The Chicks are an iconic outfit in country music. Formed as The Dixie Chicks in 1989 in Dallas, Texas, the group would quickly rise to popularity. By the turn of the millennium, they had become one of the most lauded groups in American country and the bestselling all-female band of all time.
The band were always one of the most controversial acts in country music, the genre’s establishment and fans were offended by the provocative style and feisty songs, as well as the fact that they had a crossover appeal, with their records being bought by kids who were usually concerned with all things pop culture and not the overly romanticised idea of the antebellum.
An iconoclastic outfit, the all-female band showed the men how to do it, and this is one of the most obvious reasons why they had detractors in the country scene. However, after the 9/11 attacks of 2001, The Chicks would find themselves drowning in controversy more vitriolic than anything they’d ever experienced up until that point.
Notably, after 9/11, many of American country’s biggest stars adopted a more patriotic and belligerent thematic standpoint. In late 2001, country mega-star Toby Keith released ‘Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)’, and Darryl Worley released the call to arms, ‘Have You Forgotten?’.
Due to its intrinsic connection to conservative causes, many fans and country radio stations were supportive of incumbent President George W. Bush and the invasion of Iraq. Additionally, at the time, research published in TIME, found that the average consumer of country was white, suburban and right-wing. Not much has changed.
On March 10th, 2003, a year and a half after the horrific 9/11 attacks and nine days prior to the invasion of Iraq, the frontwoman of The Chicks, Natalie Maines, criticised President Bush and the invasion during a show at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire. Before the song ‘Travelin’ Soldier’, Maines proclaimed: “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.”
After Maines’ original comment, one of the other band members appended: “But you know we’re behind the troops 100 per cent.”
Typical of the media, the second comment was not reported, and a furore ensued. American country listeners were enraged, and The Chicks found themselves in a predicament. Overnight, they were blacklisted by thousands of country stations, criticised by country peers, and shockingly, received numerous death threats. This backlash seriously damaged The Chicks’ music sales and lost them a sponsorship with Lipton. Famously, protestors in Bossier City, Louisiana, used a tractor to destroy The Chicks’ CDs and other merch.
The anger was so extreme that many labelled Maines as a traitor for not supporting Bush. Many also took exception to the fact that she had criticised the President on foreign soil, calling her “cowardly”. Maines’ defence of this was that she made it because “that’s where I was”.
Even the band’s driver resigned, citing the remarks as his reason. Maines said: “It seems unfathomable that someone would not want to drive us because of our political views. But we’re learning more and more that it’s not that unfathomable to a large percentage of the population.”
Two days later, Maines apologised, explaining: “As a concerned American citizen, I apologise to President Bush because my remark was disrespectful. I feel that whoever holds that office should be treated with the utmost respect. We are currently in Europe and witnessing a huge anti-American sentiment as a result of the perceived rush to war. While war may remain a viable option, as a mother, I just want to see every possible alternative exhausted before children and American soldiers’ lives are lost. I love my country. I am a proud American.”
The Chicks launched a publicity campaign to heal the damage caused. However, it was clear that Maines only made the apology as a way of not damaging the band even further, and you cannot blame her for it; she was sent death threats. During an interview with Diane Sawyer for ABC, Maines remained proud of her original statement.
However, the band’s most effective and iconic response came on the May 2nd cover of Entertainment Weekly. The band appeared naked in the image, covered in words and phrases they were ascribed because of the controversy, including ‘Traitors’, ‘Saddam’s Angels’, ‘Dixie Sluts’, ‘Proud Americans’, ‘Hero’, ‘Free Speech’, and ‘Brave’.
Understandably, the cover alienated detractors people further, but that was the point. The Chicks had made their stand. Added to this sentiment, in 2006, Maines rescinded her apology, stating that Bush deserved no respect.
The controversy became the main part of the 2006 documentary Shut Up and Sing, which gained the band support from all corners of the earth. That same year they released ‘Not Ready to Make Nice’, which said it all. Although they became legends off the back of the controversy, there’s another incredible thing that came out of it. Many of our favourite more contemporary female country artists have cited The Chicks’ actions as highly influential, including Taylor Swift, Kacey Musgraves and Miranda Lambert.
Talking to the New York Times in 2016, Maines said: “I look at how much more polarised and intolerant people have become now. With social media, opinions all start becoming noise, but at that point, people weren’t really supposed to have an opinion.”
Chicks member Emily Strayer added that the backlash “feels like another lifetime to me, it doesn’t even feel real—our country’s changed, we’ve changed, the fans definitely have.”
In many ways, the backlash to The Chicks voicing their opinion on President Bush and the invasion of Iraq was a sign of things to come. If we quickly mention the storming of the Capitol in January 2021, our point is made clear. All we can say is more power to The Chicks for standing up for what they believe in and continuing to do so in the face of such misogyny and hate.
Furthermore, The Chicks had always been non-conformists and a progressive light within country music, so I don’t think anybody should have been surprised that they decided to get political; it’s what they did. It’s a testament to their attitude that they’re so lauded by some of the most prominent female musicians on the planet.
Watch the video for ‘Not Ready To Make Nice’ below.