“With a deep breath, we put it to you: Consider The Chicks as punk.”
The Chicks are back in town – start spreading the word around. Not that it’s a secret or anything, mind – the trio’s long-awaited album Gaslighter has blitzed the charts on a global scale, and made up for lost time following a 14-year wait between records. Whether you were dazzled by their impeccable harmonies and huge hooks the first time around or you’re coming to The Chicks afresh, there’s never been a better time to fully appreciate what this group have been able to accomplish across the last 25 years and change.
It’s also worth reconsidering them in a fresh light, given that they’re entering a new phase themselves – having just changed their name and released a record. With a deep breath, we put it to you: Consider The Chicks as punk.
Alright, before you hurl your bottles at the screen or anything, we’re not saying that they suddenly sound like Black Flag or they’re churning out 90 second thrashers on Gaslighter. In this sense, we’re talking about punk as an attitude. A nature of being. A state of mind. When you look a little bit closer, this is something The Chicks have in spades – arguably more so than a lot of actual so-called punk bands.
Consider, first, the act that serves as simultaneously their most famous and most infamous moment of their career. Speaking out against George W. Bush during wartime was not something that was out of the ordinary for musicians to be doing at that time – indeed, if you’ll recall, the biggest rock album of 2004 had several hits based entirely off this premise. This, however, was expected of bands and artists within the alternative world. As far back as Vietnam, rock music and its myriad of offshoots, subgenres and related sonic stylings were diametrically opposed to any sort of fascist regime. You know what wasn’t? Country music.
In post-9/11 America, country was the first cab off the rank to get a song out in response to it. It was Toby Keith’s ‘Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue,’ which is – put both bluntly and lightly – a honking jingoistic piece of shit. It has all the political finesse you’d expect from a grown man whose best-known song is about the plastic cups you get at frat parties. You’ll never guess who hated that fucking song, too: Natalie Maines herself. “I hate it,” she said at the time. “It’s ignorant, and it makes country music sound ignorant.” This isn’t the vision for the genre that The Chicks had, and nothing was going to get in the way of that.
While it was the norm for rock, punk and heavy acts to speak out against Bush and his cabinet, country was not a genre that would stand for it.
The Chicks did it anyway.
They weren’t even in the country when they did it – they were in the midst of a UK run – but the ripples of their actions were felt across their entire genre. It was about as close to being burned at the stake as one could possibly get – their CDs were destroyed, they were effectively blacklisted from radio and anyone with a voice in country music or conservative media was raising it at them. Remind you of anything? How about a young up-and-coming group by the name of the Sex Pistols?
When the band’s signature song, ‘God Save the Queen,’ was released in 1977, it was on track to be the number-one song in the UK. However, they ended up charting second behind – get this – Rod Stewart. The powers-that-be were refusing to even acknowledge the song, with the BBC refusing to play it and several major retailers intentionally not stocking the single. When the Top of the Pops played back the top 20 singles that week, the number-two spot was replaced by a black line. For daring to speak out against a higher power in their home country, the Sex Pistols were public enemy number one.
This is almost exactly what happened to The Chicks – who, at that point, were among the most successful artists in the genre. Routinely crossing over into the pop charts with singles like ‘Wide Open Spaces’ and their beloved cover of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Landslide,’ the platinum certifications piled up with each and every release. Hell, the album Wide Open Spaces went platinum so many times that it ended up with the ultimate certification of Diamond. You need to go platinum 13 times in order for that to happen. The Chicks put all of that on the line when they spoke out against their President on the precipice of invading Iraq.
The Chicks did it anyway.
After the dust settled, what was the band’s first statement? A song called ‘Not Ready to Make Nice.’ The song explicitly discusses the trauma of frontwoman Natalie Maines in the wake of the group’s public vilification. “It’s a sad, sad story/When a mother will teach her daughter/That she ought to hate a perfect stranger,” she sings. She lets loose in the chorus, howling the titular phrase. “I’m not ready to back down,” she adds. “I’m still mad as hell.” No, it’s not exactly “fuck you” in a literally explicit manner, but it doesn’t need to be. The conviction is there. The righteous anger is there. The rage is maintained. They knew full well that their critics weren’t going to respond lightly to a song like ‘Not Ready,’ and releasing it as the lead single of their next album Taking the Long Way Home was an intentional, provocative move. The Chicks did it anyway.
“So, do you honestly expect The Chicks to come back, tail betwixt legs, pandering to the same people that threatened to end both their careers and their actual lives?”
Even when they weren’t rebelling against their confederate contemporaries, The Chicks made subtle but effective switch-ups that gave their own take on country. The same discourse that now surrounds Cardi B’s single ‘WAP’ could essentially be cut, copied and pasted from the one surrounding their single ‘Goodbye Earl’ two decades prior. It boils down to this: Women are not allowed to sing about the same things that men have always sung about. In this instance, the country music world – which is home to thousands upon thousands of murder ballads sung by men – promptly popped its monocle when The Chicks’ upbeat barn-burner about doing away with a deadbeat husband took off on radio.
Despite not writing the song themselves – that honour belongs to the late, great Dennis Linde – The Chicks took the ball of ‘Goodbye Earl’ and promptly ran with it. It would have been obvious to anyone on the outset that a group still making a name for themselves within the realm of mainstream country would be ruffling feathers by including such a song on a make-or-break record like 1999’s Fly happened to be. The Chicks did it anyway.
Now, in 2020, it’s clearer than ever that The Chicks are not interested in playing country music’s game. It’s not lost on them that while they were quote-unquote “gone,” the treatment of women in country only got worse. They sat out the rise of bro-country, they watched “salad-gate” from afar (Google it) and they saw the irrefutable stats that after they were blacklisted, radio was even more hesitant to push female artists on their stations.
So, do you honestly expect The Chicks to come back, tail betwixt legs, pandering to the same people that threatened to end both their careers and their actual lives? No. Fuck no. Hell, just about the second or third thing they did when they got back was change their name. They’ve marched forward using their redneck past as an effigy. Any marketing genius would flip their lid at the premise of rebranding after nearly 30 years using the same moniker.
The Chicks did it anyway. Gaslighter operates on its own terms. It’s a bold, ambitious record that allows the band to explore the farthest reaches of their sound yet. It’s a radical reinvention, which embraces the group’s pop strengths while simultaneously holding nothing back from a lyrical perspective. The opening title track points a finger at those that have manipulated Maines and co. in the past, while the rest of the record spills its guts about love, loss, divorce, grief and the rebuilding process.
One could draw a parallel to someone within the punk community like Camp Cope’s Georgia Maq in this sense. Think of the way she called it the way she saw it regarding industry bullshit on the band’s 2017 single ‘The Opener’ and then backed it up by subverting everyone’s expectations with her bold, bubbly solo pop record Pleaser in 2019. It’s not for nothing that Maq has expressed a love of The Chicks’ music – the similarities and trajectory line up in a truly serendipitous way.
The Chicks have battled the bullshit and won. They’ve refused to follow trends. They’ve remained defiant and fiery and unapologetic. They’ve been wildly successful on their terms. They’ve broken the rules time and time again and lived to tell the tale. Right now they’re among the top dogs of 2020’s pop music food chain – which is practically unheard of for three mothers in their mid-40s.
The Chicks have met this moment – and they’ve been pretty fucking punk while doing so.