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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

September 17, 2014: Country Music and Society: The Dixie Chicks and Strong Women

[As with any longstanding, popular cultural genre, country music has a complex, evolving relationship to American society. In this series, I’ll highlight five ways we can AmericanStudy the genre and those social connections and meanings. I’d love to hear your country connections and analyses for a twangtastic crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On the strength and independence we seem to value, and those we don’t.
One of the central narratives of the country music scene over the last few years has been the rise of strong female voices and artists. Of course there have been examples of such artists for decades, including Monday’s subject Dolly Parton and many others, but the sheer number of breakout young female stars on the current country scene is undeniable: from established talents like Gretchen Wilson, Miranda Lambert, and Carrie Underwood to on-the-verge artists like Kacey Musgraves, the Pistol Annies, and the Band Perry (among many many others in each category). Moreover, many of these artists have risen to prominence with hit songs of female empowerment, strength, and independence, whether sassy and proud (Wilson’s “Redneck Woman”), angry and defiant (Underwood’s “Before He Cheats”), or simply self-confident and wise (Musgraves’ “Follow Your Arrow”).
Among the most prominent, popular turn of the 21st century predecessors to these recent female stars would have to be the Dixie Chicks, a group that from their name to their early hit “Goodbye Earl” (2000), the single for which was paired with a tongue-in-cheek B-side of “Stand By Your Man” for added effect, embodied these concepts of strong, independent country women. And then came March 2003, when lead singer Natalie Maines expressed her strong, independent perspective on the imminent Iraq War, telling a British audience that “We don't want this war, this violence, and we're ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas." While it’s fair to say that the overall American reactions to Maines’ comments were mixed, with plenty of agreement and support from anti-war voices (including country legend Merle Haggard), it’d also be accurate to call the reaction of the country music scene and country fans overwhelmingly negative: from public record destructions and boycotts to private death threats, and just about everything in between.
Of course I understand that the specific historical moment of Maines’ comments—and the related, broader context of the “love it or leave it” version of patriotism which surrounded both the Iraq War and the Bush presidency—played into that particular response. But on the other hand, I would argue that gender did too—that the far more extreme and hysterical response to the Dixie Chicks (compared for example to the response to Haggard’s anti-Iraq War statements and song) had at least something to do with the fact that a trio of women were leveling this critique on the powers that be. Which is to say, 21st century country music and America in general might well support strong, independent female voices and artists, might even embrace such figures more fully than at any prior point in our culture—but it seems clear to me that there remains a glass ceiling on such support, one connected to images of what kind of independence is permissible from our artists and cultural figures and what isn’t.
Next country connection tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Responses to this post, or other country connections you'd highlight?

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