Can the Grammy-Winning Country and Western Group Recover from Reputational Purgatory?
3/6/20 – – In today’s digital world, if someone in the public eye says or does something deemed offensive they run the risk of being “cancelled.” It’s a cruel fate characterized by banishment, shame and permanent irrelevance. Within the country music industry, experiencing such a crisis is referred to as being “Dixie Chicked.”
To understand the derivation of “Dixie Chicked,” we have to go back to March 10, 2003, nine days before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. That evening, during a performance in London by the then-hotter-than-hot American female trio (Dixie Chicks’ Wide Open Spaces and Fly albums had each sold more than 10 million copies), lead singer Natalie Maines remarked, “We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.”
While the people in the theatre cheered, country music lovers back home — the fans who had made the Dixie Chicks the best-selling female band of all time — were outraged. Interpreting Maines’ ill-timed comment as anti-American, country music radio stations banned their music, protestors bulldozed their CDs, fans boycotted their concerts and a few crazies threatened to shoot Maines if she ever appeared on stage again.
Online ostracizing was not as prevalent in 2003 as it is today (Facebook was still a year away from launch), but in the truest sense, the Dixie Chicks were “cancelled.” Other than one successful album in 2006 (Taking the Long Way, which earned a Grammy award) the group has been unable to rekindle its success.
So, when I saw the news this week that the Dixie Chicks were releasing Gaslighter, their first album in 14 years, I thought it would be timely and helpful to revisit this cautionary tale.
In Chapter 3 of The Crisis Preparedness Quotient – Measuring Your Readiness to Weather a Reputational Storm (“Where Crises Come From”) we examine what I believe are the most common causes of survival-threatening situations. Politics, the third rail of social and business interaction, is high on the list.
What Natalie Maines and her bandmates experienced after that fateful night was the extraordinary level of rage evoked by politics. Both ends of the political spectrum hold passionate beliefs. It’s everybody’s right, including celebrities, entertainers and business leaders, to express their opinions and back any political party or candidate they want. But understand that when you pick a side, you’re picking a fight and probably turning off or outright insulting half the world, which includes your potential fans and customers.
Blowback is particularly fierce when you express a political stand that is out of sync with the beliefs of your support base and key audiences. If Pearl Jam had made the same remarks as Maines, it probably wouldn’t have made any news. But when you consider the conservative profile of the typical country and western music lover, you can understand the betrayal and anger felt by so many Dixie Chicks fans.
Business leaders must be aware of the same dangers. Most companies and organizations employ both conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats. Most products and services, to be successful, must appeal to people of all political stripes. The next time you are tempted to take a contentious political stand, put on your headphones and listen to the Dixie Chicks’ Wide Open Spaces, paying close attention to these lyrics:
She needs wide open spaces
Room to make her big mistakes . . .
She knows the highest stakes.
Most people would agree that Natalie Maines made a big mistake on the evening of March 10, 2003. The Dixie Chicks learned just how high the stakes can be when you wander into the minefield of politics.
I was a big fan of the talented Dixie Chicks and wish the group the best of luck with their new album. A major tour is planned for this summer, giving them the opportunity to perform their way out of purgatory. Will they stay away from politics? The odds of that are slim. Here’s what Natalie Maines posted on Instagram in 2018:
Listen, I think it’s unbelievable how people are badmouthing the President! It’s unacceptable! This is our President! How dare you make fun of the mentally ill and elderly?
This should be fun to watch!