How The Chicks Continue To Be Unabashedly Political

As The Chicks finally tour their 2020 album Gaslighter, their legacy of political outspokenness has become the template for women pop stars today.

Hours after the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and decimated the federal right to abortion in the US, Natalie Maines, the lead singer of the Chicks, was onstage in Toronto. “Back in the dressing room, I was watching a clip of Phoebe Bridgers at Glastonbury and she said ‘fuck the Supreme Court!’” she told the audience. Maines feigned shock that Bridgers would say such a thing. “I was like, you can’t say that! Especially on foreign soil, what is she thinking? She’s gonna get canceled!” She giggled and her bandmates laughed. The audience roared with them.

Last week, just three dates into the Chicks’ 2022 Gaslighter Tour, Maines was given vocal rest orders. After canceling three tour dates, Maines got her voice back and returned to the stage in Toronto, the same day rage exploded across America.

The Chicks were ridiculed and threatened, told to “shut up and sing,” but now see themselves vindicated.

Maines was winking at what has unfairly become the Chicks’ legacy: when their career was disrupted at extraordinary heights. In 2003, The Chicks — then the Dixie Chicks; they changed their name during the 2020 protests, dropping the “Dixie” because of its association with the South during the Civil War — were also on foreign soil. They were performing in the UK at the outset of the Iraq War when Maines made the statement that would forever alter the band’s trajectory. She told the audience the Chicks were ashamed to be from the same state as George W. Bush.

The maelstrom was swift. Almost immediately, the Chicks were blacklisted from country radio. People held album-burning rallies. Country singer Toby Keith performed to audiences in front of an altered photo that showed Maines hugging Saddam Hussein. In the span of weeks, the Chicks went from one of the most successful acts in America to one of the most pilloried.

In the aftermath, Maines first raged against an industry that abandoned the Chicks. Then she raged against the threats directed at her band, especially the one that came with a detailed plan, saying in a letter that “you will be shot dead at your show in Dallas.” And when the Chicks took a hiatus and returned in 2020 with Gaslighter, their first album in 14 years that was built around Maines’ divorce, that too had moments that glow incandescent with rage directed at an ex-husband who tried to prevent the band from releasing music about the breakup. The fucking nerve.

Nineteen years later, here is the house that Maines’ rage built: at the Glastonbury music festival, Bridgers wasn’t the only one to speak out; the same night, Billie Eilish told the crowd that “today is a really, really dark day for women in the US.” Olivia Rodrigo brought out Lily Allen and dedicated “Fuck You” to the five Supreme Court justices who voted to bring Roe down. Lorde spoke out. Country star Maren Morris vowed to “fight.” Meanwhile, Taylor Swift, who for a stretch was criticized for avoiding politics and who once revealed in a Netflix documentary that “throughout my whole career, label executives and publishers would say, ‘Don’t be like the Dixie Chicks,’” shared her thoughts on Twitter, saying she was “terrified.

The Chicks were ridiculed and threatened, told to “shut up and sing,” but now see themselves vindicated. This is how their legacy should be understood: They opened a door for women to be as angry as they need to be in an industry that has often discouraged such anger, and a whole new generation of artists walked through it. Perhaps Maines’ laugh was a recognition that they built the path for Bridgers and Eilish to say what they needed to say. Perhaps that’s why after she had her laugh, Maines straightened her posture and repeated the words with a serious face, this time without attributing them to Bridgers: “Fuck the Supreme Court.”

Before the Chicks took the stage, the lights went off and Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation” filled the venue. It’s a mood-setter but also a signal of values: This band is going to do what it wants to do, regardless of what you think of them. It’s also a gesture that if you thought you could go to a Chicks show and relive the nostalgia of their hits pre–Iraq War statement without challenge, you’re in the wrong place.

Politics aren’t peripheral to the Gaslighter tour. As they played through “Tights On My Boat,” a revenge anthem about a cheating partner with a refrain that repeats, “You’re gonna get what you got coming to ya,” an animation of a boat with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s face superimposed on it floated across the screen before sinking. It would not have been lost on anyone that, possibly at the exact same time, Cruz was celebrating the fall of Roe.

Politics aren’t peripheral to the Gaslighter tour.

Meanwhile, during one break in the show, the screen simply cycled through names of cities and numbers. A few city names in, it became clear that it was a list of mass shootings and the number of people dead in each: Columbine, 13; Las Vegas, 60; Sandy Hook, 26. It would not surprise me if they intend to update the video with the Uvalde shooting.

But perhaps the most potent moment of the show was the performance of “March March.” The song’s video, initially released during the wave of protests that followed the murder of George Floyd in 2020, cycles through the names of Black people killed by police. For the stage show, Maines took a drum solo while the names flashed behind her. The screen cycled through signs that read, “Dump your racist boyfriend” and “Hands off Roe.” As Maines concluded her solo, the screen held on a woman holding a protest sign that read, “My body, my choice.” The crowd roared in appreciation. Then a pair of protest signs appeared, one that read, “Keep your laws off our bodies,” and another that read, “End the filibuster, expand the court, codify Roe v Wade.”

I am grateful to have Maines’ voice, with its precise and dignified rage. I am grateful, too, that she can take moments to rest her voice because she no longer has to be the only one saying what needs to be said. Her disciples are many, whether it’s Rodrigo and Bridgers or Swift and Morris.

After she said “fuck the Supreme Court,” Maines launched into “Long Time Gone.” On this night, it’s the song that strained her voice most, pushing her to the very edges of her still-recovering vocals. But she reached for the notes with her trademark ferocity, knowing that if she doesn’t make it all the way there this time, the crowd is ready to carry out the mission and finish the job. ●

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