Some punishments fit the crime, while others spiral out of proportion. We get it, there are actions that deserve to be cancelled, but for some people, the slightest slip-up can be life-ruining. With Cancel Cancel Culture, Refinery29 will examine the implications of "cancelling" public figures whose fuckups — major or minor — were put on trial in the court of public opinion. We'll also pose the question: Is it finally time for cancel culture to be cancelled, too?
For a band that hasn’t released an album in more than a decade, the Dixie Chicks have had an amazing few years. Their 2016 DCX MMXVI World Tour sold out stadiums. A 2016 CMAs performance accompanying Beyoncé on “Daddy Lessons” went viral. In June 2019, they announced a new album was on the way — their first since 2006 — with Jack Antonoff, a producer famous for his work with Lorde, Lana Del Rey, and Taylor Swift. Speaking of Swift, the singer seems to have recently taken on a second job promoting the Dixie Chicks. After collaborating with the band on her 2019 track “Soon You’ll Get Better,” she sported a Dixie Chicks button on the cover of Entertainment Weekly, featured a painting of them in the video for “Me!,” and referred to the early-aughts country superstars as “the most amazing group we had.”
It’s a great run, by any measure, but it shouldn’t be shocking that a band like the Dixie Chicks could hit such heights. Remember: This is a group that gained massive public attention in 1998 with Wide Open Spaces, which sold more than 12 million copies worldwide. The Dixie Chicks — singer Natalie Maines, banjo player Emily Strayer (formerly Robison), and fiddle player Martie Maguire — were nominated for Best New Artist at the 1998 Grammy Awards. They lost to Lauryn Hill, but the trio took home golden gramophones for Best Country Album and Best Country Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal (“There’s Your Trouble”). Their meteoric rise continued with 1999’s Fly, which debuted at #1, sold over 10 million copies, and again won Grammys for both Best Country Album and Best Country Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal (“Ready to Run”). They began headlining arenas in 2000. And their third major label album, 2002’s Home, seemed poised to be their greatest success yet. It not only debuted at #1 and won multiple Grammys; it also yielded the band’s first-ever Top 10 pop chart singles, “Long Time Gone” and “Landslide.”
But seeing where the Dixie Chicks are now, in 2020, is remarkable when you consider exactly what they’re coming back from. After all, the band didn’t stop releasing albums due to the usual peaks and valleys of fame. Rather, in 2003, after criticizing then-president George W. Bush (and refusing to apologize for it), the band was cancelled — a moment which was arguably the first time the internet played a role in cancelling a celebrity for having an unpopular opinion.
The fall of the Dixie Chicks created the blueprint for how we currently cancel celebrities over their opinions. And examining how exactly they got cancelled — and what happened afterwards — might be the best way to truly understand what this part of cancel culture is really about.
You don't want to be ‘Dixie Chicks-ed,’ meaning you don't want to say one thing that's going to blow up your whole career.
In early 2003, the Dixie Chicks were country icons and, at the time, the most popular female musical group of all time. Their newly released album Home was flying high, and the band performed on Saturday Night Live and sang the National Anthem at the Super Bowl. And though they had encountered controversy — like when some radio stations refused to play their 2000 hit “Goodbye Earl,” a peppy ode to murdering an abusive husband — the band had never been openly political.
And then, at a March 10, 2003 concert in London, singer Natalie Maines paused between songs to chat. The U.S. was about a week out from invading Iraq and beginning the Iraq War — a decision that was largely popular within the States at the time but broadly criticized in the rest of the world, including in London. Just weeks earlier, 2 million Brits had taken to the city’s streets to march against the upcoming war. “Just so you know,” Maines told the audience, “we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas.”
Betty Clarke, who was reviewing the concert for U.K. newspaper The Guardian, told Refinery29 that “along with the huge cheers from the crowd, there was an audible gasp, too.” Though Clarke quoted Maines’ words positively in her review, in the U.S., there was an almost-immediate backlash to the comment. Country stations began refusing to play the band’s songs after listeners flooded their phone lines complaining about the Dixie Chicks.
In the 2006 documentary Shut Up & Sing, which followed the Dixie Chicks during and after the remark, band members Maines, Maguire, and Strayer are shown discussing whether they should just offer a simple apology. Instead, two days after making her first comment, Maines released a statement on the band’s website — the equivalent of a celebrity’s Notes app Instagram post today. In the statement, which was seen by millions of fans and picked up by news outlets, she doubled down on her criticism, noting, “I feel the president is ignoring the opinions of many in the U.S. and alienating the rest of the world…While we support our troops, there is nothing more frightening than the notion of going to war with Iraq and the prospect of all the innocent lives that will be lost.”
Two days later, on March 14, Maines released a softer statement, apologizing for the tone of the original comment — “As a concerned American citizen, I apologize to President Bush because my remark was disrespectful” — and again noting her support of the troops. (The Dixie Chicks declined to participate in this article.)
Pulling back on her initial remarks did little to quell rage among many country music fans, and by the week’s end, radio airplay for the Chicks fell by 20%, with some stations even organizing events where former fans could smash, burn, run over, and otherwise destroy their CDs. Cumulus, the national media company that banned the Dixie Chicks from being played on country radio stations it owned, told Refinery29 it has no comment on the matter. The band’s music sales also plummeted; their single “Travelin’ Soldier” almost instantly dropped from #1 to #63 on country sales charts. In the coming months, their U.S. tour dates would be marred by protesters and so many death threats that the band had to hire an additional security team.
The cancellation of the Dixie Chicks was driven in large part by conservative listeners, who were shocked to discover that their favorite band didn’t share their political opinions. As Maguire said in a 2006 interview on MSNBC’s Hardball, “You’ve just got a majority of the core of country music listening audience kind of feeling the same way about politics, and we always kind of felt like the black sheep [regarding our political beliefs] but never really used the stage to talk about politics.” Musicians working in other genres — say, pop singer-songwriter Sheryl Crow, who appeared at the 2003 Grammys with a guitar strap that said “No War” — didn’t face the same professional repercussions for taking an anti-war stance.
But the cancellation was also driven by the fact that in 2003, in the era before Instagram Stories and tweeting at the president, people weren’t used to hearing celebrities make off-the-cuff remarks, period, let alone controversial off-the-cuff remarks.
Of course, the Dixie Chicks weren’t the first musicians to be cancelled over an unpopular opinion. In 1992, Irish singer Sinéad O’Connor saw her pop career fall apart after she tore up a photo of Pope John Paul II on live TV in protest of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. And in 1966, the freakin’ Beatles were thoroughly cancelled — they too encountered protesters, death threats, and radio stations that refused to play their music after John Lennon told a magazine that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus.”
But the immediacy of the then-still-new internet allowed outrage to fly across the world instantly (it also, according to Maines, gave Dixie Chicks haters new ways to strategize about how to best protest the band). It was the first taste many people had gotten of today’s no-filter celebrity culture, and for some of them, it was a shock. “It seemed a much bigger deal than it would now,” says Clarke. “People weren’t used to hearing very famous people give their opinions so honestly.”
By the end of April 2003, everyone, including G.W. Bush himself, had weighed in on the incident, and the Dixie Chicks had decided that speaking out was their game plan. Instead of pulling the typical “celebrities under scrutiny” move and claiming to be unavailable, they spoke to the press, and posed naked for an Entertainment Weekly cover story with insults that had been hurled at them, like “Dixie Sluts” and “Saddam’s Angels,” painted on their bodies. The same week, they were interviewed on ABC’s Primetime by Diane Sawyer, who chided them, “Do you feel awful about using that word about the President of the United States?” Maines declared, “I think the way I said it was disrespectful…I feel regret for, you know, the choice of words. Am I sorry that I asked questions and that I don't just follow? No."
They were defiant. They didn't apologize, really.
The Dixie Chicks completed their 2003 tour as planned, and spent the next two years laying comparatively low and recording their new album. Country radio programmer Julie Stevens told The New York Times in 2006 that, prior to the album’s release, she had assumed outraged fans would “forgive and forget” the Chicks when they released new music.
But that album, 2006’s Taking the Long Way, didn’t express any of the remorse that former fans might have expected. In fact, its first single, “Not Ready to Make Nice,” directly addressed the fallout from Maines’ comments — the protests, the death threats — and shouted out the band’s refusal to back down (“It's too late to make it right/I probably wouldn't if I could”). After hearing that song, Stevens told The Times, she knew that forgiveness from former fans was “not going to happen.” Country radio stations still refused to play any of their songs.
So the Dixie Chicks looked for ways to connect with new fans, striking up partnerships with liberal-leaning businesses like Starbucks to sell the album. The strategy seemed to bear fruit — “Not Ready To Make Nice” reached #4 on the Billboard Hot 100, giving them the highest-charting song of their career, and the album debuted at #1. They swept that year’s Grammys, winning Album of the Year for the first time. “I think a lot of people who’d never heard of the band suddenly started listening, and they gained a much more mainstream audience,” says Clarke.
However, their newfound mainstream audience only took them so far — Taking the Long Way ended up selling only 2 million copies. Which, to be sure, is nothing to sneeze at, especially at the beginning of the Napster/mp3 era, when increasing numbers of listeners chose to download music illegally instead of buying it. But considering that the band’s previous albums had all sold between 6 and 12 million copies each, it was the biggest failure of their career. Their tour struggled; while they had once sold out venues in minutes, they were now cancelling some dates on their tour due to low sales. Being hailed as free speech icons by major media outlets didn't seem to be translating into an actual workable music career.
Soon after, the Dixie Chicks — who, just three years earlier had seemed unstoppable — went silent for almost a decade, performing only sporadically and recording no new music. In the country music industry, there is a saying, longtime country music journalist and Change the Conversation cofounder Beverly Keel tells Refinery29: “‘You don't want to be 'Dixie Chicks-ed,’ meaning you don't want to say one thing that's going to blow up your whole career.”
“I think it's notable that the biggest artists in country for about five years were a trio of three women who were outspoken and sang about a lot of issues that are important to women,” Emily VanDerWerff, Vox’s Critic-at-Large, told Refinery29 (as a college student, VanDerWerff wrote an op-ed in the school paper questioning the Iraq war, and suffered a small-scale version of the Chicks’ cancellation). “Then, they were silenced.”
I want to be the Dixie Chicks for this next generation.
“What you can't underestimate is how passionately people felt about them,” says Keel. Years after the comment, she recalls, if she wrote about the band, she’d receive “a call the next day in the morning from a reader that said, ‘How dare you write about them? They're traitors.’”
Their gender, their genre, and the fact that they made the comment outside of the U.S. were factors in the backlash, says Keel. “And that they were defiant. They didn't apologize, really.”
Considering all the ground that the Dixie Chicks broke, it’s almost fitting that they also pioneered getting cancelled in the digital age. But their refusal to back down didn’t just impact their legacy; it impacted how we see cancellation itself. Through their actions, the Dixie Chicks asserted that fandom isn’t ownership and that you can’t control someone’s thoughts just because you buy their albums or see their movies (or refuse to buy their albums or see their movies). They asserted their rights to be complex human beings and not live up to whatever image their fans projected. It was an incredibly risky statement to make. But in the end, it paid off, for them, and for everyone else who refuses to shut up and sing.