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Dare To Be Free: The Dixie Chicks' Existential Conversion
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On March 10, 2003, Natalie Maines, frontwoman for country music's darlings, the Dixie Chicks, made the following remark between numbers at a concert in London's Shepherd's Bush Empire theatre: "We do not want this war, this violence, and we're ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas." At the time, U.S. forces were poised to invade Iraq on the grounds that Saddam Hussein's government was in possession of, and concealing, illegal weapons of mass destruction. Maines was indeed concerned about the gathering storm and felt that the Bush Administration's rationale for the upcoming war was misguided. Her statement, however, was a performer's calculated gesture to draw cheers and applause from an audience in a country where significant anti-war demonstrations were already taking place. While Maines' gambit worked to the band's advantage that night in London, it quickly ignited a firestorm of protest from the Chicks' country music fan base back in the United States. The details of this controversy have been well documented in the mainstream print press; on television, radio, and online; and even in academia (1). The incident and its fallout have revealed much about the role of politics in popular music (and popular music in politics), and in country music in particular. Freedom of speech has been a crucial issue in the reaction to Maines' statement and in the Chicks’ refusal to back down from an unpopular political position in the following months. In this study, however, I explore the notion of existential personal freedom and the way in which the dialectical conflict between self and other contributes to the formation of individual and group identity. This dynamic is at the heart of the Dixie Chicks' musical and political transformation since “the incident.” As performers, the Chicks present to their listeners an Other that, when accepted as a reflection of their fans’ own musical tastes and cultural, social, and political values, confirms and supports the listeners’ sense of self. At the same time, fans' and listeners' response to the musicians' message helps to create and perpetuate the performers' public and personal identities. This existential truth reveals itself clearly and dramatically after Maines' throwaway statement on a foreign stage is perceived as a hostile attack on the political beliefs of the band’s country music fan base and as a betrayal by a group whose very name suggests good ol' gal Southern conservatism. To paraphrase Jean-Paul Sartre, the Chicks suddenly found themselves “pinned by a look," butterflies fixed to a cork, naked in a place where everyone could see them and spit on them. But, says Sartre, "we are not lumps of clay, and what is important is not what people make of us but what we ourselves make of what they have made of us" (2). Exactly what the Dixie Chicks make — musically, politically, and personally — of what others have made of them will be the central theme of my essay. ******************** (1) Randy Rudder, "In Whose Name?: Country Artists Speak Out on Gulf War II," in Country Music Goes to War, ed. Charles K. Wolfe and James E. Akenson (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2005), pp. 208-225. (2) Jean-Paul Sartre, Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr, trans. Bernard Frechtman (New York: G. Braziller, 1963), p. 49.
A paper presented at the 15th Biennial Conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music, Liverpool, England, July 2009.
Country music; Politics in music
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