Ten years ago this month, one of the most public displays of censorship in popular music took place. The victims: The Dixie Chicks. The censors: The country music industry. On March 10th, 2003, in an intimate London club, one sentence would change the course of the band’s career forever.
By the time the Chicks reached London they were at the height of their fame and one of the most successful groups in popular music. Their Top of The World Tour, which would start in small clubs and theatres in Europe before returning to the USA for a five month stint in arenas, was on its way to becoming the highest grossing country music tour ever. They had already been crowned the biggest selling female group in history, and were widely considered to be the archetypal, all-American, female country band. The pressure that came with this tag certainly wasn’t weighing on the minds of lead singer Natalie Maines, and sisters Emily Robison and Martie Maquire when they took the stage at Shepherd’s Bush Empire, however; outside the venue anti-war protests and the imminent invasion of Iraq dominated the headlines.
Following a string of sultry, harmony infused, bluegrass songs from the group’s latest release, Home, Maines uttered the words, “Just so you know, […] we’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas”, to a cheering crowd. The statement, picked up by a review in the British newspaper, The Guardian, before being transported across the Atlantic through internet message boards, was not so amicably received back in the States.
Starting with a post on the internet message board at countrynation.com, radio stations, the backbone of the country music industry, were quick to remove the band from their playlists citing listener demand as their reasoning. By the time the group returned to the States in May their concerts were being protested, rallies were organised for the sole purpose of destroying Dixie Chicks albums, and Maines received a letter saying that she would “be shot dead at [her] show in Dallas”. The group were being all but physically removed from country music.
But what really was the source of all this hatred? Whilst it is true that radio stations did receive phone calls from listeners stating that they would not tune in anymore if the station continued to play the band’s music, this appeared to be coming from a small but vocal minority. The internet allowed for the news and disapproval to be quickly spread among ultra-conservative Bush supporters, with message boards such as the one at FreeRepublic.com urging angered individuals to call their local radio stations in protest. As R.J. Curtis, who was programme director for KZLA-FM at the time, detailed to me: “What you really had were people who heard the story on the news, heard the Chicks were a country act and called the only country station in Los Angeles to vent. […] A lot of them weren’t really KZLA listeners.” Whilst this in itself would be cause for alarm for any radio station, this was not the only forcing hand that pushed the Dixie Chicks out of country music.
Thanks to the 1996 Telecommunications Act which removed barriers that had previously controlled the monopolisation of media organisations, by 2003 Clear Channel had garnered such a dominant stronghold on the radio market that it was almost unavoidable in everyday American life[i]. What this meant in real terms was that if you weren’t in the broadcasting corporation’s good books, you weren’t going to fare well in the music business.
Starting in 2001, Clear Channel began to tighten their grip over what was and wasn’t acceptable to be heard by the general public in a post 9/11 world. Shortly after the attack on the World Trade Center, a list was circulated among Clear Channel owned radio stations containing more than 150 popular music songs which were now deemed “inappropriate” for airplay. Not only were they concerned over songs that might offend a grieving audience, but also programming which might paint the President or U.S. foreign policy in a negative light. In October 2001, a DJ in San Francisco was fired for airing clips of a speech made by Congresswoman Barbara Lee opposing the war in Afghanistan and in 2004 Howard Stern was removed from six major markets following disparaging remarks he made about the President. Neither of these incidents are surprising when you consider Clear Channel’s strong ties to the Bush administration (in the first 4 years of the decade Clear Channel donated three quarters of its campaign contributions to Republican candidates), nor are they isolated.
With this in mind, it becomes clear how the censorship of the Dixie Chicks was more than just audience driven. A large proportion of the radio stations which removed the Dixie Chicks were Clear Channel owned, and several pro-war/anti-Chicks rallies were organised and sponsored by Clear Channel and radio stations owned by them[ii]. Whether or not the organisation’s plea that there was no direct mandate for the banning of the Dixie Chicks is true doesn’t matter, the outcome would still be the same. Thanks to the way the corporation associated itself with the Republican Party, and its stronghold on the radio industry, anyone brave or dumb enough to step out of alignment with Clear Channel’s political views (artists and DJ’s alike) was committing career suicide. The moment that Maines spoke those words in London, the Dixie Chicks had been blacklisted from country radio.
It was this combination of vocal consumers, Clear Channel’s radio dominance, and country music’s historical ties with the Republican party[iii], conservatism, and unwavering patriotism in times of war that led to the demonisation of the Dixie Chicks and their being dismissed from country music. By the time the group released their comeback album, Taking the Long Way, in 2006, the Dixie Chicks had been outright rejected by the country music industry[iv]. Despite taking home five Grammy Awards for the album and lead single, ‘Not Ready to Make Nice’, in 2007, the group have yet to be invited back to any country music awards show. Sales for their 2006 Accidents and Accusations tour were low in previously well-selling markets and the group have been on a semi-hiatus since 2007, performing only a handful of shows across the States and Canada.
Aside from its status as a cautionary tale, this incident acts as an example of how the American music industry has taken a turn for the worse since the attacks of 9/11. In the mid-2000’s, many accused the media industries of imposing McCarthy-esque levels of censorship, that being censorship enforced through fear. With the widely publicised downfall of the Dixie Chicks, the amount of music which genuinely challenges its listener’s political or social values has reached almost nil – for already established artists, this move is far too risky. This is not to say that this music is not being made, we can be sure that it can be found on the gritty edges of the underground, but, thanks to the precedent set down by organisations such as Clear Channel, it will never reach the mainstream.
Currently McGuire and Robison perform in Court Yard Hounds while Maines is poised to release her debut (intentionally uncountry) solo album in May.
[i] Following the Telecommunications Act, Clear Channel went from owning just over 40 radio stations to more than 1,200.
[ii] Refusing to let Clear Channel take all the credit, it should also be noted that Cumulus also took part in censoring the Dixie Chicks, placing an out-right ban on the Dixie Chicks music for 30 days in certain markets.
[iii] To see just how different the outcome could have been had Maines commented on a Democratic president one needs only to look at the lack of response Hank Williams Jr’s 2011 analogy between Barack Obama and Adolf Hitler received.
[iiv] Taking the Long Way took much of its lyrical content from the incident with ‘Not Ready to Make Nice’ acting as a defiant response to the fan-backlash and ‘Bitter End’ focusing on the absence of support from the country music industry in the wake of the incident.