When the Dixie Chicks officially became The Chicks last week, dropping the “Dixie” (and the reference to Little Feat’s “Dixie Chicken”) in the wake of a nationwide wave of long overdue anti-racist revisionism, they did so surreptitiously. There wasn’t an official announcement; no Notes-app style apology or explanation, as had already backfired for fellow country group Lady A (formerly Lady Antebellum). “We want to meet this moment,” was all it said on the band’s new website.
That shift represents the dramatic societal shift that occurred after the Chicks made “Gaslighter,” their first album in 14 years.
The name change coincided with the release of a new self-conscious protest anthem, “March March.” The lyrics challenge the proliferation of guns, underfunded school systems, threats to reproductive justice and global warming; the video features a montage of real U.S. protests throughout history. In contrast to the lyrics, though, the clip centers footage of Black Lives Matter rallies and marches, concluding with a list of Black people killed by police or within the criminal justice system.
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That shift represents the dramatic societal shift that occurred after the Chicks made “Gaslighter,” their first album in 14 years (due out July 17). When they announced the album’s release in early March, the country was on the cusp of closing down in the face of an unprecedented pandemic; now, the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis has sparked massive protests and a renewed push for racial justice.
What had previously earned the group the most approachable form of anti-establishment cred was no longer enough to push the envelope in a positive way: systemic racism, and its nearly intractable history, had to be centered. It’s the same realization that has left their peers and many fans, notably self-described progressive white women, scrambling to figure out how to undo the privilege they’ve always taken for granted.
Although the Chicks are country royalty, they have spent over two decades cultivating a better reputation among progressives than many of their Nashville peers due to their outspoken behavior, onstage and off. Especially during their late ‘90s heyday, when the group broke country sales records as easily as they did its unwritten rules, writers wore out their thesauruses coming up with ways to say that these women challenged expectations — even if their challenges were rarely more forceful than general sex-positivity and resistance to self-censorship.
After emerging from the relatively mild controversy prompted by their domestic violence revenge anthem “Goodbye Earl” (1999) unscathed, the Chicks crystallized their rep for country nonconformity with a bold comment from lead singer Natalie Maines during a 2003 concert in London, just a few days prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq: “We do not want this war, this violence, and we're ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” Country radio stations boycotted the group for years after, and the Chicks received death threats; their rapid banishment from the country music kingdom is often perceived as a cautionary tale for other acts in the genre, who avoid talking about politics for fear of getting “Dixie Chick’d.”
Yet the Chicks’ greatest success came after what they’re now referring to as their “cancellation” — their classic comeback single “Not Ready To Make Nice” was the biggest hit of their career and earned them three Grammys. They never stopped playing arenas (although it took nearly a decade for them to fill up again), and a 2006 documentary, “Shut Up and Sing,” gave Maines a platform to rescind her prior apology to President George W. Bush. The stand the group took was a genuine provocation — but in retrospect, it’s been received as legacy-cementing, mainstream-crossover-fueling heroism.
Now it’s a marketable part of their narrative, even though it was obviously never intended that way. And up until a month ago, a good protest song like “March March” might have seemed at least subversive enough to live up to the band’s reputation as feisty agitators. But today, it’s insufficient: calling for change while making music in a tradition that has very intentionally all but shut out Black artists for decades, under a moniker that includes a common euphemism for the Confederacy, would have seen by many as self-evidently hypocritical.
The name was always untenable, but today the Chicks, and white Americans more generally, are finally being held to a higher standard — a standard in which one sacrifice is far from enough. It remains to be seen whether the Chicks will continue to speak out against racism but for now at least, they have, in their own words, met the moment.