When Clear Channel Silenced The (Dixie) Chicks
At times it can feel like everything is wrapped up in some kind of messaging. This week at Cracked, we're taking a closer look at propaganda and how it has shaped the world in ways that may not be so obvious.
"Cancel culture" is not real … or very real. Depends who you ask and what mood they're in that week.
Admittedly, no one can agree on the definition. The term is abused way too often and is usually referenced with a healthy side-dish of cognitive dissonance. Yeah, CNN, I'm sure Colin Kaepernick sees his shadow ban from the NFL and millions in lost wages simply as the "free market at work" and not league-wide collusion. But we can argue over the semantics later.
To say this topic is toxic is putting it mildly. Think China Syndrome. Instead of starting a flame war, we've decided to examine the textbook case that serves as the model for all deplatformings. Calm down; we're just going to discuss the Iraq War. You know, nothing too provocative.
By 2003, Natalie Maines, Emily Strayer, and Martie Maguire had conquered country and pop charts and had international fame as members of the country band Dixie Chicks (the band's name now truncated as "The Chicks").
That impressive run came to a halt following a comment in London where Maines declared to the world, "We're ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas." Maines' opinion circulated back to America at the precise moment the Bush Administration prepared for an all-out invasion of Iraq.
Something about mocking a president on foreign territory rubbed country fans (and more importantly, radio-station conglomerates) the wrong way. Soon the performers were receiving death threats in the mail, having their houses vandalized, losing sponsors, and terminating shows due to low ticket sales in protest of their denouncement of President George W. Bush. It could have been worse; at least Maines didn't toss her cowboy boots at his head:
Any self-respecting Texan would have thrown a tighter spiral.
If it ended there, it wouldn't have raised many eyebrows or caught the attention of the United States Senate. However, the pushback went even further, striking at the very bread and butter of singers: radio airplay. After Maines' statement, the band was placed on a de facto blacklist, effectively shutting them out of being heard on a large chunk of American radio markets "out of deference to listeners." Clear Channel put the onus on local program directors to decide on a Dixie Chicks ban, placating the mob. Cumulus Media went for a complete 30-day prohibition. All this censorship because of a single, banal, off-hand remark from a honky-tonk singer.
The Telecommunications Act of 1996 allowed companies like Clear Channel, Cox Radio, and Cumulus Media to establish monopolies, gobbling up local stations across the United States in a feeding frenzy. Resistance was futile. The few brave country DJs who broke with the mob and played Dixie Chicks songs were fired, hearkening back to the days of McCarthyism in the '50s where directors and actors were forced to work under aliases or leave LA to make movies. It's less romantic than it sounds.
A few Republicans, like John McCain, had the guts to break party lines and call out the ostracism for what it was: corporate complicity in political propaganda. His voice was drowned out by the roar of tractors running over Dixie Chicks jewel cases. Great PR if you're an aging eye-shadow-wearing punk rocker, but not so much if you're a country-pop act trying to appeal to middle America.
In the amount of time it takes to melt a compact disc on a bonfire, the Dixie Chicks' career imploded, their songs no longer charted despite winning awards. The burned-out band was out of commission for 14 years, with Strayer, Maines, and Maguire only quietly doing a couple of tours but dropping no new albums. Eventually, discourse became even more messed up now than it was in the 2000s, with Maines' comments looking studied and subtle by comparison. Add a contentious divorce and got Maines back into songwriting. (Despite the title, the song is about her ex, who only pretends to be President on bad TV shows.)
Though Maines doesn't regret the sentiment she expressed, she recognized the political rant derailed her band's future opportunities and that she should have rephrased her thoughts. That is the point of censorship; it strikes fear into everyone so that the next person won't open their mouth when they have an opinion that a CEO doesn't care for. And that should terrify you even if you aren't an edgy celebrity.
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