This article is a part of the Daily Arts “Canceled” b-side. For a full look at our b-side pieces exploring this theme, click this link.

As the Chicks repeatedly recounted in 2003, lead singer Natalie Maines was speaking off-the-cuff when she told a London crowd “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas.” When the Chicks returned to the States, the comment led to death threats, smashed CDs and a brush with “cancel culture.” Then, eventually, a 14-year hiatus.

The hiatus ended this year as the Chicks re-entered the spotlight with their album Gaslighter. Given the growing laundry list of celebs who have earned a #ThisPersonIsOver party, the 2003 controversy was continuously revisited over the course of their promotion cycle and sometimes marked as one of the first instances of “cancel culture.” Like clockwork, the interviewer would be baffled that the comments had caused them so much trouble and, like clockwork, the trio would laugh then nod knowingly with a tight smile. If Maines had said the same thing today, the group agreed, no one would have batted an eye. Or would they? 

What these conversations don’t always consider is who, or what, did the “canceling” in the first place. In the Chicks’ case, this wasn’t a bunch of teens on the Internet, it was the country music industry. Prior to the London concert, nearly every one of the band’s singles had cracked the top 10 on the US Country Chart since 1997. While the group had already outgrown Nashville, having aligned with Sony New York in 2001, country music, and country radio, had still been the Chicks’ home.

Until, of course, they were blacklisted. The Chicks haven’t charted in the top 10 since. By the summer of the controversy the issue became so contentious that the Senate Commerce Committee held a congressional hearing. Radio executives supported their decision to ban the group by citing listeners’ ongoing frustration. However, by June the protests had died down and the Chicks had successfully continued the US leg of their tour — all while the boycott persisted. Though artists in other genres may find paths to stardom without it, radio is almost essential to success in the country music world, even today. 

So the Chicks stopped trying to be successful in country music. When one world shut them out, another wanted to hear what they had to say. They posed on the cover of Entertainment Weekly and sat down with Diane Sawyer. Their album, Taking the Long Way, won Album of the Year at the 2007 Grammys. And, in 2020, they’re perfectly comfortable speaking their mind on all of the biggest news outlets — and being loved for it. In a word, the Chicks weren’t “canceled” at all. 

Instead, it was a rejection. Rejection by an industry that has carefully crafted a fantasy of who its main stars can be — white, straight, conservative or, at the very least, quiet. Still, the Chicks weren’t rejected for speaking their mind — Charlie Daniels still tweets propaganda from his grave and was honored at this year’s Country Music Association Awards — but for saying the wrong thing. In their documentary about the controversy “Shut Up & Sing,” Martie Maguire, the Chicks’ fiddle player, guesses that the key to the ferocity of the backlash was that Maines’s statement had been unexpected. Everyone had just assumed they fit the mold. 

As it turns out, adhering to such limitations is exhausting. Later in the film, Maguire admits that Maines’s comments were the best thing that ever happened to them. They no longer had to try to please country radio and found they still had an audience anyway. Of course, so many aspiring country artists can’t say the same about their own rejection. The people who can’t pretend to fit, like Mickey Guyton, can rarely acquire the industry resources needed to find an audience so that they can ditch the industry like the Chicks did. It’s a Catch-22 that mostly keeps anyone who isn’t white, straight and conservative (or quiet) out. Country music’s problem isn’t about who they “cancel,” but who they exclude.

 

Daily Arts Writer Katie Beekman can be reached at beekmank@umich.edu.

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