Chicks and Balances

By Eugene Robinson
Friday, June 2, 2006

The music business can be so arbitrarily cruel that any artist whose new album debuts at the top of the charts has earned the right to gloat, at least a little. So that means the Dixie Chicks, to whom the country music industry has been deliberately cruel, deserve to gloat a lot. Since Natalie Maines, Emily Robison and Martie Maguire are being excessively polite about their sweet vindication, I'll do a little gloating for them.

"Taking the Long Way," the Chicks' new album, opened at No. 1 on the Billboard charts last week, with 525,829 copies sold. That would be remarkable under any circumstances -- the Chicks, by some measures, have become the most successful female group in history -- but it's downright astounding given that many country stations are refusing to play the album's first single, "Not Ready to Make Nice."

In fact, a lot of country stations have refused to play any of the Dixie Chicks' songs since March 10, 2003. By then it was clear that nothing would deter George W. Bush from launching his elective war in Iraq, and the Chicks were giving a concert in London, where popular opinion generally saw the impending invasion as pure madness. Maines committed the crime of speaking her mind. "Just so you know," the golden-haired, golden-voiced Texan told the audience, "we're ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas."

Back home, the Chicks were denounced as traitors on right-wing talk radio. Country music deejays, apparently seeing jingoism as a good career move, not only denounced the Chicks but refused to play their music. Some said they were just responding to listeners who threatened to boycott stations that dared to broadcast the Dixie Chicks' sweet harmonies.

The following month, after the war had begun -- but long before we knew how the administration had contrived its rationale for the invasion or how it had failed to plan for the bloody, grinding occupation that continues to this day -- Tom Brokaw raised the Dixie Chicks controversy in an interview with the president, asking if he would invite them to the White House. President Bush never gave a yes or a no, but he did have something to say:

"I mean, the Dixie Chicks are free to speak their mind. They can say what they want to say. And just because -- they shouldn't have their feelings hurt just because some people don't want to buy their records when they speak out. You know, freedom is a two-way street."

That sounds to me like a pretty clear presidential endorsement of a boycott of the Chicks. In fairness to Bush, though, I'm sure he wouldn't approve of all that followed -- frequent harassment and even death threats.

Standard procedure would have been for the Chicks to grovel and beg forgiveness. Instead, they responded by posing for the cover of Entertainment Weekly in the nude, their bodies covered with graffiti -- "Saddam's Angels," "Proud Americans," "Boycott," "Free Speech," "Shut Up," "Peace." At one point, Maines issued a modified, limited, half-hearted apology, which she quickly retracted. Her position was that all she had done was speak her mind.

Robison and Maguire never faltered in backing her up, although they did tell "60 Minutes" that during one concert, after a particularly chilling threat that Maines would be shot dead on stage, they might have stood a little farther away from their lead singer than usual.

"I didn't know we lived in a time when just speaking your mind would bring out this much wrath," Robison said Wednesday night in an interview on "Larry King Live." For the past few weeks, the Chicks have been pretty much inescapable with around-the-clock television appearances. They even graced the cover of Time magazine (fully clothed).

It's not yet clear whether the new album is being bought by country music fans who are ignoring the industry's party line because they like the music or by non-fans who are using their credit cards in support of free speech. It is clear, though, that both Bush and his war have become unpopular, even in communities where, as the joke goes, they like both kinds of music: country and western.

Are the Chicks just milking their notoriety to sell CDs and downloads? I doubt it, since they already had two No. 1 albums to their credit when all this started. I think that what you see is what you get -- three women who are musicians, not activists, but who decided they aren't going to be pushed around by a bunch of bullies.

The controversy "turned my whole world around," Maines sings on the new single, "and I kind of like it."

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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