Not much happens out of the blue. The snakes of lightning across one’s vision before a migraine, the same argument verbatim every few weeks before a break-up, the sudden dread when you know someone’s about to break unwanted news – signs, more often than not, are there in plain sight.
I’ve been thinking a lot about country group The Chicks recently, and more specifically, the 2003 controversy that altered their entire trajectory as a band. But it went much further than that – the more I think about, the more convinced I become that it was an omen, a warning shot. The first rustling of branches, the early stirrings of a breeze that only became a hurricane a decade later.
For the uninitiated: in 2003, The Chicks had sold more albums in the USA than any other female band in history. They had seven Grammys to their name, among a number of other awards, and were embarking upon a world tour. While performing at Shepherd’s Bush Empire in March of that year – right before the invasion of Iraq – lead vocalist Natalie Maines said to the audience, “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.”
She was quoted in the Guardian’s review of the gig and her words reached the US media a few days later (ah, those halcyon pre-social media times). Thereupon those unrehearsed mid-set comments sparked a furious reaction. Country music fans destroyed Chicks CDs in protest. Their songs were dropped from radio playlists, with one chain of radio stations writing to the band’s label to say they wouldn’t play their songs until Maines had made a public apology to President Bush. In Shut Up And Sing, the 2006 documentary about the controversy, one outraged former fan exclaims, “if you support The Chicks, you’re on the side of communism!” Which is, if nothing else, a heck of a leap.
But the country music world was – and remains, though perhaps not to the same degree – conservative, and fans were angry. The band were condemned for their lack of patriotism and for disrespecting the president while on foreign soil. Maines defended herself against the latter accusation: “it wasn’t like we played 20 shows in America and I was saving up this comment for London… I was in London when the war was about to start. That’s where I said it.”
The reaction to the band’s comments rippled out far beyond country music, however, with President Bush himself being asked how he felt about what Maines had said. In a rare moment of sense, his only response was to defend her right to free speech. Right-wing forum Free Republic played a part in co-ordinating a boycott of The Chicks’ music – you can still access the thread, where the band are referred to as “ditsy chicks”, the “Dixie Hicks”, and somewhat bafflingly, “the Vichy chicks”.
Then there were the death threats, one of which was credible enough that the FBI investigated. In Shut Up And Sing, we see metal detectors installed at a venue before a Chicks show, and the band discussing with their manager where on one’s person one might smuggle a gun into a gig. A newspaper printed Maines’s home address in Texas, forcing her to move.
It didn’t seem to register at any point with those criticising Maines that hers was not a minority opinion in the slightest. A month prior to that fateful gig, between six and ten million people across the world had taken to the streets to voice their opposition to the invasion, in what has since been called the largest protest event in human history. The Chicks didn’t want that war? Hardly anyone wanted that war. And yet the three women were vilified by right-wing “patriots”, some of whom saw fit to threaten them with death for daring to express an opinion.
I don’t know if you remember, but summer 2013 was a bad time for high-profile women on Twitter. Caroline Criado-Perez was threatened with rape and murder for campaigning to have a woman on a bank note. Stella Creasy MP faced more of the same for supporting her. Writers Grace Dent and Hadley Freeman were sent bomb threats. Mary Beard made headlines for sending one troll’s comments to his mother. Twitter’s response was inadequate at best – and six years on, the platform still doesn’t deal with abuse effectively. Then, in 2014: Gamergate, a harrassment campaign whose victims were women. The methods are the same, ringing like a chorus: disproportionate anger levelled at women (or LGBTQ people, or people of colour), threats of rape and murder, private information made public. It was Gamergate that caught the attention of one Steve Bannon: “You can activate that army. They come in through Gamergate or whatever and then get turned onto politics and Trump.”
In a 2016 piece for the Guardian that laid out the connection between Gamergate and ‘alt-right’ tactics, Matt Lees wrote: “Everything we’re seeing now, had its precedent two years ago”. It goes back further than that. It goes right back to 2003, when the lead singer of an hugely successful all-female US band dared to speak her mind – and wouldn’t make nice just to quell the backlash.
Sixteen years later and the country music world still hasn’t forgiven The Chicks. The band features on Taylor Swift’s new album and once again, radio stations have received complaints. It matters less now, though; Taking The Long Way, the band’s 2006 comeback album, cemented their defiant stance and won them another clutch of Grammys. ‘Not Ready To Make Nice’, the lead single from that record, is an immensely powerful song, whether you know the circumstances that led to its writing or not. That it refers to what Maines said back in March 2003 doesn’t become apparent until after the first chorus; up to then it could be about a bad break-up of any kind. The song shimmers with righteous anger, and every time I watch the live performance of it below, something hot and tingling tracks its way up and down my spine.
Not much happens out of the blue. The signs are usually there; there’s often a butterfly wing flapping somewhere in the corner of the frame. We need to get quicker at spotting the shifting of the branches – tuning into the stirrings of a breeze before it becomes a hurricane, and carries us away.