As U.S. tour ends, Dixie Chicks see free-speech risks, rewards

Sunday, August 17, 2003

I confess. I spent an entire evening looking at Natalie Maines’ chest.

Maines is an attractive young woman, but it was the message on her T-shirt that captured my attention: “Dare to Be Free.” This Nashville, Tenn., concert was the final stop on the Dixie Chicks’ U.S. tour, but it was the same shirt she wore on opening night in Greenville, S.C., setting a tone for the band’s travels across America.

When Maines stepped to the microphone at a London performance on March 10 and said, “Just so you know, we’re ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas,” it set off a firestorm and left many wondering whether the Dixie Chicks had sabotaged their careers.

After a near-apology about the tone of her remarks, Maines, Emily Robison and Martie Maguire regrouped and mounted an intensive campaign of their own. They appeared nude on the cover of Entertainment Weekly, wearing only the insulting epithets used by their critics. They celebrated freedom of speech in their concerts and, in a mid-show film clip, saluted great protest movements of the past and the First Amendment right of assembly.

Maines’ remark, public reaction and the Chicks’ counterattack suggest a new landscape for performers with a political bent. Fame doesn’t disqualify you from having a public opinion, but it does raise the stakes. Some lessons from what the Dixie Chicks now simply refer to as “the incident”:

  • Know your audience. Maines probably wasn’t looking beyond the walls of the concert hall when she took her shot at President Bush in London, but there’s no containing a controversial comment once it hits the Internet and talk radio. Outrage can go global in a hurry.
  • Free speech leads to more free speech. The First Amendment gives us free speech, but doesn’t render us free from criticism. Maines’ critical comments spurred widespread criticism, discussion and debate. The marketplace of ideas is alive and well.
  • Radio blacklisting isn’t just another form of marketing. In what it said was an effort to please its listeners, Cumulus Media ordered its 42 country music radio stations to ban all music by the Dixie Chicks for a month. This unprecedented exercise of corporate muscle drew the attention of the Senate Commerce Committee, which voiced concerns about a radio corporation that would impose company-wide blacklisting rather than allow program directors to make that decision at the local level.

At the hearing into FCC media-ownership regulations, committee chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., criticized Cumulus’ heavy-handed tactics. “I was more offended or as offended as anyone by the statement of the Dixie Chicks, but to restrain their trade because they exercised their right of free speech to me is remarkable,” he said.

Lewis Dickey, chief executive officer of Cumulus, looked uncomfortable at the hearing but apparently doesn’t regret his company’s move. In an interview with The Washington Post this month, he characterized the senators’ concerns as “populist grandstanding.”

  • Where and how you say something can almost be as important as what you say. Many public figures have raised concern about President Bush’s policies, but none fueled furor like that potent mix of a looming war, the presidency, Texas and professed embarrassment, all in a statement on “foreign soil.”
  • A single sentence does not have to be a death sentence. An offhand remark on a London stage doesn’t have to derail a career. Many Americans who were offended by the remarks still appreciate the Dixie Chicks as artists. Judging by the packed auditorium at concerts throughout the tour, it appears that the band’s biggest fans never strayed. In fact, their passion for the Dixie Chicks may have been deepened by the controversy.

Music historian Robert K. Oermann offered this assessment of the Nashville show, the final concert of the U.S. tour: “This group showed an intensity, an intelligence, a musicality that was so head and shoulders above just about everything else in country music. The audience went beyond being fans. There was practically worship going on in the room.”

The Dixie Chicks’ experience is a cautionary tale for celebrities tempted to speak out in the face of public opinion, but it also serves as a reminder that it takes some courage to exercise your First Amendment rights. In a society in which political correctness is rampant and controversy-hungry media will pounce on any provocative comment, the temptation is to say, “Sure, I can say whatever I want, but there’s no percentage in it.”

I respect celebrities – from Charlton Heston and Tom Selleck to Mike Farrell and Norman Lear – who research the issues, speak thoughtfully and refuse to let fame short-circuit their citizenship. I respect all Americans – whatever their occupation – who care enough to fully participate in this extraordinary democracy.

This nation was founded by hell-raisers, dissenters and rebels. That willingness to raise issues, question authority and take risks has served us well for more than 227 years. That spirit can be summed up in a few words and can even fit on the front of a T-shirt.

Dare to be free.

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