Mike tells Sarah about an impending conflict, a dissident singer and America's first internet-enabled cancellation. Digressions include "Freedom Fries" and 1990s record company shenanigans. The co-hosts harmonize for the first time; Mike struggles not to call the Chicks by their former name.
Content note: This episode includes misogynistic, racist and fatphobic language.
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Sarah: You know, what is important is if you under prepare, you just have to blame it on everyone and start a war. Welcome to You're Wrong About where we talk about who really gets canceled and why you don't mess with Texas.
Mike: Ooh, that is good.
Sarah: Thank you.
Mike: I am Michael Hobbes.
Sarah: I'm Sarah Marshall.
Mike: And if you'd like to support the show and hear cute bonus episodes, you can find us on patreon.com/yourewrongabout, and you can find Sarah on Why Our Dads and you can find Mike on Maintenance Phase.
Sarah: And I'll say, you can find us here right now because the most convenient, possible thing.
Mike: You can continue finding us and today we are talking about The Chicks.
Sarah: Yes. The artist formerly known as the Dixie Chicks, I feel like this is a good way to introduce them.
Mike: Yes. So, okay a month and a half ago, I started researching an episode on Cancel Culture, one of the defining moral panics of our era.
Sarah: Yes, your OJ Simpson trial, in some senses.
Mike: Exactly. And I was like, okay, I'm going to look into the precursors. You know, I'll do like a little 15, 10-minute segment on Political Correctness. And then I read like two books and then I found a bunch of these articles and I was, oh shit, like now this has to be its own episode. And after we recorded the Political Correctness episode, I was, okay, next week we're doing Cancel Culture. I'm going to do like a little prelude, 10-15 minutes on The Chicks and everything that happened 2003.
Sarah: I know your 10 minutes.
Mike: And then I read two biographies, I found a bunch of long form articles, a bunch of old interviews and I was like, oh, there is a real story here. So this is kind of become the two towers of a Cancel Culture trilogy.
Sarah: Oh no. That's delightful and that makes sense, because this seems like the one where we get to cultural warfare after a lot of tension.
Mike: We are gonna sort of reintroduce a lot of the same characters from Political Correctness, and we're going to set things up for next episode, when I promise we finally get to actual Cancel Culture.
Sarah: Well, such as it may be.
Mike: Such as it may be. But I want us to keep in mind the institution of “cancellation” as we go through this episode. I think it's a really interesting way to look at this episode and what happened in 2003. Because a lot of the articles about this massive explosion in 2003, they all mentioned this hasn't happened - like a celebrity cancellation - like this hasn't happened since Sinead O'Connor in 1992. We didn't use to have this many of these. Right? Like this is something that's so difficult to remember because celebrities have so many more outlets to make political statements now.
Mike: So, yeah, what do you remember about this?
Sarah: Okay. So basically, what I remember about it is that it was leading up to, or at the start of the Iraq war. At a concert that the band, then known as the Dixie Chicks, gave. One of them, I want to guess it was Natalie Maines, but I might just be saying that because she's the only member whose name I remember, said of George Bush, “He's not our President.” And I thought that was really cool because I'd been saying that about him since he was elected and I was, yes, me either, that's great. I like your songs more now. And then everyone lost their minds for literally months.
Mike: Yeah, it was huge. This is an excerpt from an excellent Texas Monthly article about this in 2013, it says, “In barely five years, the Dixie Chicks first three records had sold 28 million copies, their then current album home had sold 6 million in six months. But in the 10 years, since Natalie spoke those words, none of those records has sold even 1 million more copies, and the Dixie Chicks as an entity, scarcely exists.”
Mike: They fell off a cliff after this happened.
Sarah: And I remember that, because they used to get a lot of radio play.
Mike: Yes. What do you remember about the losing their minds phase?
Sarah: I'm going to bring up Margaret Cho again, because she had a routine about this and about like just the spectacle of people coming together to publicly destroy their albums, their CDs, and their tapes, and having them bulldozed. There was a sense of like they had achieved kind of mainstream country success and they had to be pulled out at the roots.
Sarah: It's so weird how you can write a song kind of like endorsing the idea of murdering someone and then say, I don't like the man who is President right now. And people are like, “Where did this come from, how can it be?”
Mike: What is your relationship with country music?
Sarah: Oh, I mean, my mom has always had country music on in the car and my sense of it is that it is a big American musical ecosystem. That has a lot of things that I love inside of it.
Mike: So I didn't get any country music growing up. We were like a Paul Simon, Jesus Christ Superstar family. One of the great joys of researching this episode is listening to non-stop country music the whole time.
Sarah: That's so exciting for you.
Mike: It’s wonderful. And we need to do a brief history of country music before we get into the dynamics of The Chicks in the 1990s.
Sarah: Of course we do, alright, yeah.
Mike: So, you know, no genre has a definition, but the old joke is that the definition of country music is three chords and the truth. Country music is basically a weird bouillabaisse of all of these different folk traditions.
So, in the late 1800s, there's all these people arriving to the United States each with their own folk tradition. So, there's like Swiss yodeling, there's Scottish ballads, there's like German Prodo Schlager stuff. Everybody has these singing that they're bringing with them.
Sarah: There's Oom-pah bands.
Mike: The Eurovision song contest. It's a very diverse time. So you essentially have in the South, poor white people, poor black people, and indigenous populations. There's a lot of opportunities for these musical traditions to affect each other. So the banjo is famously a descendant of a West African instrument called the band jar. There's apparently chord progressions and rhythms that show up in early country music that come from native traditions that actually don't come from West Africa or from Europe. And one of the precursors of the pedal steel guitar that we're all familiar with, it's actually a Hawaiian instrument that was invented in 1880.
Country music was actually called folk until the 1950s. It was called either folk or hillbilly music. And it was only during McCarthyism, once folk artists started getting accused of sedition, that they like rebrand and they're like, ah, we're country music now. And this becomes very important later. The history of country music is also very wrapped up in the history of radio. That a lot of early radio shows were actually like square dances.
Sarah: Really? And you would like dance along to the radio and they would call out what to do.
Sarah: This reminds me of like how the internet is now, how the radio existed to transmit sound, but it's always also been a way to have society.
Mike: Exactly. And by the time we fast forward and it's the 1990s, there are more country music radio stations than any other format. So in the 90s, there's 2,400 country music stations followed by 1,800 adult contemporary, 1,200 oldies and 1,200 news and talk radio stations.
Sarah: Has anyone ever known what adult contemporary is? Like, what is that? I think of adult contemporary as like the ballad version of the Disney song that would play over the credits in the 90s.
Mike: It is just Celine Dion's, “My Heart Will Go On,” over and over again. It is literally one song.
Sarah: Yeah, that is very impressive that it's beating oldies by a 100%, which I think of as the easiest approach in radio because boomer nostalgia so many markets.
Mike: Yeah. But so now we are going to listen to a clip and meet our protagonists. So this is an early track by the Dixie Chicks. I love this, I think their first album is delightful.
“The cowboy lives forever, as long as there’s a faded pair of blue jeans, wide brimmed hats and leather and dreams. There’s a little bit of Roy and Dale in all of us.”
Sarah: So, this is wonderful, I want to be roping doggies while listening to this, it feels kind of timeless. It feels like something that could have been performed 50 years earlier at the Grand Ole Opry. Because you've got a bango, you've got a fiddle, and you've got women's voices. And I know there's a little more to it, but it's just like not trying too hard. It's just these are all perfect elements in there together.
Mike: This sounds nothing like The Chicks that we will hear on the radio in 10 more years.
Sarah: Yeah. I mean I can see how they're related and how one evolved into the other, but it's like, “I Want To Hold Your Hand” Beatles, versus “Here There and Everywhere” Beatles.
Mike: Yes, exactly. So the band at this point has four members. The first two are Emily and Martie, who are sisters. They are born in Pennsylvania, but they moved to suburban Dallas when they're relatively young. Martie plays the fiddle and from I think like age 12, she's in fiddle competitions around Texas. This is like a circuit that kids go on. Meanwhile, her sister Emily plays basically everything else. So she plays violin, bass, rhythm guitar, banjo. She picks up an instrument and she can just play. So another member of the band is named Robin Lynn Macy. She is the main vocalist, and the band was her idea. She's one of these people who's kind of been drifting around the Dallas country music scene for a while.
She meets Emily and Martie at a sort of jam sessions, sort of thing. They are 17 and 20 at this point. She's like, these kids are unbelievably talented. We should try to figure out a way to do something together. She also brings on the fourth member of the band, whose name is Laura Lynch, who is a single mom, and she's a stockbroker and she works as like a real estate developer. All these people have day jobs for like the first five years of The Chicks existing. Laura is also in a band, she's in a band with a bunch of dudes and she's sick of it. And she finds the idea of joining an all-girl band appealing. So they decided to form this band and they named themselves The Dixie Chicks after a little feat song called “Dixie Chickens.”
They don't really know if they have anything on their hands, so they start playing on street corners in Dallas. And apparently the first day that they go out and start playing these street corners, a guy from a nearby restaurant comes around and says, “I will pay you $300 bucks a night to play in my restaurant.”
Sarah: There like, that's a lot of money back now.
Mike: So basically, they spend the next six years as like a modestly successful touring band, one of their songs is on Northern Exposure, they're on Garrison Keillor's, Prairie Home Companion, they cut an ad for McDonalds at one point. They're getting sort of successful within the genre of this extremely traditional bluegrass, but they're also hitting a ceiling.
One of the main tensions in the band is that Robin wants to keep the band super traditional. We just want to do the super old timey, bluegrass. And the other members of the band are like we want to be a little bit more pop. We want to have a broader appeal. And every time they get inquiries from record companies, the record companies are, you guys are really good, but there's just a really limited number of people who are into this specific genre of music, and you're never going to have any grand success playing this way.
Sarah: We're never going to give you money because we don't believe that enough people are going to buy a bluegrass album.
Mike: Exactly, they're seen as kind of a novelty act.
Sarah: This is a pre O’ Brother, Where Art Thou world, we have to remember.
Mike: They actually talk about this in the academic articles, like the explosion of bluegrass after that movie comes out.
Sarah: Also like the Coen brothers love country wailing, that is one of the charming things about their aesthetic, like the way Raising Arizona opens.
Mike/Sarah: Yeeeeeeeeeeeah. (singing)
Mike: And so in 1992, this was three years after they start the band, they basically push Robin out.
Sarah: Because Robin is the traditionalist.
Mike: Yeah, because Robin, I find this really fascinating, Robin is like, we're big enough. The other three members of the band are, we're never going to make it big if we stick with the sound and Robin is, yes.
Sarah: She's like, I want to stay medium, it’s my right.
Mike: And so they then sort of continue as a threesome. I don't know, I just think that this phase of any band's career is so fascinating because it's, it's just like such a grind.
Sarah: Like where you're touring continually.
Mike: Yeah. And your touring, you're making enough money to sort of get a living, but it's not a very good living and you're not making enough money to sort of not do everything yourself. If you are doing three or four gigs a week, like that is you in a van driving, Texas is big. They are driving hours to these gigs.
Sarah: Famously on mess with a bull, so you can imagine.
Mike: And so, I was thinking about the sort of the amount of money that they're making that apparently they're earning like $2,500 bucks a gig at this point. But there's three members of the band and they're also touring with two extra dudes who are sort of performing guys. They have to pay those guys. They have to split the money three ways and then, you know, they have to pay for gas, they have to pay for hotels, they have to pay for plane tickets.
Sarah: What year is this at this stage?
Mike: This is ‘95.
Sarah: Oh, so they've put out this album that we've heard and it's just like, it's come out and nobody cares.
Mike: Basically, yeah.
Sarah: That makes me sad. I thought this was before that happened.
Mike: So at this time they finally get a real bite from a record company from Sony Records. And there is an interesting age gap going on in country music at the time where country music has sort of two generations. There's like the older folks, you know, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, these early country artists who had really made it big.
And then there's new country, right? Country pop like Faith Hill, Shania Twain, Garth Brooks, and all of the money is in the newer artists. That's where all the action is. And Sony Records Nashville imprint has a lot of these older artists, but they don't have any younger artists. So they're basically desperate for something to bring in a younger audience.
And finally, after a lot of negotiation, Sony comes to the Dixie Chicks and says, “We are extremely interested in you, we think that you could be huge, but you have to drop your lead singer.”
Sarah: And why do they, do we know why?
Mike: So there's a couple of reasons. The sort of the official reason is, you know, Laura was never meant to be the singer of the band. It was always supposed to be Robin and Laura, I guess, she isn't that good of a lead singer. She is not as sort of forceful, she doesn't have as much of a presence. There's also, you know, she's 37 years old, she doesn't really have the young country look. The Nashville record labels, they basically come to Emily and Martie with a deal of, we will sign you, if you find another lead singer. One of the studio musicians that they had brought on for one of their previous albums is a guy named Lloyd Maines, who is a legendary pedal steel guitar player. He's like a Dallas institution, everybody knows this guy. And he has a daughter named Natalie Maines. She is blonde, she has sort of the country look, and she's even younger then Emily and Martie.
Sarah: How old is she at this point?
Mike: She is 22 when she joins the band. One thing that I find really fascinating is, she doesn't appear to have shown any interest in country music as a kid. So like her dad is a country music legend, but it's sort of like teenage rebellion, she's like, “Ugh, country music.” She also doesn't have a particular interest even in singing. She doesn't actually start taking singing lessons or doing singing until college. That she ends up attending South Plains College, which I guess has a really good music program. And James Dickerson interviews some of her old professors and they're like, oh yeah, we taught her to sing and she's really good. But her favorite artists at the time were James Taylor, Lenny Kravitz, and Janet Jackson.
Sarah: Yeah. Janet Jackson, I mean, Janet Jackson is doing some great stuff. Hard to look away.
Mike: So the only other detail that we get about her upbringing is that it appears, she was always kind of like an insufferable social justice warrior.
Sarah: In a way that we're insufferable.
Mike: In a way it reminds me of myself so much. So, in high school, I guess she would skip classes and then she would complain to the administrators, I didn't get in trouble and the Mexican kids do get in trouble when they skip. So that is racist.
Sarah: That's great.
Mike: So it's like this weird, like demonstrative, like I should be getting punished like this is fucked up.
Sarah: This is top drawer trolling, yeah.
Mike: She basically she has been taking singing lessons and becoming more interested in singing. She makes an audition tape to go to a music school and her dad Lloyd Maines plays this audition tape for Emily and Martie, kind of behind her back. And Emily and Martie just like start thinking about her as an option and basically decide like, yeah, we should bring on Natalie. And so I guess they presented to her, as do you want to like join this band that has been around for six years and, you have to learn 40 songs and you have like a week. They also show up at Laura's house one morning and they just tell her we're buying you out. We have to kick you out of the band.
Sarah: Oh wow! Does Laura see this coming at all?
Mike: No, not remotely.
Sarah: How does she feel about that? Do we know?
Mike: You know, it just hurts. Her father has a farm. She flies out there and just spends two weeks crying. There's this really poignant scene where she finds out that The Chicks are kind of relaunching themselves in this show in Austin. It's going to be the first show where Natalie sings, and Laura shows up.
Sarah: Oh, wow.
Mike: And she just spends the whole show just sitting at the bar and crying.
Sarah: I feel like Natalie is like Cameron Diaz in “My Best Friend's Wedding.” In this scenario, like through no fault of her own, she is the most infuriating person and the actionable from certain angles.
Mike: I know.
Sarah: Yeah. I mean, I love her, and bands come together all kinds of ways. But like, if there isn't enough strife within the band, the labels will make up for that.
Mike: As far as I can tell, Laura never plays music again. She's now a housewife and she seem unbelievably graceful about all of this. She's still friends with Emily and Martie. It seems that she just sort of accepts it as the reality of the record industry.
Sarah: Right. I don’t know. It feels like when you deal with this kind of corporate interests, you're often left, confused about how you just got fucked.
Mike: Right, right. There's also a weird unbalancing from Natalie's perspective that this band has been around for six years, non-stop touring, right?
Mike: And then all of a sudden you come on and three weeks after Natalie joins the band, they signed with Sony. So, it's just like, I guess I'm in a band now, oops, I guess we're owned by a massive record label.
Sarah: Yeah. I mean, it would be very strange to be the missing piece.
Sarah: Who is no longer missing, you're here now.
Mike: There's also a very weird thing to sort of the way that record labels worked in the 1990s. Do you remember, people would always sort of make this accusation of Brittany Spears or Avril Lavigne or whoever, like she's a record company creation.
Sarah: Yes. Which is like saying of Frankenstein’s monster, he's Victor Frankenstein's creation, and then using that as a reason to print mean tabloid stories about the monster and his boyfriend.
Mike: It is just amazing to me that like country music stars were just as artificial as pop stars. So all of the members of the band are now quite open about the fact that the record company was the fourth member of the band.
Sarah: You know nothing ever just happens passively to a record company. You know, it's not like they just sign a bunch of bands with no particular expectations. And then some of the bands do well and they're, “Well, golly, I didn't see that coming.”
Mike: Well, that’s the thing, the process of making a country album in the 1990s looks a lot like project management. There's a lot of sort of auditioning songwriters, auditioning producers, finding studio musicians. So much of this is really just a logistical task of finding the right songs to establish the kind of band that The Chicks are going to be. And so when they finally finish the album, only one song is written by The Dixie Chicks, all the rest are songwriters that they bring in or producers that they bring in or covers that they're doing. Like this is just the way that it worked in the 1990s.
So, in 1998, this is nine years after the band originally formed. This is their first record company major label album comes out. So we are going to watch a clip. This is from the “Runaway Bride,” soundtrack. It is very good.
Sarah: Okay, three, two, one, go.
“When the train rolls by, I’m gonna be ready this time. When the boy gets that look in his eye, I’m gonna be ready this time. When my momma says I look good in white, I’m gonna be ready this time.”
Sarah: This is very late nineties, I love this.
Mike: So can you describe what's going on?
Sarah: Yeah, so The Chicks were at the alter, and then they realized that their grooms to be looked like goobers. And so they pulled up their wedding dresses to reveal running shoes and ran away and hitched the Marty McFly, like ride on the back of a garbage truck. And now they're running through a house past Gary Marshall.
Mike: Now they're on bikes.
Sarah: Now they’re on bikes. I'm sure this is your favorite part, unless there's more bikes later.
Mike: I'm really happy.
Sarah: Yeah, they're riding bikes all in big white wedding dresses and veils.
Mike: So now they're riding their bikes over a car, because they're bad-ass chicks.
Sarah: Yeah. So it's like they were going to get married, but they decided to become rebels instead. Oh, they just assaulted a children's performer.
Mike: Yay, don’t do that kids.
Sarah: They have like tween boy dirt bikes, too.
Mike: I know it's weird.
Sarah: Oh and they just jumped into the pool and disrupted a whole other wedding that was happening that day. I really enjoy how much this video hates weddings. Now the grooms are helping them out of the pool, and they're all going to go to jail probably.
Sarah: And then the groom's finger wagged did them and they threw cakes on them.
Mike: Now we're having a big cake fight.
Sarah: This is very fun. I love it when a music video is an excuse to run around and be irresponsible and have a cake fight.
Mike: And now everybody's happy and dancing. They're all holding hands and dancing in a circle with cake all over them.
Mike: Because they've been biking all day.
Sarah: So I feel like this was designed to appeal to little girls who loved the Titanic soundtrack, and I bet it worked.
Sarah: I'm like mentally filing it away to put on a playlist for when I drive around feeling my feelings.
Sarah: Yeah. It just is very light and joyful and outside of traditional country in the sense that there's nothing to worry about.
Mike: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And it's also, to me, what's interesting about this is that it's a relatively traditional country sound, but then you can see, music videos are a form of marketing. You can see that they're being marketed as basically an alternative band, right? Like the aesthetics of this video are exactly the aesthetics like Avril Lavigne.
Sarah: Yeah. It reminds me of that Blind Melon video.
Mike: Yes. They are marketed as a sort of pop crossover act. So as soon as their album comes out, it starts charting on the adult contemporary and pop charts.
Sarah: Which once again, we don't know what either of those words mean, but they mean money, so that's good.
Mike: Another really big thing is because radio is so important for country music, I don't know how people do this. In the months before the album comes out to sort of build the hype. They visit 120 radio stations.
Sarah: Oh my God, okay.
Mike: I know.
Sarah: Like a part of my brain has just like panicked and died. This is when you were describing like Princess Diana's job to me or Vanessa William’s job as Miss America is just like, as an introvert, one of my personal, I won't say hell, but definitely purgatories is just having to do that every day.
Mike: It's also noteworthy that, you know, there's been all these iconic female pop stars in country, but the industry is extremely male. You know, the record companies, the record producers, everyone in power is basically all males.
Sarah: Well, this is how Taylor Swift got groped by a radio guy, because she was doing what she had to do and being a sport and promoting her music endlessly and meeting an endless array of, you know, randos.
Mike: Exactly. And, you know, radio program managers, radio DJs, a lot of them are in this sort of older generation who are not wild about young women sort of doing this kind of pop crossover stuff. There is a lot of gatekeeping in country music as there is in every genre, right? So, you know, country artists like Faith Hill, Shania Twain have been criticized for trying to go pop. This is like the worst thing you can do for a country audience.
Sarah: It feels like it' saying, we're not enough for you anymore and you want a bigger audience, and I don't want that because this was our special thing.
Mike: I mean country has a very strict standard of authenticity. A lot of the academic literature talks about how, you know, once you sort of reach a certain level of pop theme, you're sort of expected to be aloof, right?
Like nobody expects Beyonce to be like signing records at her concerts, right? And yet even these massive country stars are expected to be accessible to their audience. There's more of a sense of ownership of country artists than there are in other genres because it's niche. And because, you know, it was seen as quote unquote hillbilly music for a long time.
Sarah: Yeah. That sense of ownership that comes from seeing people doing, what you feel is like callously exploiting something that feels very personal.
Mike: So, the Dixie Chicks get a lot of criticism for playing the Lilith Fair.
Sarah: Oh, come on, that is not going commercial, that's a different thing.
Mike: There's also, we have forgotten about this now, but there's also a controversy about “Goodbye Earl.”
Sarah: I would imagine there would be at least a little one.
Mike: There's radio stations that refuse to play it. A lot of males, sort of these male gatekeepers within country music don't want women singing about a woman killing her abusive husband.
Sarah: Can we talk about, “Goodbye Earl?” Because it really is kind of a unique song.
Mike: Walk me through it.
Sarah: Okay. So “Goodbye Earl,” is a song that I remember getting a lot of radio play when I was in fifth or sixth grade. And it tells the story of, is it Marianne and Wanda were the best of friends all through their high school days.
One goes off into the world and the other looks all around this town and all she found is Earl. And then Wanda and Earl get married, Earl immediately becomes abusive. Wanda gets a restraining order. There's a lyric that I love because Earl walked right through that restraining order and put her in intensive care and then basically the rest of the song is that Wanda calls Marianne, Marianne comes home. I'm like so emotional, I love the song so much. I'm sorry. And then they kill Earl. And then It ends with them just saying that they don't lose any sleep at night and they're not sorry. And I don't condone murdering anybody, but if you did murder your abusive husband, then I understand.
Mike: But only if you do it by poisoning their black eyed peas.
Sarah: Women, especially young women, consume so little media that is for them, about them, and by them.
Sarah: Like just for the emotional lives of young women to be taken seriously, if they aren't turning into vampires, is like pretty rare. And so I feel like they were also answering this tremendous hunger that existed for this girl at the time, wanting to hear just these extra, obviously extremely talented, strong articulate, also extremely fun, clearly having fun and making fun music women.
Sarah: Who were taking your feelings very seriously and they were pretty.
Mike: And they were pretty, and they're doing all of this in genre that's very traditional. And they're kind of coloring outside the lines in a way that wasn't done much in this country, especially at this time.
Mike: Okay. So you knew this part of the story was coming. We're going to do a brief table read.
Sarah: Oh boy.
Mike: Do you want to be one of The Chicks or Dan Rather?
Sarah: I don’t have a Dan Rather impression.
Sarah: Do you?
Mike: I don't know if that's a real, I don't know, that's just a sound.
Sarah: That's that sounds like Hulkamania. I'll do Dan Rather, that sounds more fun.
Mike: Okay. So this is in 1999. This is after The Chick's first two albums come out and sell 20 bajillion copies. They are the biggest country act in the world right now.
Sarah: Oh, wow.
Mike: So you're going to be Dan Rather, and I'm going to be Emily from The Chicks.
Sarah: Okay. “If you had 17 million CDs sold roughly $14 a throw that comes to well over $200 million.”
Mike: “Hmmm, you're depressing me because we see, so, so little of that.”
Sarah: “Again, the gross, the gross almost crowding a quarter billion.“
Mike: “I will just say that Sony Nashville has remodeled their new building. They've remodeled on it.”
Sarah: “Now, I'm not saying the record company got all of that. Let's say they only got 150 million.”
Mike: “Yes, they did.”
Sarah: “Well, you probably got 50 million yourself.”
Mike: “I do not even have $1 million in the bank. Tell me where the money goes. I have no idea.”
Sarah: Oh, Dan Rather!
Mike: I know, he's really belaboring this.
Sarah: I like that he’s like but surely you have at least $50 million and she's like, are you high?
Mike: Dan Rather has never watched any behind the music. Every behind the music has exactly the same structure. It's like, they're small, they're struggling, they hit it big, they sue their record company because they're getting scammed out of money.
Sarah: Yeah. My knowledge of Behind The Music is what I have instead of business school.
Mike: So this is the predictable chapter of the story where The Chicks realize that they are being absolutely hog fucked out of a bunch of money and have to go after their record company. I actually got really interested in the mechanics of this because I was like, why was the record industry in the 1990s so trash.
Sarah: Was it scammier than at other times cause the first thing I think of is that fucker who took all the Backstreet Boys money, Lou Pearlman. Yes, we need to do an episode on this guy.
Sarah: Lou Pearlman, yeah.
Mike: This actually came up my research. From 1993 to 1998, the Backstreet Boys only made $300,000.
Sarah: What? What? You cannot even buy a ranch house and outer Portland for that much.
Mike: Dude. Yes, also, I mean, there's a million examples of this, but like the other really egregious one is Toni Braxton. Unbreak My Heart was like one of the biggest songs of the 1990s. Her record company apparently made $170 million off of her songs. Her first royalty check was for $1,972.
Sarah: No, no.
Mike: Like it is unreal how bad these contracts were. This has nothing to do with anything. But I want to tell you why mostly, because I was really curious.
Sarah: Yeah, tell me why I want to know.
Mike: So, okay. Can you explain sort of how a book advance works?
Sarah: Yeah, kind of okay. Because no one's ever given me one, thank God. So if I sell a book, say one about the Satanic Panic, and a publisher's like, “Okay, Sarah, we're going to publish your book and we're going to give you money so that you can live while you write this book. We will give you that money and then you will publish your book. And then your book needs to earn out the advance for you to see money beyond that.”
Sarah: It's frankly like being an Avon lady. No matter how good you are at your job, you're always going to be in the hole to the bitch who sold you the makeup.
Mike: So it's basically the general structure is, there's a royalty rate. Let's say you make 20%, and then there's an advance. So, if they give you $10,000 bucks, you don't make any royalties until you pay back the $10,000. But then there are two modifications to record company contracts compared to book contracts. So the first is that you also have to pay all of the expenses.
Sarah: No! Do you have to pay for sessions musicians?
Mike: Yes. Making the Dixie Chicks first record cost a million dollars.
Sarah: Oh, I bet it did.
Mike: And it's a little bit like the sort of the American healthcare system, where like you have no idea what anything costs at any point and you only find out later.
Sarah: There like band-aids, $80. You're like, what do I know?
Mike: Yes, and they can basically just like make it up. So like the record company can just come back to you and be like, “Sorry, we spent $4 million on your album.”
Sarah: Sorry, girls.
Mike: It's this completely bananas structure where the record company has no incentive to control costs because it's coming out of the artists paycheck.
Sarah: Oh no. It's like academia.
Mike: The record company can just like pile expenses on without necessarily telling you about anything. And then you just only find out when you're like, oh, I guess we haven't earned back our advance. We thought it was a million dollars, but now we owe like $8 million dollars.
The second modification to music advances in the 1990s, is that the advance you have to pay back, carries over album to album.
Sarah: Oh no, they don't do that in books.
Mike: I know so in books, you renegotiate every advance every time. So if you didn't earn back your $10,000 last time, it's like whatever, water under the bridge, we're going to negotiate a new advance this time.
Sarah: They’re like, we're all rich maniacs anyways, who cares.
Mike: The Chicks sign a six-album deal. Anything that they owe the record company transfers over to the next album.
Sarah: So it's like indenture practically.
Mike: It literally is. This is why Prince changed his name to that symbol. There are a million artists that have done wacky stunts to get out of these record contracts.
Sarah: Like Neil Young, right? Didn’t he intentionally make albums that no one would want to buy?
Mike: Yes. And then his record company sued him for making “unrepresentative” albums.
Sarah: I mean, I like them.
Mike: So basically, The Chicks are getting more and more frustrated about this and the move that they do is they just declare themselves free agents. They're just like, we're not under contract anymore.
Sarah: Are they like, I declare bankruptcy.
Mike: So basically it then becomes one of these things where like everybody sues each other. So the record company sues them for breach of contract with them, but then they sue the record company for non-payment of royalties, dah, dah, dah. And one of their sort of negotiating tactics in this is they just go back to Texas and start recording an album.
Sarah: That is an interesting tactic.
Mike: Eventually Sony caves and renegotiate their contract. They get a much higher royalty rate. But a really important aspect of this that becomes important later is that it creates a huge rift between The Chicks and the country music establishment. That this is seen as them being like really uppity. They're complaining about their contracts, they're taking this stuff public. And one of the big conditions of their new contract is that they're no longer going to deal with Sony Nashville, they're only going to deal with the New York offices.
Mike: So this is seen as like, oh, they're too good for country, they're too big for Nashville now.
Sarah: How dare they successfully demand humane treatment from their label?
Mike: Yeah. I mean, this is not done. So to slightly fast forward, one of the interesting things about this cancellation is it happens to the Dixie Chicks at the absolute pinnacle of their career.
Sarah: That doesn't happen very much.
Mike: Right? They end up putting out this album that they recorded in Texas. And in 2003, right before they get canceled, they've already won like a billion Grammys, they've set a record for the most concert tickets sold, they sell $49 million worth of concert tickets in one weekend.
Mike: The week before the controversy, they have one song that's number one on the adult contemporary and country charts, and another song that's number seven on the pop charts.
Sarah: They are killing it.
Mike: At the time they are the biggest selling female group of all time in any genre.
Sarah: Yeah, that doesn't surprise me.
Mike: Ok, so we are now going to get to the controversy.
Mike: We're going to do a little bit of setting the scene. It is March 10th, 2003.
Sarah: I am 14.
Mike: Oh yeah. Do you remember this period? This sort of post 911 pre-Iraq war?
Sarah: Oh yeah. I guess remember it seeming like everyone, including people in Washington were drawing these implicit connections between invading Iraq and 911 having happened. And I was like, I swear to God, I don't see any connection between these two things, but everyone's sort of acting like there is.
Mike: I know.
Sarah: All these adults are just agreeing to collectively believe in this fiction. Where we have to evade Iraq as revenge against the middle East as a region.
Mike: Yeah. This gets memory hold now because nobody wants to admit their previous incorrect beliefs, but 72% of the country at the time approved of the Iraq war, like wanted it to happen. This was one of the most intense periods of censorship since the 1950s.
Sarah: It really was.
Mike: CBS, for example, for the 2003 Grammys sent an email to all the performers saying that they shouldn't mention the war in their acceptance speeches.
Sarah: Oh, fuck off.
Mike: And they said that they would cut off the mic if they did it. Phil Donahue had a talk show on MSNBC that got pulled off the air.
Mike: And there's an internal memo where MSNBC's talking about why they did it. And they called him a “Tired, left wing, liberal, out of touch with the current marketplace. He seems to delight in presenting guests who are anti-war, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration's motives. The report went on to outline a possible nightmare scenario where the show becomes a home for the liberal anti-war agenda. At the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.”
Sarah: That is not okay, there's so much going on in that. I would just like to start by pointing out that I bet the person who wrote this memo was in short pants when Phil Donahue was first day ratings titan. Okay, I find it most interesting that there is this unspoken acceptance on the part of the person writing these words and presumably on the part of the people, reading them, who complied with this idea that patriotism is lucrative, and seeming less patriotic is going to hurt your ratings and your wallet.
Mike: It's also something kind of dark to think about. I don't think any of us are all that familiar with operating in a media environment where the President has a 70% approval rating.
Sarah: Right. That never happens. Like you have to have a terrorist attack basically to get there.
Mike: Yes. And then also what ends up happening at this time is you get this weird circular thing where the President's approval rating is so high, that none of the networks want to criticize Bush. But then because they don't criticize Bush, his approval rating stays high. So MSNBC, this is wild, they try to replace Donahue with Jesse Ventura. Remember how he was like an independent politician at the time?
Sarah: What? Yes I do Michael. Wasn’t he the Governor of Minnesota? Did that happen?
Sarah: Yes. Oh my God.
Mike: They bring him on but then they find out that he low key, has anti-war views too. And so they ended up paying him his entire contract, but he never goes on the air.
Sarah: Oh, like Madonna with the Pepsi ad.
Mike: This is the level of paranoia among the news networks. It's like, they would rather just pay somebody to do nothing than to have somebody on who might say something against the war.
Sarah: That really sums up the whole situation in a way, like Jesse Ventura is too lefty for this moment, too much of a radical.
Mike: So there's a really famous analysis of news coverage before the Iraq war that finds only 6% of the sources they put on the air were anti-war.
Sarah: Of course.
Mike: Which is really bad. But I think a more interesting number in that same report is that 63% of the sources, you know, these talking heads that they have on TV, 63% of them were government sources.
Sarah: Which is just like printing whatever the cops say.
Mike: One of the things that drives me nuts in all of the debate at the time and everything you read about it was a lot of these things were cast as sort of free speech issues, like there's a free speech debate about what to say about the war. That's not really the debate that we needed to be having at the time. It's like, well, MSNBC can fire Donahue and bring on Jesse Ventura because that's how media networks work. And it's like, right, but should they? If MSNBC wants to broadcast 24 hours a day of Irish folk dancing, they can, but should they?
Sarah: I mean, actually, maybe they should.
Mike: I mean, that actually would have been preferable.
Sarah: Just for a day.
Mike: But also technically if MSNBC wanted to broadcasts an entire day of Holocaust denial, they could also do that. It would be wildly unethical, but under the laws of the country, they can do that.
Mike: That's what's so frustrating about a lot of the discourse at the time was that conservatives would defend all of this by saying they have the right to do it.
Sarah: Yeah. And it's like, well, you have the right to do a lot of things.
Mike: Dude. So a huge part of this story is media consolidation. At the time clear channel communications, which had been scooping up all of these radio stations. They put out a list of 150 quote unquote inappropriate songs. And it includes you're going to love this, “America,” by Neil Diamond, “Ruby Tuesday,” by the Rolling Stones, all songs by Rage Against the Machine and “Imagine,” by John Lennon.
Sarah: Okay. I mean, I guess, “Imagine,” is political.
Mike: Don't do war, I guess that is political.
Sarah: I do not know what to tell you, like if you're afraid of the gentle stylings of late career, John Lennon, ruining your child's brain, then I don't know what you're thinking your child's brain is made out of.
Mike: I also the one cool thing I've ever done, I was living in Australia after 911 and I bought a copy of The Strokes album, which famously did not have the song, “New York City Cops,” on it because it was removed from the US release. So I got to be like, oh, I have the Australian version.
Sarah: So, this was like, you could only get a song critical of cops if you bought a version in Australia or presumably, maybe Canada or something like that.
Mike: If you happen to be living in Australia, like, you know, yeah.
Mike: So, the ACLU actually has an index of all of the active censorships, it’s like hundreds of things. I'm just going to read a couple of these to you. I mean, again, keep in mind two towers, we have just come through a decade long period where all anybody did was complain about the censoreness of college students.
Mike: Here we go. “In October 2001 News Day reported that it pulled the comic strip the Boondocks from its paper because it criticized US support of Osama Bin Laden during the Soviet Afghanistan war. Also in October 2001, the Pennsylvania house of representatives passed a bill by 200 to 1 vote that would mandate students recite the pledge of allegiance or sing the national Anthem during each school day. Unless the school had written permission from a parent exempting the child.”
Sarah: Oh, come on let the kids not sing.
Mike: This the worst one, “In Topeka, Kansas McCarter Elementary School officials implemented a policy whereby students were forbidden to wear traditional Halloween costumes to school and instead would only be allowed to wear costumes with patriotic themes.”
Sarah: But what if you are Thomas Jefferson as a vampire?
Mike: That just sounds like you want to do that for the rest of the day Sarah.
Sarah: I just propose that if anyone listening has that extremely specific problem.
Mike: Also, are you familiar with this phrase, working the refs?
Mike: This is something that has become increasingly important to conservatives since this, where basically they will cry that the media is biased and they will flood, you know, the New York Times or CNN or whoever with emails and phone calls saying, why are you so biased against us? Why are you so biased against us?
Sarah: I've been watching too much Italian soccer.
Mike: Yes. And it has this effect where the news networks don't want to piss off conservatives.
Sarah: This is exactly what the projected fear of the left is about and it's what conservatives are doing and doing to a greater degree, like immediately post the nineties.
Mike: This is something that really starts during the Iraq war. There's something called the media research center, which is this conservative think tankie type thing.
Sarah: Which you can tell, because they have the most generic name possible, which all the scary conservative think tanks have.
Mike: All they do is they monitor all of the news networks and they log examples of quote unquote anti-conservative bias. And then these little blips make their way to The New York Post and Fox news and Rush Limbaugh and kind of get into the right-wing bloodstream. So one of the biggest ones is Peter Jennings, the newscaster, is subject to weeks of negative feedback because he says, this is what he says, this is the thing that pisses off conservatives. This is a couple of weeks after 9/11, “The country looks to the president on occasions like this, to be reassuring to the nation. Some presidents do it well, some presidents don't.” That is it, that's the whole quote, this then results in weeks of kind of heavy surveillance of Peter Jennings. He gets this reputation on the right as sort of like the woke lib newscaster. And so the media research center puts out a report that blames Peter Jennings for talking more about civilian deaths in Afghanistan than NBC or CBS. How dare he?
Sarah: Well, isn't that news like, shouldn't we know that civilians are dying in Afghanistan?
Mike: Exactly and this working the refs thing, the most chilling thing is that it actually works. So CNN adopts an internal policy that any time they talk about civilian death numbers in Afghanistan, they will always compare them to the number of civilian deaths on 9/11.
Sarah: That is fucking horrifying.
Mike: It is fucked up.
Sarah: That's disgusting, that actually disgust me.
Mike: It’s so gross. It is like, oh, there's like a half a 9/11 of deaths in Afghanistan.
Sarah: But remember, we're still coming out on top and the death count, don't worry.
Mike: It's fucking dark.
Sarah: Like Jesus Christ.
Mike: So this is kind of a diversion, but I just noticed as I was researching this, that the day that America finds out about what The Chicks said against the war is also the day that Congress passes the law, recognizing ‘freedom fries’.
Sarah: Okay. Did Congress pass a law recognizing waffle fries? Do all of the types of fries have to be recognized by Congress?
Mike: Okay. Law is the wrong word, I’m sorry. What we are talking about here is a change in the congressional cafeteria.
Mike: So, this wasn't like a craze that was sweeping the nation generally, although a couple of other restaurants did do this. There were two Republican House members who were angry at France because France refused to support the U.N. Security Council Resolution authorizing military force in Iraq.
Sarah: That's already a sentence most Americans wouldn't have understood at that time.
Mike: I know. And there were actually a lot of other countries that didn't want it either, but France became the target of all this ire. Partly because they were like more outspoken on it than other countries, and also, because just like Americans are sitting on a vast well of like low key anti-French sentiment anyway.
Sarah: Because of Jerry Lewis.
Mike: I think so, yes. This was inspired by the fact that I did not know this, that in WW1, a lot of German foods got renamed.
Sarah: Yeah. That is why we started calling frankfurters hot dogs, right?
Mike: That is an urban legend. That is not actually true.
Sarah: What? I learned that on PBS.
Mike: I know. So it turns out ‘hotdog’ was actually coined in like 1900, like 20 years before. So both terms it seems were in use at the time and hotdog became more popular.
Sarah: So hot dog pulls ahead.
Mike: Yeah, so it's not, it wasn't invented for that purpose. There were also a lot of other attempts, so they tried to rename sauerkraut as ‘liberty cabbage’. This is not our best work as a nation. Do you want to guess what they tried to rebrand dachshund, the dog breed as?
Sarah: Okay. Well, I feel like this is not a very creative trend, and so I feel like the answer I am most likely to choose because of that is ‘liberty hound’, but that seems too easy. See I'm doing a whole Fazzini thing here and you know that only a very stupid co-host would say liberty house, but only a very stupid co-host would also say what about something other than liberty hounds? And so the answer can only be liberty hounds.
Mike: Liberty pups.
Sarah: Oh my God. That's actually a little bit better.
Mike: I mean, none of these things took. Although apparently Berlin, Michigan renamed itself, Marne, Michigan.
Sarah: But Berlin, New Hampshire stood strong.
Mike: You know, and so there is a tradition of this happening and also like not really working and being kind of silly. So they renamed French fries and French toast as freedom fries and freedom toast. And apparently the poor people behind French's Mustard had to put out a press release being like, it's a family name, we're not French, it’s just our name, its fine.
Sarah: You know, I have to assume that just anytime a conservative accuses liberals of doing anything, it's something they're uncomfortable with how they are. Because seriously, like getting upset because the name of a brand of mustard is the word French which is the name of a nationality in English. And also the name, like, I think they're called French fries because the method of cutting them into strips is called frenching them. That's my understanding of it.
Mike: They are Belgium, not even French.
Sarah: Yeah. I just don't get it, how do you have energy for that?
Mike: But it's also, what's amazing is Bill O'Reilly among others actually led a boycott of French goods. Like stop buying French cheese, call up businesses and see what they are importing from France.
Sarah: How many people who watch Bill O’Reilly are buying French cheese all that much?
Mike: Dude do you want to know what happened?
Mike: U.S. imports from France declined by 15%, and exports to France declined by 8%. I found at LSE economic analysis of what it actually happened.
Sarah: I think I just found this embarrassing before, now I find it actually worrying.
Mike: It’s like weird, also France’s favor ability, you know, do you approve of France or not, fell from 83% to 35%?
Mike: This was like a real thing, it’s so weird.
Sarah: You know, I was taking the French language at the time and I had to conjugate all their stupid verbs and I still liked France.
Mike: It is worth really hammering home the point that the primary difference in this moral panic sandwich that we have between Political Correctness before the Iraq war and Cancel Culture after the Iraq war, is that there were real stakes involved. During the Political Correctness Panic, conservative professors were not being arrested, but what happened after 911 was of course the complete transformation of the entire apparatus of the US government into an anti-terror quote unquote organization. This had real consequences, like people were getting arrested for going to anti-war protests. There was one guy who got arrested for going into a mall wearing an anti-war t-shirt.
Mike: Yes. So I found a really interesting article on racial profiling of Muslims after 911. And it says on November 1st, 2001, FBI agents arrested a Palestinian civil engineer in New York city and held him for 22 days before he was released on a bond. The man was arrested after someone falsely reported that he had a gun.
Sarah: Celebrities may be imagined video after fewer days of quarantine than that.
Mike: Seriously, even more troubling was the case of Ali al-Maqtari, Maqtari, a citizen of Yemen, and his wife were detained and mistreated by federal agents. They were arrested on September 15th, 2001 near the Fort Campbell, Kentucky army base. Tiffany Hughes, Maqtari’s wife, is an American citizen and was reporting for duty as a new recruit. While in custody, the agents accused Maqtari of involvement in terrorism and abusing his wife. He was threatened with deportation and detained for nearly two months. He was eventually released after his wife paid a $10,000 bond.
Sarah: Yeah. This is an absolutely terrifying time in terms of like being in America and trying to figure out where all this is going.
Mike: Exactly. And, you know, we were talking last week about people who are, you know, losing their pool privileges.
Sarah: For harassing women.
Mike: Exactly. And during the post 911 crisis, we had random people getting arrested, huge populations getting surveilled and people who were speaking out against this, also being arrested and surveilled. So, it's just, we always have to be really careful when ever these moral panics are implying that some sort of societal out-group is a threat to us.
Sarah: Yeah, it is just, I mean, I think I'm struck by the fact that like in the sort of Political Correctness Panic, what I keep being drawn back to is the idea that it seemed like a larger national emergency for the people who already had most of the power to be made to feel bad sometimes, then for people to be profiled and held without bail. And to be the subject of profiling and violence and I'm sure hate crimes.
Mike: There was also really fast hitting connections between the Republican party and country music. So, you know, country music has these sort of progressive roots, like there's a lot of African-American country artists. The first country album to sell more than a million copies was by Ray Charles. There's a lot of sort of peace, love understanding type of sentiments in country songs. But then country music also has the strain of reactionary backlash. And this becomes increasingly noticeable, basically, anytime America goes to war.
So this is from an excellent essay called Another Country by Karen Pittelman. She says, “During WW2, country artists pen and sang such songs as Denver Darling, “Cowards Over Pearl Harbor,” and Carson Robison’s “We're Gonna Have to Slap the Dirty Little Jap.” During the Vietnam War, we have Kris Kristofferson's, “Vietnam Blues,” Tom Hall's, “Hello Vietnam,” and Dave Dudley's, mama tell them, “What We're Fighting For,” which are all basically pro Vietnam Anthem.
Sarah: Oh, really? Kris Kristofferson, wow.
Mike: I know. Right. Basically, anytime America goes to war and there's these big political debates, country music typically chooses the side of the authorities. And so after 911, the amount of sort of retributive songs in country music gets really bad. So there's a Charlie Daniels song called, “This Ain't No Rag, It's a Flag.”
Mike: So the lyrics are: “This Ain't No Rag, It's a flag. We don't wear it on our heads. It's a symbol of the land where the good guys live.”
Sarah: Okay. All right.
Mike: It is really bad.
Sarah: Time to try something new. Why don't you, what about a love song? Everyone loves love songs.
Mike: Interestingly, another one of The Chick's sort of early controversies. Is it Toby Keith puts out this song called, “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue.” And I'm going to read you some of the lyrics, this goes on for a while, but bear with me. “Justice will be served, and the battle will rage, this big dog will fight when you rattle his cage. And you'll be sorry that you mess with the USA because we'll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way.”
Sarah: Your only young but your gonna die.
Mike: And so when she's asked about this, Natalie, the lead singer of The Chicks, she tells a journalist, she says, I hate it, it’s ignorant and it makes country music sound ignorant. It targets an entire culture and not just the bad people who did bad things. You've got to have some tact. Anybody can write, we'll put a boot in your ass.
Sarah: Yeah. Good point, Natalie.
Mike: And this is like a week as long spat between her and Toby Keith. And then he shoots back and he's like, write your own songs, whatever. Like this just becomes like a little celebrity feud.
Sarah: Jesus Christ.
Mike: So basically, the country is in a jingoistic frenzy. Country music is in lockstep supporting the war and supporting Bush. It is now March 10th, 2003. We are a week before the invasion of Iraq. We are in London at Shepherd's Bush Empire, which is like a mid-sized music venue. And Natalie Maines says this, okay, here is the clip. This doesn't come out until years later. But there happens to be a documentary crew that night.
Sarah: If there's one thing I've learned, it's that if you have the means, you should really always be followed around by your own documentary crew.
Mike: Seriously. Okay, three, two, one
Music Playing- “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 that the President of the United States is from Texas.”
Sarah: Did I make up that she said he wasn't her President or did someone else make it up? And I learned that.
Mike: Probably someone else made it up.
Sarah: But anyway, okay. So they said we're ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.
Mike: And we do not want this war, this violence we are on the good side with y'all. It's also notable that this gets a huge cheer from the crowd.
Sarah: because they're not in America.
Mike: So yeah. What did you think?
Sarah: It's just so funny that this becomes such a thing, because this is such a quiet moment. Like, it feels like she's saying this almost as an afterthought.
Mike: It’s also funny to me that she sorts of laughs right after she says it. She's saying it kind of because knows it's outrageous or is like sort of half joking. Like that also feels important too, that it's not like we've thought about this and we've decided to speak out.
Sarah: Yeah. Texas is so much better than George W. Bush ever represented it as, and you can acknowledge that. That’s not seditious. He has soft hands.
Mike: So this footage is from a 2006 documentary called “Shut Up and Sing,” which is about this entire cataclysm and is very good. But we don't have this footage at the time. So, as we learned so many times on the show, it doesn't actually matter what you say. It matters the way that it's represented in the media.
And so there is a kind of, I don’t know, normal review of this concert in The Guardian the next day. The only line from this little between songs speech that the journalist quotes, and I don't think the journalists had any idea that this was going to create such a firestorm. She quotes, Natalie as saying, “Just so you know, singer Natalie Maines, we're ashamed of the President of the United States is from Texas.” This is also an interesting example of “cancel culture”, because this really is the first internet cancellation. So it's 2003, there's not social media yet, but there is AOL and importantly, there's a lot of forums, right? Like country music, fans.com or whatever.
Sarah: The alt news groups.
Mike: And so, within hours, this random thing from The Guardian, which, you know, 10 years earlier, never would have been seen by anybody outside of the UK.
Mike: Bounces around the internet and gets picked up by all of these forums. And so in Chris Willman’s book, Rednecks & Bluenecks, The Politics of Country Music, he says, “One posting on AOL, typical of thousands like it under the subject head, ‘The Enemy Within,’ was from a user who identified himself as Bill Russell, what a sickening disgrace, and a slap in the face to every military family in the country. My best wishes for the bitch trader is that their sales go in the toilet, the public throws out their records and the lousy bitch never gets to sing in public again. And her ass gets shipped to Baghdad before the bombs fall, a little fatter target to hit.”
Sarah: Suck the shit out of my ass motherfucker.
Mike: The fat phobia like leaps out. And the misogyny immediately.
Sarah: And just this, like how dare you say something, I don't like, I wish death on you, I wish many deaths, I wish hateful deaths, I wish deaths by my own country's bombs. I mean, I, you know, ideally no death threats, but like try making just one, what is set off in you so severely that you can't limit yourself to that even.
Mike: Another really interesting aspect of this controversy and one that like we were not prepared to talk about at the time was people on these internet forums start organizing. So almost immediately they start posting the phone numbers of program managers of radio stations and advertisers on those radio stations.
Sarah: They could be doing something else like extreme couponing or roller disco.
Mike: There's one website called Free Republic that basically just starts like organizing these boycotts. And a lot of this stuff is actually very strictly coordinated by these online forums of like, let's all call this program manager. So, you know, program managers of radio stations talk about getting flooded with calls. I mean, Chris Willman interviews program managers who are like, I have worked in this industry for 30 years, I've never seen anything like this.
There's just like an avalanche of negative calls too like everybody associated with the Dixie Chicks, like Natalie Maines’s ant is a newscaster and she has to take a couple of days off because she's getting so many threats to the station.
Mike: It's also worth noting that this becomes like a conservative mainstream conservative talking point. So Christopher Hitchens calls the Dixie Chicks,” fucking fat slags”, Pat Robertson calls them the “ditzy twits”, which isn't even good. Bill O'Reilly calls them “callow, foolish women who deserve to be slapped around”.
Sarah: Bill! It's so funny, right? Like Bill O'Reilly gets canceled a few years later and people, where were the signs? This is just so hard to tell when someone is abhorrent in their private life. We had no way of seeing this coming.
Mike: We also get, this is terrible. Do you want to hear the abysmal Larry, the Cable Guy monologue on the Dixie Chicks?
Sarah: Yeah. Will you read it to me in a Larry, the Cable Guy voice.
Mike: Absolutely not.
Sarah: Honestly, I think your voice is the funniest voice for this.
Mike: He says, “I’ve had it with this piece of crap, flubber factory spouting off every time her semi-sized ass hits the stage. People say, but Larry, she ain't that fat no mores, she lost almost 20 pounds. I say big deal that is like taking three deck chairs off the Queen Mary. Natalie Maines needs to take her size 78 Wranglers and go back to her old job of smuggling moonshine in her giant canyon sized ass crack. How dare the first hippo of country music go to a country who support we're trying to get for a possible war and then attack our president in that country.”
Sarah: Can we just talk about the fatphobia for a second?
Mike: Dude, oh my God.
Sarah: I don't want to call it fatphobia because I think it's just like hateful, mean, prickliness and also like, it's not an insult to call anybody fat. Fat bodies are beautiful, but I really wouldn't call the Dixie Chicks fat, honestly.
Mike: No, I mean, to me, it's such a fascinating metaphor for sort of how marginalization works, generally. If you're a member of a stigmatized minority, the mainstream is fine with letting you into their club. As long as you follow very closely the rules that they set. But then if you break those rules, they are going to lash out at you using your marginalization, right? They're going to call you racial slurs. They're going to call you a bitch if you're a woman, they're going to do everything they can to remind you that you never should have been there in the first place.
Right? And this is one of the main reasons why I cannot imagine anything like this happening to like a cis-straight white dude, simply because what ammunition would they even use? Like, what is a word that you can use against a straight white dude that would hurt him this much?
Sarah: I feel like we're swimming through this ridiculous Ben and Jerry's flavor. Where there they've put too much stuff in it. And there's just all these blobs of all these flavors that we don't even have time to point out. But like the one that we just passed was if you can claim that a woman is seditious, you are allowed to talk about committing violence against her. You can talk about abusing women. You can talk about sexual violence, it's all kosher. If they are a threat to your country. It feels really bad.
Mike: Another thing you see in that Larry the Cable Guy excerpt that I think is interesting and very common at the time, is he sort of takes this stance as if what he's really mad about is not that they're against the war. It's only that they made this statement on foreign soil.
Sarah: Its fairly foreign soil, England is our mommy.
Mike: I just think there is something fascinating about the sort of the weird tone policing that took place at the time where nobody wanted to just admit, I disagree with them. I want the war and they don't. That's very clearly what this was, but it's like the free speech thing where nobody wants to debate things on the merits.
Like, is it good or is it bad to not have any anti-war voices on TV? People want to take it one level up. So like, oh, it's a free speech issue, right? Oh, it goes beyond what they said. So one of the other weird, like tone policey columns, this is from a book called, Country Music Goes to War. Other critics of The Chicks range from servicemen to DJs, to columnists like veteran music journalist, Chet Flippo, who went on record against The Chicks in his March 24th, CMT.com column, “Shut up and Sing.” “Maines could not have made a stupider mistake. First of all, if she has really strong convictions about the war, she should spell them out and stand up for them.”
Sarah: Oh my God.
Mike: “Most sensible people will respect her right to do that, but don't make what amounts to a personal attack on Bush”. It was like if she had said more, you would be less mad her.
Sarah: The problem is that she didn't say the exact right amount to meet my various. And then it's like, if you purge something like that, then people can, you can always find a way to say, no, you didn't do the right thing because you needed to do this other thing. That's what I need from you.
Mike: You see this constantly that it's like, oh, if this one tiny thing was different, I wouldn't be criticizing her right. One thing Bill O'Reilly says, it's like, if she had said the same thing in the US, I would have a different opinion on it.
Mike/Sarah: No you wouldn’t!
Sarah: But we have no way of accessing that reality.
Mike: Exactly and like, you like the war and they don't like the war. Like why are we supposed to believe that these tiny logistical differences would somehow change your view? Like you disagree with them.
Sarah: It is funny cause like both of these responses, this kind of response to the Dixie Chicks saying, we don't like this war and feeling personally attacked because you want a war. It's the same thing as the Political Correctness Panic of the idea of like other people's thoughts and feelings. That they are just having that's too much for me to deal with. Like, I cannot handle people disagreeing with my opinions, that's what all this is.
Mike: Oh, totally. And also one of the most absurd little spinoffs of this is that a bunch of conservatives start doing anti celebrity advocacy campaigns. Again, they're pretending, oh, I don't care that they're against the war. I just think celebrities should stick to acting.
Mike: So there's an abysmal New York Times article about this that like takes that at face value. They're like it seems like conservatives just don't like celebrities speaking up on issues.
Sarah: Okay. Read the room guys.
Mike: So, it says, “Opposition to celebrity activists has never been more vocal or better organized. Websites with names like a www.boycott hollywood.us and www.famous idiot.com are spearheading email and telephone campaigns against stars. And in the case of television performers, the companies that advertise on their shows. Together with talk radio and evening political talk shows the online organizing has created a formidable gauntlet for celebrities who choose to make their politics known.”
Sarah: I mean, I guess to be fair, it's part of the New York Times personal brand to actually confuse babies while parenting obvious conservative talking points.
Mike: Wow it's weird that conservatives, all of a sudden have this content neutral belief that celebrities should not weigh in on political issues. Even though they've never mentioned this before.
Sarah: Who can say why? Well, anyway.
Mike: I know, and of course we've just passed through a three-year period where country music is making a shitload of like weird patriotic pro war songs and conservatives haven't complained.
Sarah: And kind of violent ones.
Mike: Yes. So this famous idiots.com has a list of celebrities where they are ranked on the number of quote unquote anti Americanisms. They've said we're conflating opposition to a specific war and a specific president with anti-American sentiment generally.
Sarah: Well also just the fact that this is bad reporting because if you're writing the story and actually trying to make sense of it, then it's probably pretty easy to be like, oh, someone accusing celebrities of anti-American sentiment. Like that seems, like something that a reactionary Republican would do.
Mike: Exactly. So within a week we have this event where they organize a tractor to come and run over a bunch of Dixie Chicks CDs.
Sarah: And also, this as we are now invading this country, right? Like this is a spectacular diversion from all that. And from the fact that like your son, your husband, your whoever, could die because of this folly, but like let's focus on how we're all being attacked by these women who had a song and the Runaway Bride soundtrack.
Mike: South Carolina passes a resolution asking them to apologize. George W. Bush is asked about this by Tom Brokaw. He says, “The Dixie Chicks are free to speak their mind they can say what they want to say. They should not have their feelings hurt just because people don't want to buy their records when they want to speak out. Freedom is a two-way street.”
Sarah: Oh he started strong.
Mike: Also, this is wild, Toby Keith, who's already had run-ins with Natalie before, he's on a tour at the time and when he sings this 9/11 song, he puts up a photo-shopped image of Natalie hugging Saddam Hussein.
Sarah: Oh, Jesus Christ. Get it together, Toby Keith.
Mike: And then one thing I like is at this sort of country music awards show. Natalie wears a shirt that says F U T K, which everyone understands to mean, fuck you, Toby Keith.
Sarah: I think it means fuck you to come. And it's a copy-editing joke.
Mike: Yeah, TK, TK. And so, you know, within literally less than a week, their song that had been, you know, number one on the country charts and number seven on the pop charts was number 63.
Sarah: Oh my God.
Mike: They got death threats. All of them had to hire 24-hour security. Their fans dumped trash outside of their houses, which is like a sort of an early way of doxing them. Just like we know where you live.
Sarah: Not really fans at that point.
Mike: That's not the right word. Okay, I'm going to send you one more image.
Sarah: Yes. Okay, this is the magazine cover I remember.
Sarah: The one that was in my ninth-grade high school library and it is an exclusive, the headline is “The Dixie Chicks Come Clean,” and it is all of them naked with hands strategically placed and they have words written on them. So free speech, big mouth, Dixie sluts, boycott, Saddam's Angels, proud Americans, hero, traders, Patriot, shut up.
Mike: Yes. It's basically maligned women of the 1990s refrigerator magnets. So one of the other reasons why the backlash against The Chicks was so huge was because they didn't back down.
Sarah: Like what happens when you don't immediately eat shit.
Mike: The day after this The Guardian article comes out and the internet is ablaze, they put out a statement that says, “We've been overseas for several weeks and have been reading and following the news accounts of our government's position. The anti-American sentiment that is unfolded here is astounding. I feel the president is ignoring the opinions of many in the US and alienating the rest of the world. And one of the privileges of being an American is that you are free to voice your own point of view. While we support our troops, there's nothing more frightening than the notion of going to war with Iraq and the prospect of all the innocent lives that will be lost.” So basically, like in case you didn't hear me the first time, we’re against the war.
Sarah: I mean, and you know that like there's no winning anti-war argument, you know that, like you can't say, it's good to not have a war because then fewer people die. The idea that it is offensive to the real Americans that you want them to not die. I don't get it.
Mike: Two days later after they realized that this criticism isn't going to die down, they issue another sort of non-apology apology where Natalie says, “As a concerned American citizen, I apologize to President Bush because my remark was disrespectful. I feel that whoever holds that office should be treated with the utmost respect. While war may remain a viable option as a mother, I just want to see every possible alternative exhausted before children and American soldiers’ lives are lost. I love my country. I'm a proud American.” So softer, but still not in apology and still anti-war.
Sarah: Yeah, the meat of the thing I said, I stand by.
Mike: Yes. And a couple days later, they're on prime time with Diane Sawyer. And again, they say like, well, you know, I could have phrased it better. But I don't think that we should go to war. I mean, it's kind of calling the bluff on all this, fake outrage about like, they set it on foreign soil or like celebrities aren't supposed to weigh in.
Sarah: What if she said it at sea, would that have been all right.
Mike: International waters it's totally chill. And then a week later they do this Entertainment Weekly Cover. It's actually kind of a fascinating cancellation because they don't do the like notes app apology, and they just like weather it. And that London concert was the first date of a month-long European tour. So, for the entire time that this has happening, they're like playing shows in like Brussels and Berlin, they're not sort of on the ground, and they're mostly surrounded by like European audiences who are also super-duper anti-war. So they're not like at home scrolling through AOL and like reading all these comments, like there on a busy tour.
Sarah: Yeah. I mean, it's just like the amount of effort that you had to go into to like try and cancel someone using the internet as a primitive tool, this time is really remarkable.
Mike: So ok we are going to do a twist and then we're going to reflect. So, the twist of this story is at the time, the primary explanation for how the Dixie Chicks got totally screwed over was video consolidation. These big corporations are able to ban the Dixie Chicks from hundreds of radio stations at once. Clear channel is the biggest radio station owner in the country. They have more than 1,200 stations. And the owners of Clear Channel are friends of George W. Bush.
There is actually a Senate hearing, which is why I wanted to do a whole episode on this. And a lot of the discourse was about sort of the free speech apocalypse that we were going into, where one corporation can basically cancel a celebrity entirely, right, and completely destroy their careers. And in 2004, a researcher named Gabriel Rossman checks station by station who stopped playing the Dixie Chicks and when and what he finds out is that this is actually the opposite of a media consolidation story. The corporate owned radio stations were actually slower to stop playing the Dixie Chicks.
The explanation for this is that a lot of these large, you know, Clear Channel, these large conglomerations, they actually use weird predictive algorithms to decide what to play, like how to make their playlist. And those algorithms are actually less responsive to local listeners, to phone calls, to the guy, running the switchboard.
Sarah: People all across America, don't all want to hear Panama all the time.
Mike: Exactly. And so the first stations to stop playing The Chicks were the independent stations that just got a flood of phone calls. And Gabriel ends his article, he's basically saying the data doesn't look like this is a story of media consolidation. Rather the data suggests that country music has a vengeful audience to whose wishes corporations responded with varying degrees of haste. Rather than corporate interest punishing descent and imposing conservative values on the citizenry. In this instance, citizens’-imposed conservatism and punitiveness on corporations.
Sarah: Yes. And it was certainly a sign of the times.
Mike: So it sort of wasn't capitalism all along.
Sarah: Sometimes it's populism all along.
Mike: Sometimes it's just people don't like a thing.
Sarah: Well sometimes people don't like a thing, because they've been fed along line of bullshit and they need to attack random country musicians out of the need to believe that surely war is a good idea in this circumstance.
Mike: I mean, I also think one of the things that we weren't set up to notice at the time was the way that the internet makes it so much easier to organize these kinds of things. One of the things I can't get over is in Chris Willman’s book, he talks to a program manager at one of these radio stations, who said that he received 250 phone calls about this in sort of the week after they made their statement in London.
And when you think about it, if you're the program manager of, you know, a midsize radio station in Birmingham, Alabama, or wherever it was, 250 phone calls is a lot, right? Like that's way more than you get complaining about any particular artists on any given week. However, if you're a nationwide internet enabled mob, sending 250 phone calls to a random radio station in Birmingham is not that hard.
Sarah: So you’re saying this is the beginning of the internet enabling people to create a false sense of local consensus.
Mike: Exactly. I think that one of the sorts of mistakes about the quote unquote Cancel Culture Panic is to act as if something has changed in sort of societal ideology or the way that people feel about things. When actually it's much more about the ways that a small number of people can direct harassment at a particular person or to a particular institution.
And it doesn't take that many people to manufacture one of these crises, or as we've seen so many times to direct an incredible amount of abuse toward a specific person. All it takes is maybe a thousand people to like, you know, send emails and phone calls and social media posts to make your life absolute hell. And on the scale of the entire internet, a thousand, people not that many people, you can organize a thousand people relatively easily.
Sarah: It's interesting because I feel like the conclusion people are kind of hinting at is like, Americans are becoming more fractious and unreasonable or something, but really, it's like the culture is more responsive to the loudest and angriest.
Mike: Yes. One of the most insightful articles I found about this was drawing a through line between what happened to The Chicks in the early 2000s with Colin Kaepernick now. Apparently, there's a thing called anti fandom, which operates exactly like fandom, but it's basically a bunch of people bonding over hating a famous person.
Sarah: That explains so much and I can't believe I didn't know that word before.
Mike: Me neither, oh my God.
Sarah: Right, where are we been?
Mike: So, this is from an article called Too Famous to Protest by Spring-Serenity Duvall, “Since at least the early 2000s the far right in the United States has cultivated a media environment in which celebrities who identify as members of marginalized groups are targeted as undeserving of their fame if they dare to espouse political views that challenge conservative audiences. The tactics used by pundits and audiences include trolling, boycotting, doxing, and promoting conspiracy theories across multiple media platforms. The far right's ability to declare victory over The Dixie chicks by causing them career damage and personal trauma was a unifying and emboldening aspect of the far right. Audiences and media figures in the far-right best seek entertainers to ‘shut up and sin,’ or play or act or face being Dixie chicked, which means to have their careers destroyed by the opposition of organized far right audiences. Laura Ingram, one of the most popular hosts on Fox news turned ‘shut up and sing’ into a catchphrase when trying to silence The Dixie Chicks political speech and has wielded it to also admonish athletes to ‘shut up and play.”
So I think the best way to understand this controversy and cancel culture and everything that comes after it isn't necessarily a broad shift in norms among the public as a whole. It's really about the ability of small vocal groups to organize.
Sarah: So it was the internet all along.
Mike: I really think that it is, I mean, one of the things this article mentions is that this is really the seeds of Gamergate. Country Music is a conservative audience, it's very male, it’s got these sort of gatekeeping barriers to entry and that's in a lot of ways, very similar to gaming.
Sarah: Right. And there are a lot of non assholes in both of these communities, but it's like, I feel like you need a relatively small asshole ratio to really command a whole fandom.
Mike: Exactly. These kinds of communities, you know, sports, gaming, country music, these really conservative communities. Again, not everybody is like this, but they have little seeds within them, like little corners of these communities that get really obsessed with particular celebrities who speak out on issues.
It's almost always women. It's almost always people of color. It's always people from marginalized communities. There's a really interesting LA Review of Books, articles about the anti-fandom communities around AOC and other members of Congress who were also women of color. So it says, “There are Instagram accounts and Facebook pages and groups full of anti AOC, memes, videos and hate screeds. This is a trope seen in the UK to, with shadow home secretary Diane Abbott, a black working-class woman receiving over half of all abuse sent to politicians.”
Mike: Yes. You know what happened to The Chicks was not as extreme because there weren't as many of these online organizing spaces right there, social media yet.
Sarah: The online was like a slow lumbering dyno at the time. And now it's like the mammal age has begun.
Mike: Exactly, yes. I actually, I've been thinking a lot about a very brief interview that I came across in one of these local news articles during the Dixie Chicks tour, after all this happened. So, the rest of 2003, they're touring the United States. And there is a woman with her kid who interviewed outside of a show after the show.
And they are asking her, you know, what did you think of the show? And she says like, I don't agree with the Dixie Chicks politics and I was a little annoyed that they made further anti-war statements at the show like I found it kind of annoying, but I'm an adult and I can enjoy music by people whose opinions I don't like. It was very clear that like a lot of people in country music were actually offended by what they said. And you know, most of the country supported the Iraq war at the time, but a lot of people were actually fine with radio stations, still playing The Chicks and going to shows. And it is worth noting that like they made $61 million on this tour for the rest of the year.
Mike: Like they still had plenty of people who were willing to spend money seeing them.
Sarah: Yeah. And I hope that they got more than $60,000 of it.
Mike: I mean, my God I know. But I think this is sort of maybe the sort of twist of the twist.
Sarah: It’s just the pig's tail.
Mike: It's not actually clear to me that the Dixie Chicks were like all that cancelled.
Sarah: Well, I guess this is how do we define canceled, right? Because I guess it's also, it's like a Phantom. It's so big that each of us like might touch a different part of it and define it as that. And to me, the part that disturbs me about what happened to them is like this onslaught of hate that was essentially supported by the government.
Mike: Yes. And we're going to talk about this more in the actual Cancel Culture episode, but what drives me nuts about this term and what makes it so moral panicky is that the same term is used to describe a vast range of behavior. You know, the Dixie Chicks went through hell that year. That experience is undeniably awful, but then we also use the term cancellation to talk about sort of economic effects, right?
The sort of boycott, you know, they were never the same that quote from the Texas Monthly article that I read at the beginning of the episode is worded very carefully. It says, “Before the cancellation, they sold 20 million copies of their albums, after the cancellation, those same albums have only sold 1 million copies.”
Right. So, a very obvious fall off. The record they put out in 2006, their sort of comeback record sells 5 million copies, and it wins a bunch of Grammys. And you know, they go on another tour. One of my issues with sort of the term cancellation is that it's mostly directed at public figures. We mostly talk about sort of actors or writers or musicians being quote unquote canceled.
And for public figures, the effect of cancellation is oftentimes losing status with one group but gaining it with another. The embrace of the Dixie Chicks by liberals was like noticeable. People were really proud of them for standing up against Bush at the time, people knew how brave it was to do that at the time. You know, this also turned them against country music. So, their 2006 album, which I have listened to many times this week. It's like, it's a pretty poppy album.
Sarah: If I got death threats for a year, because of something that happened to me while I was making the show, I would probably move out of the conversational podcast space.
Mike: Yes. So I don't want to minimize what happened to them. Right? Like everything that happened 2003 was unbelievably ugly.
Sarah: Well but you're saying that they ended up in a good place and I really don't think that's true.
Mike: Tell me what you mean.
Sarah: Well, I guess the way you see this story, I think is like that it's actually kind of redemptive because they had this horrible bump where they said something reasonable against a war and their fan base had a meltdown. And then they stopped being played on the radio. And we remember it as this massive cancellation, but really then they like toured and they put out albums and they are doing well and the liberals like them and they're fine now. And I just think that you should not, your life shouldn't have to become this just for saying that you personally feel ashamed to have the same home state as the president who you think is doing a bad job.
Sarah: It's just not reasonable to live in a culture where those kinds of repercussions exist for that kind of act.
Mike: It's a story of somebody being punished for being right.
Sarah: Or, you know, even if she wasn't right, like, who cares? Like she was saying a personal feeling, it was a statement of emotion. But that wasn't even reported on as much and it's interesting that I remember her saying something so much stronger than she actually did. She was just like, we're ashamed of the president is from Texas. Which is like if Trump were from Oregon, which is a really weird thing to try to imagine, but if he was, I would obviously feel the same way and it would just be a statement of personal emotion. And just the fact that people felt the need to punish someone that severely and to do their best and to really drum up an impressive amount of like grassroots power in this movement. To try and deprive a very profitable act of the kind of cultural half that they had had to that point.
I guess he can look at it as like, wow, it's amazing when the public has that kind of power and it's like, yeah, but do we only wield it for like horrible petty shit that has to do with our own bruised egos?
Mike: I think punishment is the right way to look at it. Right. And I think that this is where the sort of salt the earth way that The Chicks were talked about for years. It wasn't enough to say they're wrong, or even like make a strong argument that like, ah, the war is good, right. It was, they should be erased from the culture.
And not only should their current political statements be erased from the culture, but all of their past work should be too right. Right. If there's one thing that is not true about the Chick's work up to that point is that it was political.
Sarah: I guess arguably killing men is a political act, but only in a scum manifesto kind of way.
Mike: But I also think that we have to have a way of talking about public figures who were quote, unquote canceled that takes into account the fact that many of these people are sort of wealthy and famous and remain wealthy and famous. And don't actually suffer the same kinds of economic consequences that we think are associated with these quotes unquote cancellations.
Sarah: Yeah, to me, it becomes most interesting when it extends to someone who wasn't making money to begin with.
Mike: Yes. This sort of takes us to next episode about cancel culture.
Sarah: Yay. What I'm most excited about, because I feel like I harp on this all the time, is like we need better language to talk about cancellation. We need more words. We need a much more nuanced vocabulary. Like we need a taxonomy of the ways that you can get canceled or what different people are taking that word to mean. And I expect you to do that.
Mike: I've got my marching orders. We've finished The Two Towers, I now have to take us to The Return of the King.
Sarah: So like the college students are the hobbits, and this world and the US military is men, and the elves are country musicians.
Mike: Who's the Balrog?
Sarah: Lou Pearlman.