As people, as institutions and as communities, every day we get opportunities to think carefully about which voices we amplify and which ones we silence—and how we set about accomplishing each end. This is uncomfortable, necessary growth, which makes every triumph a little sweeter and each setback and pain point more infuriating. Regarding the latter, I stay more or less constantly mad about the unfortunate phenomenon where individuals and/or social groups in power take it upon themselves to dictate the “right” way to call out injustice, ask for change and describe what that change should entail.
You don’t even need to dip too deep into Twitter next time protests get heated to see this toxic bullshit; it bubbles right to the surface, and the argument usually goes something like this: “Hey, [people of color/ poor people/ women/ anyone who fights to create a world where people of color, poor people, women aren’t treated like second-class human beings] we fully support your constitutional right to protest! But also protests should always be peaceable! You catch more flies with honey; be a Martin and not a Malcolm; etc. etc.”
Isn’t it convenient that the “right” way to express anger and advocate for change is the way that’s most palatable to the people in power, the least disruptive to the status quo that created the problems in the first place—and the easiest to ignore?
Here’s a sentence you didn’t see coming: this brings me to the Dixie Chicks. The scrappy sapling that is their particular genius drinks deeply from three strong roots:
I've written at length about this elsewhere, so here's the short version: because as a sulky youth I dreamed of getting out of the South, I spent my early years distancing myself from country music. So much of it seemed like hokey pageantry—and a lot of it does peddle outright fabricated or insultingly idealized images of America's past or present. A lot of it does deemphasize or sugarcoat real struggle or trauma—whether it’s personal, social or systemic. Country music seemed fake in all the most damaging ways—ways that prevent individuals, communities and cities from growing and changing for the better—which is one of the reasons I wanted to leave the South in the first place. So I listened to a lot of punk, rap, earnest singer-songwriters…and a ton of emo. Emo’s halcyon days happened when I was in that age 16-22 age bracket; our emotional maturity cycles synced up, if you will. But I always felt a little embarrassed about loving it: initially, for some of the more obvious ways in which it’s mired in the kind of immaturity that characterizes adolescence—and later, because I realized so many of these songs featured grown-ass men singing songs about the selfish, all-consuming way they saw love, where there was no room in the relationship for anyone's feelings but their own, where their desires greedily and eagerly took over the nest like a starling. It was at odds with everything I believed or wanted for myself in relationships—and I both hated and thought it telling that so many of the lady-penned songs about relationships I heard were filled with empathy, women imagining their paramour’s perspective and reconciling it with their own. By contrast, in emo there was only room for male feelings. Fuck that.
But during the whole time I hated country music, I still loved the Dixie Chicks—because so many of their songs depicted women taking up space and making demands in the same way the Boys of Emo did. These women were fiercely independent (“Ready to Run,” “Wide Open Spaces”) and pie-eyed idealistic (“Lullaby,” “Cowboy Take Me Away”). They fully, deeply inhabited and expressed pain (“Cold Day in July”). “Not Ready to Make Nice,” “Lubbock or Leave It” and “Sin Wagon” are anthems for wanting more and apologizing for less. “Goodbye Earl” depicted women using the tools of their tormentors—their unforgiving nature, their violence, their stubborn determination—to overcome and defeat them.
Their songs demonstrated an understanding of the fact that although compassion and empathy are the greatest gifts we have as human beings, and the greatest gifts we can give another human being (isn’t writing a song from another’s perspective in and of itself an exercise in empathy?)—compassion and empathy shouldn’t come at the expense of your own needs, dreams and safety. In other words, think about and understand why Lubbock and its people are the way they are—but get the hell out of there if you need to, and don’t back down from calling the city and its people out on its bullshit.
It’s sad that still one of the most radical things a woman can do is take up space in the world with her ideas and her voice—and for a great example of this, look no further than the Chicks’ own precipitous decline in mainstream popularity, which started in 2003 after lead singer Natalie Maines told a concert audience in London she was ashamed President George W. Bush was from Texas, in response to his plans to invade Iraq. The backlash was way more vitriolic and long-lasting than the “Goodbye Earl” backlash: the band’s songs and paid advertisements for their shows were banned from so many country radio stations across the country, people openly destroyed their Dixie Chicks CDs and organized rallies to do so, album sales tanked and the band stopped touring, and the fury and the specificity of death threats in the hate mail they received got the FBI involved. As the 2006 documentary Shut Up and Sing depicts, the band is left wondering if they should issue a formal apology, stand their ground or stay silent.
Like the narrative arc of one of their own songs, for ten years they did keep a low profile—for self-preservation, for the safety of their families—but it’s clear now that they’re not ready to back down when it comes to saying the unpopular thing. In April, the Dixie Chicks kicked off their first tour in ten years, which wraps in mid-October. They began the United States leg of their journey in Ohio, the nation’s Swing State Sweetheart, and the night wasn’t just a musical return to form. Planned Parenthood was there, as was Proclaim Justice (an organization that offers legal support to wrongfully convicted inmates) and Headcount showed up to register voters. During “Goodbye Earl,” their video monitor displayed a giant picture of Donald Trump where he’s sporting a little Satan goatee, plus devil horns. A few weeks later at Madison Square Garden, Maines spoke frankly about the hate crime at Orlando’s PULSE nightclub after the band played “Not Ready to Make Nice.” In a single statement, she summed up the band’s songwriting M.O., and the feelings of so many who live as second-class citizens: that unfair, horrible violent things happen and they leave you not ready to make nice—but anger and hatred can’t ultimately win out.
Several years ago I wrote a piece for Andrew's Vinyl in Alphabetical blog about Dolly Parton’s Just Because I’m A Woman, in which I talked about the particular genius of her songwriting stemming from the ability and willingness to frame empowerment, agency and equality in completely concrete ways. In her songs, Parton doesn’t talk about feminism conceptually, which can be a hard sell to people who aren’t already bought in; she talks about feminism in the context of how you’d act in real-life situations in the name of self-preservation and self-esteem.
The Dixie Chicks proudly carry the same torch. Over the course of seven albums, they’ve gotten people who might never describe themselves as feminists or advocates for social justice to love songs and characters depicting women acting independently, boldly—and sometimes violently. And while they always had their detractors, I think it’s notable that they never came under heavy fire for espousing progressive beliefs until Maines voiced those beliefs outside the context of a song. She made those comments in advance of launching into “Traveling Soldier”: it’s one of the band’s most popular songs—but it’s also a sharp anti-war barb nestled in the extremely sympathetic and palatable trapping of a tragic love story.
“Traveling Soldier” highlights what the Dixie Chicks do best—expressing unpopular opinions through song in ways that get people on board with them, in spite of the fact that their political and social beliefs might be totally at odds with the song’s message. More generally, their approach to songwriting is a good reminder that it’s easier to empathize with a belief or perspective if it’s connected to one person’s story and linked in to a larger, open conversation. But let’s note: it’s impossible to have the conversations that lead to empathy, understanding and change if you can’t be honest and if you’re preoccupied with putting other perspectives and feelings ahead of your own.
They summarize it perfectly in my favorite lyrics of theirs, in “Long Way Around”’s bridge: “I opened my mouth and I heard myself.” It's feminism, freedom, the promise of equality distilled to its very essence. It’s what I wish for every person, and what I wish for every person to wish for themselves and for others: the audacity to take up space in the world, to be unafraid to be heard and known.
May we fight to create a world with this is true for each and every one of us—where we all possess the courage to fight back, ask for more, and step into wide open spaces with wide open minds, hearts and mouths.
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