-wing group Free Republic, their number one single quickly fell down the charts, album sales dropped, and radio stations refused to play their music. Faced with boycotts throughout their summer tour and the possibility of losing corporate sponsorships, Maines and sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robison quickly realized that the issue could not be easily swept away and chose instead to embrace the controversy, framing it as a free speech issue that they would not back down from. They found themselves further faced with harassment, vandalism, and threats of violence, serving as an example to the rest of the country as to what can happen when you choose to express an unpopular opinion.

The Dixie Chicks messing around on stage

Throughout this time and for the three years following, filmmakers Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck documented the band’s reaction and response to the treatment they faced following their 2003 statement. Alternating between footage filmed immediately after the 2003 controversy and two years later as the Dixie Chicks were writing and recording Taking the Long Way, their 2006 album that served as a response to the backlash they experienced throughout their Top of the World tour, Shut Up and Sing highlights the ways in which the band was forced to reconsider not only how they presented themselves as artists but what kind of music they now wanted to create. Maines, Maguire, and Robison take on the task of writing an entire album of songs for the first time, using many of the songs as a way to reflect on and respond to the hostility, threats, and pressure that surrounded them several years prior. As Kopple and Peck show the band preparing to promote the new album, it becomes evident that the 2003 controversy has become a part of the band’s identity, even three years later when Maines’ actual words have been forgotten by most. Refusing to apologize for what they believe in became deeply embedded into who they were, unable to be separated from the discussions of how best to introduce the music industry and fans to the band’s move away from a more straightforward country sound that now incorporated rock and pop influences. Maines in particular seemed hesitant to introduce their new sound and songs too quickly, wanting to be more cautious than Maguire and Robison out of fear of the backlash the band could experience all over again. The documentary offers a very real glimpse into not only how three musicians balance their career with their beliefs, but also how they deal with the emotional aftermath of all that they are up against.

The Dixie Chicks on Entertainment Weekly
What is most impressive, however, is the way Kopple and Peck use the documentary to capture the bond and friendship among three women facing enormous pressure in an industry that refuses to reward women for being true to themselves. Despite countless questioning from the press over how Maguire and Robison feel regarding Maines’ statement, the band continues to think of themselves as a “we” and Maguire and Robison’s support of Maines is unwavering. Indeed, the band doesn’t back away from the controversy that the statement created, refusing to cater to a fan base and industry that showed them so much hostility. The film highlights the band’s anger in conversations filmed backstage during their 2003 tour, with each member arguing with longtime manager Simon Renshaw over what constitutes a radio ban, insisting that they have done nothing wrong and have no reason to show remorse or ask for a second chance. The connection between these three women appears to only grow stronger the more they embrace their newfound political roles as advocates for free speech. In one poignant moment, the documentary shows Maguire tearfully stating that Maines still blames herself for what happened, despite Maguire’s insistence that it was the best thing that could have happened to their careers. She continues, stating that she would give up her career if that is what Maines needs. Their 2006 studio album has, in fact, proven to be their last; despite brief reunions to play a handful of concerts together, the band has headed in different directions, with Robison and Maguire forming the duo Court Yard Hounds while Maines is set to release a solo album with a decidedly more rock focus in May.

The Dixie Chicks singing the National Anthem

Watching the documentary so many years later, it is hard not to wonder why these three women’s actions in particular so enraged the country. The Dixie Chicks were certainly not the most outspoken celebrities to speak out against the war, yet theirs is the controversy that will ultimately be remembered from that time. Was it more shocking that three country musicians could be politically and socially liberal? Admittedly, it probably came as no shock that Sean Penn and Tim Robbins were against the war, but even liberal Americans must have been surprised that it was the Dixie Chicks of all artists who managed to stir up such strong feelings about patriotism and the war.

Still, the question arises whether these three women were punished so harshly because they were country artists whose opinions went against the grain of a large percentage of their fan base or because they were women who dared to have an opinion. Would a male country artist expressing antiwar sentiment have been met with radio bans and death threats? The behavior of male country artists, after all, is often excused or even glorified with their “rebel” persona; it’s all well and good for male musicians to be loud and outspoken but when a woman dares express an opinion outside of what middle America believes, she not only puts her career at risk but exposes herself to harassment and discrimination from fellow musicians, the country music industry, and all of its fans.

Fans unite in support of The Dixie Chicks
And harassment and discrimination is the only way to fairly describe what happened to the Dixie Chicks in the wake of their 2003 statement against the President. Not only did Clear Channel Communications strike the group from country radio station playlists, the uproar from fans wanting all of their CDs bulldozed was nothing short of a modern day witch-hunt. Metal detectors were installed at their shows throughout the summer and a police escort was needed that July when the FBI revealed knowledge of a death threat against Maines in Dallas. Fellow country artist Toby Keith, branding Maines a “big mouth,” began using a doctored photo of Maines with Saddam Hussein as a backdrop at his concerts while singing “You’ll be sorry that you messed with the U. S. of A. / We’ll put a boot in your ass / It’s the American way”—an act that he was never reprimanded for, despite the use of Maines’ image serving as nothing but pure incitement of hatred and violence against a woman who dares hold her own political opinions. The irony, of course, is that it was the Dixie Chicks, not Toby Keith, who had to worry about their tour sponsorship deal falling through when Lipton sent in a PR consultant to discuss whether the company felt they could go forward with the relationship after the band’s “brand” had been tarnished.

The Dixie Chicks sweep the 2007 Grammy Awards
Ten years on, the very conservative demographic who demonized Maines for expressing her disapproval of President Bush and the war are now the ones saying far worse about President Obama. Maines’ statement seems absolutely uneventful in comparison, so much so that the country’s response to her words is near comical when viewed now. Still, the documentary serves as a reminder that the way these three women were treated was anything but comical; it is clear that under the right political circumstances, political groups and corporations can exert enormous pressure on those who choose to express an unpopular opinion. It is especially fitting, then, when the Dixie Chicks return to Shepherd’s Bush in London at the end of the documentary to promote their new album and Maines jokes that she would like to say something the audience hasn’t already heard before and then goes on to say, “Just so you know, we’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas.” This time around, the comment wasn’t met with protests and boycotts; the band was instead rewarded in early 2007 when they swept the Grammy Awards by winning all five categories for which they were nominated. In the end, the Dixie Chicks committed themselves to remaining true to who they were no matter the professional, financial, or personal cost—something an audience has rarely heard before, indeed.

 The Dixie Chicks perform “Not Ready to Make Nice” at the 2007 Grammy Awards Ceremony

Kerri French is a poet whose writing has been featured on Sirius Satellite Radio and published in Barrow Street, Mid-American Review, DIAGRAM, Sou’wester, Waccamaw, Barrelhouse, Best New Poets 2008, and The Southern Poetry Anthology, among others. A North Carolina native, she currently lives in Cambridge, England. 

  • Thank you for this – although I was aware of the controversy in a vague kind of way, I didn’t realise how bad it got for the band. I have just listened to Not Ready to Make Nice and it is brilliant. An anthem for women everywhere that have been silenced.

  • Yes, their empathy of Saddam Hussein was touching. Mains going out of her way to politicize a concert really paid dividends. And where are they now? The bottom line, which you missed, is that it’s a free country. They are free to speak their mind and their fans are free to express their opinions with their pocket books. It’s got nothing to do with President OBama. Demographically, they committed the ultimate stupid act. They failed to understand their customer and paid the price. No one like crummy service at a restaurant where they are paying for a meal and not one wants to be preached to when they are not in the mood.

    Even the Beatles apologized once and they weren’t misquoted either. Wonder who will be remembered most… the Dixie Chicks or the Beatles… Valerie or John? I guess we already know.

  • They never had any empathy to Saddan Hussein, all they said was that they were ashamed that a prsident from their state would go out to what we can see now in 2013 as an unnecessary war with Iraq. they obviously didn’t mean to be unpatriotic. and anyways who are you to preach about who has a right to voice their opinion or not?
    oh yeah and its NATALIE. not valerie. i think you would know if you had actually paid attention to what your reading and not just picked out what was convinient to you and your obviously biased view.

  • Um… let’s see… they made their statement in a foreign country saying something to the effect of “just so you’ll know… we are ashamed…” Frankly, whether it was Natalie, or Valerie—-who cares? They are irrelevant. They made a political statement. It’s a free country… and people are free not to buy their music, or go to their concerts. As Dr. Phil would say, “And how’s that workin for ya? And rather than be humble… they dug in their little heels. And rendered themselves more irrelevant.

    And to answer your question… who are you to preach that I’m not entitled to my opinion. Tell you what. If I record a song, don’t buy it. It’s a free country and it’s your choice. Just like it’s the public’s choice not to buy their records or go to their concerts. Of course they could do cross over music and reach a larger more tolerant audience… Oh… shucks… they tried that… and what did they get? Pretty much zilch. But… it’s a free country. They can do what they want and say what they want. The public can do as it wants. I can write what I want. You can write what you want…which is pretty much what happened. My point is the Beatles had more class and will be remembered long after the Dixie Chicks are forgotten… Which is what is happening now.

    I’m sorry you only see freedom of speech as one sided and freedom of choice as one sided. Gals made their choice… and the public made theirs… you made yours and I’ve made mine. And that’s the way life is. Deal with it. No need to reply… simply deal with it… And try to avoid raising your voice with capital letters. It’s juvenile. When people can make convincing arguments they usually yell… or attack the form not the substance. You know… like you’ve done here.

  • Great post, Kerri. I am referencing it in a post which will appear tomorrow on “Live Toast.”

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