Recently, I helped Feminist Campus compile a playlist of feminist country music for the new Power Plays column. One of the first songs that came to mind was “Girl in a Country Song,” the single released early this year by newly formed country music duo Maddie and Tae. The song poked fun at mainstream country music’s sexism and objectification of women:
Well I wish I had some shoes on my two bare feet
And it's gettin' kinda cold in these painted-on cut-off jeans
I hate the way this bikini top chafes
Do I really have to wear it all day?
What makes “Girl in a Country Song” resonate with listeners is that it lampoons individual popular country songs. When Jason Aldean invites the girl in his song “Take a Little Ride” to “Slide your pretty little self on over,” Maddie and Tae respond: “Sure I’ll slide on over, but you’re gonna get slapped.” When Billy Currington asks “what’s your name, girl?” Maddie and Tae let him know that “it ain’t pretty little thing, honey or baby.”
The release of “Girl in a Country Song,” sparked a discussion about whether country music is sexist, feminist, or somewhere in between. I wanted to try to answer this question, so I started thinking back to my own childhood memories of listening to my local country radio station every day on the way to school. And I realized that country music has a woman problem.
First, Jason Aldean is far from the only country star with sexist lyrics. Luke Bryan instructs his “Country Girl” to “shake it for the young bucks sittin’ in the honky-tonks.” Trace Adkins declares that “we hate to see her go but love to watch her leave.” Brad Paisley calls it a “fact of life” that women take forever to get dressed. But don’t worry ladies, he knows that “you need a man around here” to “kill the spiders, change the channel and drink the beer.” And Toby Keith is “getting kinda tired of her endless chatter,” because his girlfriend “ain’t much fun since I quit drinkin.” What he needs is a woman who “ain’t got a lot on” and “ain’t got a lot to say.”
The fact that this kind of language is commonplace suggests that some degree of sexism does permeate the country music world. But while it’s important to examine the treatment of women in country songs, it’s just as vital to discuss women’s roles as country artists. To what degree can female musicians speak out like Maddie and Tae did?
If you look at the Dixie Chicks, the most obvious example of outspoken female country artists, the answer is worrying.
The Dixie Chicks’ rise to fame was meteoric. First formed in 1989 as a four-woman bluegrass band, the band soon morphed into a more contemporary country trio, with Natalie Maines as the lead singer and sisters Martie and Emily Erwin providing the instrumentals and back-up vocals. The band’s first album with Maines as the lead singer, Wide Open Spaces, remains the highest-selling debut country album ever. The Dixie Chicks’ second album, Fly, sold ten million copies. Even today, the band holds the title for the best-selling female group of any musical genre. But during their 2003 “Top of the World” tour, the Dixie Chicks’ reputation became one of notoriety. While on stage in London, Natalie Maines criticized the impending war in Iraq: “We do not want this war, this violence. And we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.”
When Maines criticized then-President Bush, his approval ratings were at an unprecedented high. These dozen words caused an immediate and violent backlash. Former fans accused the Dixie Chicks of being communist traitors, picketed concerts, and destroyed their CDs with tractors. Natalie Maines received graphic death threats. According to Maines, the outrage came largely from right-wing interest groups, who would call radio stations in other cities, pretending to be local residents, “and say that if they ever played us again they were never going to listen to us.” As a result, radio stations across the country blacklisted the band, and DJs who played the Chicks’ music sometimes lost their jobs. Of course, their reception wasn’t all negative. In one Greenville, South Carolina concert, Maines welcomed the audience to boo for a few seconds (“because we welcome freedom of speech”), but her invitation was met with only cheers. By and large, however, the mainstream country music world had turned its back on the Dixie Chicks.
The backlash was politically motivated, but it was also saturated with misogyny. Talk show host Bill O’Reilly blustered that the Dixie Chicks “don’t know what they’re talking about. Callow foolish women, who deserve to be slapped around.” From another commentator, Pat Buchanan: “I think they are the ‘Ditzy Twits.’ These are the dumbest, dumbest bimbos, with due respect…” Far from being “with due respect,” these words are insulting enough at face value. But it’s no coincidence that both men combined their insinuations that the Dixie Chicks are ignorant with extremely gendered insults. Absent in these remarks is any substantive political critique; instead, these commentators equated womanhood with stupidity.
Of course, 2003 was over ten years ago. Have things changed since?
Looking at the response to Maddie and Tae’s single, it’s difficult to tell. “Girl in a Country Song”‘s reception has been largely positive. Radio stations vied to play it before its release date, and it became one of the most popularly downloaded songs on iTunes. So can we chalk this up to progress? I’m not convinced. For all of its skewering, “Girl in a Country Song” is lighthearted. It’s political, but not contentious. Maddie and Tae aren’t trying to dismantle “bro-country” – in fact, they’re self-proclaimed fans: “We love all the artists that we’re picking at, and we love their music.” (This is unsurprising; it’s obviously not a good career move to immediately alienate the genre you’re trying to break into.) Ultimately, “Girl in a Country Song” is not as threatening as the Dixie Chicks’ anti-Bush statements were. Perhaps this explains why there has been virtually no backlash for Maddie and Tae. A more established female country artist who has recently waded into controversial territory is Carrie Underwood. Underwood has publicly taken stances against slavery and animal cruelty, and at one point opposed a Tennessee agricultural bill due to concerns that it would target whistleblowers attempting to document animal abuse. When State Represenative Andy Holt said that she should “stick to singing,” Underwood tweeted: “Wow…sorry, I’m just a tax paying citizen concerned for the safety of my family.” This exchange appeared to be the extent of the backlash. Underwood came under greater scrutiny in 2012, when she voiced her support for gay marriage in an interview. This time, there was more of an online uproar. To her credit, Underwood stood by her remarks, but she did mention wanting “to stay out of any kind of controversy” that would distract from her music. In another interview on the subject, she stated: “I’m not a political person at all. I doubt anyone can tell you what party I mostly affiliate myself with.” Overall, Underwood’s responses to both of these controversies were relatively pacifying. While some fans did take umbrage at Underwood’s support of gay marriage, the political positions she has spoken out publicly on have, by and large, been relatively uncontroversial.
In the end, I have to agree with John Rumble, a historian at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. He said that the Dixie Chicks’ “sudden disappearance from radio after all this tremendous success… [threw] a barrel of cold water on other country artists who might have been vocal about supporting Democratic or Independent candidates.” Perhaps for this reason, comparing the words of the Dixie Chicks to the more recent lyrics of Maddie and Tae is a little like comparing apples and oranges. And that’s the problem: maybe today’s female country artists have learned that they simply don’t have the freedom to take Natalie Maines-level risks.
Of course, to say that Maddie and Tae should have posed a more aggressive challenge to sexism wouldn’t be fair. As precarious as the Dixie Chicks’ position was when they were at the top of the world, Maddie and Tae face an even shakier environment given that they are a newly established group. The lesson we can learn from these political controversies is this: we need to firmly stand with and celebrate women who speak publicly on political issues, however innocuous. Only then will female artists truly be able to voice controversial opinions.