The Chicks Are Alright 

by: Richard Blow

You'd think America would have gotten over its fury at the Dixie Chicks by now.

But no. Ever since lead singer Natalie Maines proclaimed from a London concert stage that "we're ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas," the backlash has come hard and fast and enduring.

Radio stations put out garbage cans in which fans were supposed to -- and did -- dump their Chicks CDs. The Internet was flooded with images of Maines embracing Saddam Hussein in a composite photo. A Louisiana radio station held a "Dixie Chicks Destruction" day. Pictures from the event showing little boys walking over a pile of CDs are truly chilling; though the differences are profound, you can't help but feel shades of 1930s Germany.

Even a Maines apology -- crafted to suggest that she regretted the hyperbolic tone of her remarks, though not the substance -- failed to stem the hostility. Sales of the new CD, Home, fell by 70 percent and have not recovered.

It's possible to dismiss this incident as nothing more than a tempest in a pop-culture teapot, but that would be a mistake. Americans demonstrated an unsettling impatience with dissent during Gulf II; the prevailing attitude among war supporters held that critics, especially vocal ones, should be punished rather than appreciated, squelched rather than heard.

It's difficult, but essential, to understand why. After all, "Red-State" America has its president, its Congress, its pickup trucks, its NASCAR on Fox, its domination of the political media, and its war. You'd think that Red-Staters would be feeling fat and happy. Why then do they sound so culturally insecure? And why do they manifest that insecurity with such testosterone-fueled rage?

Much of the answer has to do with lingering sexism within the world of country music and among white male Bush supporters (the overlap is substantial). Most of the backlash instigators and participants were men. The Dixie Chicks are, obviously, women, and in some quarters folks don't appreciate chicks criticizing a macho, ranch-owning, cowboy boot-wearing Texan president -- especially when the women are claiming the Texas mantle for themselves. (Maines comes from Lubbock.)

It's bad enough that the tough-talking corporate cowboys at Enron were revealed to be lying, sexist crooks. To say that Bush does not represent modern Texas is to feminize one bastion of American frontier masculinity. It emasculates Bush and his male supporters, prompting responses ranging from patronizing to misogynistic. Hence Bush's comment on the matter: "They shouldn't have their feelings hurt just because some people don't want to buy their records when they speak out."

The remark is trivializing, sexist and untrue -- none of the women have lamented that their "feelings" were hurt.

The Chicks are smarter than Bush gives them credit for. They know that the combination of gender, sexuality and politics is at the heart of this matter. That's why they posed nude on the cover of Entertainment Weekly. Scrawled on their skin were epithets they've recently been called: "Saddam's Angels," "Traitors," "Dixie Sluts." (Notice the equation; any woman who ventures into a male-dominated arena is slapped down, labeled a tramp.)

This combination of sexuality and politics creates anxiety among Red-State, red-meat men and probably some "traditional" women as well. The Chicks show that not only do they have hot bodies, they have something going on upstairs as well. It is, to use a word that "Blue-Staters" like myself are fond of, disempowering.

There's also an economic factor at play; the Dixie Chicks are the current commercial saviors of country music, one of the most successful bands in its history. They've risen to the top of a musical genre once dominated by men. In the process, they've broken out of the genre box by attracting cross-over pop fans, something which country purists tend to eye with suspicion.

It's worth noting that two other country singers, Garth Brooks and Shania Twain, also broke free of Red-State boundaries by rejecting Red-State prejudices. Brooks sang in support of gay rights; Twain broke through with "Man! I Feel Like a Woman," an anthem of female power.

The Dixie Chicks are getting rich in the midst of a recession for which Bush supporters can't bring themselves to blame the president. No wonder status-anxious, economically-insecure white men are pissed off. The world is changing, and they're being left behind.

It matters too that Maines made her statement overseas. Some critics called that unpatriotic. But it wasn't as if she spoke on hostile shores; the concert was in England, not France. Still, the Chicks' success in Europe is another threat to Red-Staters, who are caught up in the process of globalization, just as we all are, and feel like they have less and less control over their own economic futures. The Dixie Chicks, however, have passports to economic success abroad.

And so it's not surprising that some Americans want to take them down a few pegs. The Dixie Chick-bashers translate their socio-economic anxiety and threatened masculinity into misogyny, fear and violence. And then they call it patriotism.