Thursday, May 25, 2006

Dixie Chicks vs. Country Fans (and Industry)

New York Times
May 25, 2006
Critic's Notebook
It's Dixie Chicks vs. Country Fans, but Who's Dissing Whom?

At the Academy of Country Music awards on Tuesday night, the host, Reba McEntire, made an unfunny joke. "If the Dixie Chicks can sing with their foot in their mouths, surely I can host this sucker," she said. The setup was pretty awkward. And when you stopped to think about it, the punch line really wasn't one. But none of that mattered. The line earned one of the night's most enthusiastic ovations.

It has been more than three years since Natalie Maines, the Dixie Chicks' lead singer, told a London audience, "Just so you know, we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas." The comment, delivered less than two weeks before the invasion of Iraq, sparked a feud with Toby Keith and, it seemed, the entire country-music establishment.

Mr. Keith has since moved on, but country fans clearly haven't. As the Dixie Chicks promote their new album, "Taking the Long Way" (Open Wide/Columbia), they are clearly country-music pariahs. Country radio is snubbing the album. And you know you've got an image problem when even Ms. McEntire is piling on.

It's not hard to sympathize with Ms. Maines and her two band mates, Martie Maguire and Emily Robison. They say they have had to contend with violent threats, and former fans call them bimbos and worse. (For female stars being outspoken carries particular risks.) Against this backdrop the three are presenting themselves as free-speech heroes, pilloried for expressing their political beliefs.

But this isn't really a fight about President Bush or freedom of speech. This is a fight about the identity of country music. There's a contract that binds country singers to their fans, and the Dixie Chicks have broken it.

The Dixie Chicks were once considered too country for country radio. They didn't take off until Ms. Maguire and Ms. Robison, who are sisters, replaced their twangy old singer with Ms. Maines, who has always seemed like a pop star. Two brilliant albums — "Wide Open Spaces," from 1998, and "Fly," from 1999 — made them the era's top-selling country act. When their brash (and sometimes mischievous) songs crossed over to pop radio, many country fans felt proud to see a group of their own doing so well.

Country fans are loyal, but they're not low-maintenance. By the time Ms. Maines made her statement in 2003, many were already questioning the trio's commitment: would they leave their old supporters behind?

For mistrustful listeners in search of an answer, Ms. Maines's comments provided one. Forget about President Bush: she had used the words "ashamed" and "Texas" in the same sentence, and she had done it on foreign soil. She meant to insult the president, but some former fans thought they heard her insulting Texans, and therefore Southerners, and therefore nonmetropolitan listeners everywhere.

This interpretation may seem specious. And yet Ms. Maines and her band mates seem to be going out of their way to prove their detractors right. Instead of fighting for their old fans, the Dixie Chicks seem to be dismissing them.

On "60 Minutes" Ms. Maguire told Steve Kroft that their concerts weren't typical country concerts. "When I looked out in the audience, I didn't see rednecks," she said. (Did her lip curl slightly as she pronounced the r-word?) "I saw a more progressive crowd."

And in a Time magazine cover story she said the group would rather have "a smaller following of really cool people who get it," as opposed to "people that have us in their five-disc changer with Reba McEntire and Toby Keith." (It would seem Ms. McEntire got her revenge.) Perhaps there's a difference between this attitude and simple snobbery, but you can't blame country fans if they don't much feel like splitting hairs.

The contract between country stars and their fans involves more than a little make-believe. Globe-trotting millionaires often pander to suburban middle-class listeners by evoking a mythical rural life. You can hear a hint of anti-Maines sentiment in "Boondocks," the recent hit by the Chicks-influenced group Little Big Town: "I feel no shame/I'm proud of where I came from/I was born and raised in the boondocks."

The Nashville establishment is not politically monolithic. The most depressing thing about this whole episode is the way the Dixie Chicks have conflated politics and culture, Bush supporters and "rednecks." The unintended implication is that only sophisticated city folk oppose the war in Iraq, and only "rednecks" support the president.

Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, country music's most popular couple, made headlines — without, it seems, losing fans — when they criticized the government's handling of Hurricane Katrina at a news conference in March. Mr. McGraw blamed "the leader of the free world" for not holding people accountable for rebuilding the region.

And even as Ms. Maines cites the famously pro-Kerry rock star Bruce Springsteen as a role model, the country channel CMT has been broadcasting an hourlong special on the making of Mr. Springsteen's most recent album, which happens to be full of protest songs. These days Mr. Springsteen might be more visible on CMT than the Dixie Chicks are.

The first single from "Taking the Long Way" is "Not Ready to Make Nice," a defiant song that hasn't, of course, found a home on country radio or CMT. (The follow-up is a gentler — but still defiant — love song, "Everybody Knows.") And while the Dixie Chicks would love to position themselves as underdogs, the truth is that they have probably never been more beloved by the mainstream media. It's hard to complain about your musical career when you're plastered on the front of Time.

The Dixie Chicks are still a joy to hear, and they'll have plenty of fans no matter what. The Nashville game is hard work; it brings out the best in some singers and frustrates others. If the Dixie Chicks don't want to play that game, that's certainly their prerogative. But they might at least acknowledge that they've been playing it for years, and reaping its rewards. And they shouldn't be too surprised if some fans jeer — angry, but also disappointed — as they walk off the court.

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