This column was written by John Nichols.
Cultural conservatives, who have been busy of late trying to claim that the rebellious songs of The Who are other rock groups are really right-wing anthems, have misread America's tastes in a major way when it comes to the Dixie Chicks.
Conservative politicians, pundits and political writers — from Georgia Congressman Jack Kingston to Media Research Council president L. Brent Bozell and bloggers by the dozen — couldn't wait to trash Natalie Maines, Martie Maguire and Emily Robison for releasing a new album that refused to make nice with President Bush and the thought police who screech "shut up and sing" every time a musician expresses an opinion.
The Dixie Chicks have for the past three years taken more hits than any other musicians because, ten days before Bush ordered the invasion and occupation of Iraq, Maines told a cheering crowd at London's Shepherd's Bush Empire theater: "Just so you know, we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas."
For the "crime" of prematurely voicing a sentiment that is now close to universal in the US — with more than two-thirds of Americans expressing disapproval of Bush — the Dixie Chicks were hit with a full-frontal assault by right-wing media. Talk radio and television labeled them the Ditzy Chicks and their popular songs suddenly were yanked from country-music playlists. Boycotts were announced.
The word "traitor" was tossed around as if Maines and her mates had been conspiring with Osama bin Laden — as opposed to expressing appropriate concern about a president who was about to take actions that would significantly increase the appeal of al-Qaeda internationally. Bush even weighed in, declaring that, "I ... don't really care what the Dixie Chicks said." That was mild compared with the nightly blisterings from Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly.
It was clear that a neoconservative blood oath had been sworn against the most successful female group not just in the history of country music, but of all musical genres — having sold more than 30 million albums and CDs prior at the time the assault began.
Conservatives may not keep all their promises, but they kept this one. With the approach of the late May release date for Taking The Long Way, the group's first album since Maines spoke up in London, the trashing began. At an Academy of Country Music awards ceremony in March, singer Reba McEntire read a scripted line about how she could host the event because, "(If) the Dixie Chicks can sing with their foot in their mouth, then I can do anything!" Rush Limbaugh, Hannity and the rest of the right-wing ranters picked up the chorus and, by the time of the CDs finally hit the stores the official line was that the Chicks were finished as major stars. Country fans would abandon them. Country radio would not play unapologetic tracks such as the single "Not Ready to Make Nice." Congressman Kingston — who, it should be said, maintains the most entertaining offical blog of anyone in Washington — used his "Jack's Blog" to muse that Maines and her compatriots made a big mistake when they started talking politics.
Er, maybe not...
Taking the Long Way has shot to Number 1 on Billboard's country music chart and the overall Billboard 200 chart. In its first full week of availability, the latest release from the Dixie Chicks sold 526, 000 units. That's a way better entry into the charts than the latest release from Toby Keith, the country star who has been lionized by conservatives for his bombastic songs and his rhetoric cheapshots at the Chicks. Keith's White Trash With Money mustered sales of 330,000 in its first week.
Indeed, Taking the Long Way had the second-best first-week sales of any album on the country charts this year.
In the autobiographical single that references the controversy, "Not Ready to Make Nice," Maines in unapologetic. "I'm not ready to make nice," she sings. "I'm not ready to back down."
The Dixie Chicks answer the cultural conservatives on "Not Ready to Make Nice," when Maines sings that she: "Can't bring myself to do what it is you think I should." America is echoing that sentiment, rejecting the right's "shut-up-and-sing" assault with a warm embrace of an album that has them singing and speaking up.
By John Nichols
Reprinted with permission from The Nation