The Dixie Chicks
Am I the only feminist who has ever listened to country music? Why am I not reading more about the Dixie Chicks in the feminist blogosphere? Call me crazy, call me stupid, call me a femi-nazi who sees discrimination everywhere she looks, but I think this has a gender angle to it. At the very least the Dixie Chicks are a part of a cultural feminist phenomenon. I’d like to address the latter.
My love for the Dixie Chicks is not political. That’s just icing. My love for the Dixie Chicks is all tangled up with my feminism and my personal identity. They made it big while I was in graduate school, a time of my life when I never, ever wore pink. I didn’t wear it for a decade, from about nineteen to twenty-nine. I wouldn’t have dreamt of it. At the start of graduate school I was singing along at the top of my lungs to Four-Non-Blondes, “What’s going on?” Then, while I was working, a generational shift happened, and by the end of graduate school, somehow, 4NB lead singer Linda Perry was writing songs with a singer of the next generation, who went by the name of… P!nk! Grrrl power had arrived. The generation of women who fought society for equal access to resources and opportunities, while always conflicted about the role of sexual appearance, gave way to a generation of women raised post-Title IX, who believed the world was their oyster and were quite happy owning the power of their sexuality.
I am an odd duck, a woman who falls between generations not because of my age but because of my upbringing. Born six months before Title IX was enacted, my dad told me I could do anything, be anything I wanted. And I believed him. I still do. But raised in a red-state religion, I knew perfectly well that society was not egalitarian, that very few marriages were egalitarian, and that backward and dated ideas of women’s roles had not exactly been overturned. I figured we still had miles to go before we slept. I was a feminist warrior in stasis, unsure about how to fight the enemy. I did not realize at the time that I was watching the germination of the feminist backlash. Nor did I realize that I was also a foot soldier in the feminist backlash. I had a foot in each world, and the anxiety to go along with it.
One of my favorite books, which the feminist movement has overlooked, is, “Breaking Point: Why Women Fall Apart and How They Can Re-create their Lives,” by Martha Beck. Don’t let the title scare you off. This is the popular version of her sociology dissertation, and it’s written around the central thesis that since the 1970s, social roles and expectations for women are logically inconsistent, and the effort to meet paradoxical expectations causes incredible anxiety within women, especially to the extent that they have internalized these expectations. Beck details how five generations of women were each affected by changing societal expectations. She shows that the way out is to realize the bind you are in, and transcend it by adopting only those roles that help you live well. To hell with the rest.
Let me give you a small personal example of the conflicting roles Beck is talking about. I like to be attractive, I like to wear makeup. But in school, I wanted to be careful to not wear so much makeup that I didn’t look like a serious student. So I bounced back and forth between minimal makeup and slightly more makeup, never quite happy with the image I was projecting. A small example, but not trivial, in terms of the internal stress I felt about who I was. Throw in mothering (two children), marriage (to a good man who was a lousy match for me), religion (patriarchal and constricting to women), academic and career ambitions (not having the courage to pursue my own interests rather than the hip topics), and every woman’s desire to be beautiful (it plagues us all, evolution sees to that), and it is little wonder that I was a candidate for a breaking point. I could not do or be everything that people I valued expected of me. I had to shut up the voices in my head and listen to my own voice.
The fact is I have always had trouble making my own voice heard. In a high school psychology class, I took part in a class activity where maybe 10 students stood in a tight circle, then put their hands in the center and randomly took the hands of two other students. This created a human knot, and the goal was to untangle the knot without letting go of the hands. I don’t remember the point of the lesson as presented to the class. I do remember a female classmate leaning over to me after the unsuccessful demonstration, telling me in a low voice what she had overheard the teacher telling the student teacher, “Watch this, it happens every time: there will be a smart female trying to disentangle the group systematically, and she will be drowned out by a big dumb jock who couldn’t find his way out of a paper bag.” And then the teacher had pointed me out as the female, who gave up when I couldn’t talk louder than the jock.
In graduate school, one of my field sequences had six students taking the field exam, and we had divided up, somewhat organically, into pairs to study. Mine was a happy and productive companionship interrupted for a few weeks during the second quarter, when a mutual friend taking the course for a breadth requirement asked to join us. We went from partners to a group with two men and one woman…and I was jarred to find myself once again being talked over. It was deflating. He was a friend, smart, not a jock, and I still couldn’t get my voice heard. Fortunately he drifted away after a few weeks and left us to study in peace.
I do have a quiet voice. A little theatre training has helped, when I think to use it, mostly in front of a classroom of students. But the main problem is that in everyday life, I have a way of mumbling, talking low, so as to not disturb the people who don’t really want to listen to me, so as to not offend. And the feminist in me hates that about me.
The Dixie Chicks came along during the period before and after my breaking point. They were the first country representation of the Grrrl Power phenomenon. They spoke loudly, they sang forcefully, they were comfortable in their own skin, and they dressed sexy and looked beautiful. They were a girl band, making it big, with songs about strong women. They were the soundtrack to my life when I was melting it down to basic elements and reconstructing it bit by bit.
“Who doesn’t know what I’m talking about
Who’s never left home, who’s never struck out
To find a dream and a life of their own
A place in the clouds a foundation of stone ”
“Come on baby say it do you think I’m gonna cry?
I ain’t about to fall
And I ain’t gonna die
So if you’re gonna say goodbye
Don’t take all damn night
Let 'er rip
Let it fly”
The lyrics and the women were stronger on the next album: “Ready to Run,” “If I Fall You’re Going Down with Me,” “Some days you gotta dance/live it up when you get the chance,” “I need a boy like you like a hole in my head,” “I’m takin’ my turn on the sin wagon,” and of course, “Goodbye, Earl,” the song version of “Fried Green Tomatoes.” Meanwhile, I divorced, apostatized, quit school, and moved to Europe. The Chicks went hand-in-hand with Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. They were my role model of talking loud, of not being afraid to let your voice be heard—and this is was with only two albums out, long before the Incident.
I had re-created my life by the time they produced “Home.”
They had to go to court to get out of their slave-labor starter contract, but when it was done, they were ready to control their destiny. And let me tell you, “Home” was courageous. Bluegrass wasn’t in. Dolly Parton had put out a bluegrass album and it had gone nowhere. Allison Krauss was beloved but still fringe. The Dixie Chicks put the bluegrass back in country and dragged them both into the twenty-first century. They had dared to do their own thing, with no assurance that the country music audience would come with them, and produced an album that was bigger than big, a gorgeous, authentic, expansive album with no filler songs.
I cranked the stereo and played that CD continuously for weeks. Months, really. We did, I should say, because even my new husband, pop-music-phobe and country-music-abhorrer that he was, had come around to my point, that every genre has both great music and pap, and it was obvious at first listen that this was great music.
And that was it. That sealed the deal. I love the Dixie Chicks, because they are strong women who represent having the courage to follow your own vision, to believe in your work, to not choose the safe path. They’ve always been unafraid to be loud, even if it might offend somebody.
And now, post-Incident, they’re not losing sleep at night just because they’ve discovered that most of their old friends don’t actually like them for who they are. But for me, that’s just icing. They were the whole cake long before that.