The Chicks, formerly known as Dixie, are back with an explosive new album—their first in 14 years—and with it a reminder to the haters that they are still country music’s resident feminist renegades.
Last month, amidst promotions for their album Gaslighter, the Chicks announced their name change with a music video drop and little additional fanfare. The video accompanied the release of their third single from Gaslighter, a protest anthem called “March March.” Presumably an effort to distance themselves from the racist connotations of the word “Dixie” amidst the resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests, the move was long overdue for the otherwise unabashedly progressive girl group made up of Natalie Maines, Emily Strayer, and Martie Maguire.
Though they released no official statement beyond a brief message on their website (“We want to meet this moment.”), Maines later told the New York Times, “We wanted to change it years and years and years ago. I just wanted to separate myself from people that wave that Dixie flag.” They were driven to finally make the change when Strayer saw an Instagram post labeling the Confederate flag “the Dixie Swastika.”
The rebranding comes at a time when many public figures are reckoning with their contributions to systemic racism, direct or indirect. Fellow country music group Lady Antebellum recently made a big production of changing their name to Lady A, only to promptly come under fire for suing a Black blues singer, Anita White, who had performed under the same name for 30 years. But fans of the Chicks know that the women have been vocal about their left-leaning political views since long before they dropped the “Dixie.”
At a concert in London in 2003, Maines uttered her now infamous response to George W. Bush’s impending decision to send U.S. troops into Iraq—“Just so you know, we’re ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas, y’all.” The seemingly offhand remark in between songs provoked such widespread backlash among country fans that the Chicks saw a sharp decline in radio airplay and album sales, with some Southern radio stations even hosting parties for former fans to burn their records. But instead of backing down, the Chicks channeled their anger into their Grammy-winning 2006 album Taking the Long Way, featuring the fiery banger “Not Ready to Make Nice,” essentially a sonic middle finger to the country community that shunned them.
Today, the women remain as impassioned as ever. The “March March” video sets lyrics about reproductive rights, gun control, and climate change to historical footage from past United States protest movements, as well as current snapshots from the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests. The camera lingers on signs calling for justice in the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, interposed with stills of famous figures like Gloria Steinem and Greta Thunberg. The lyrics even name-check gun control activist and Stoneman Douglas High School shooting survivor Emma González: “Standing with Emma and our sons and daughters / Watchin’ our youth have to solve all our problems.” It is somewhat of an alphabet soup of social justice agendas, and slightly heavy-handed, but there is no mistaking what side of history the Chicks are on.
Even in the album’s lead single, also called “Gaslighter,” there is a subtle dig at President Trump. The track is, on its surface, about Maines’ acrimonious divorce from Heroes actor Adrian Pasdar. Yet it is surely intentional that the Chicks chose to use a phrase now often associated with political manipulation. In the interview with the Times, Maines conceded that though she did not write it about him, “I see Trump in it.”
However, aside from the pro-activism messaging of “March March” and the winking nod to our Gaslighter-in-Chief, the album mostly eschews politics in favor of heartbreak and betrayal, inspired by Maines’ divorce. It is to Gaslighter’s benefit that the Chicks did not deliver a 12-track political manifesto as many fans and critics were expecting. Collaborating with producer Jack Antonoff (Taylor Swift, Lorde), as well as powerhouse pop songwriters like Justin Tranter, Julia Michaels, and Teddy Geiger, the Chicks instead crafted a wrenching narrative of infidelity in the spirit of Beyoncé’s Lemonade, packing all the same anger and hurt, only without the reconciliation at the end.
Antonoff’s touch can be heard all over Gaslighter, which sees the Chicks moving towards a more mainstream pop sound. But the specificity of Maines’ lyrics, though occasionally alienating, has the effect of rendering the full range of her emotions more acutely and powerfully than the average pop song could. Her anger is fiercer, her sorrow is sadder, her playful glee is infectious. Instead of a breakup anthem that could apply to a listener’s own life, she gives us “Sleep at Night” with a wholly unrelatable anecdote about meeting her husband’s mistress backstage at the Hollywood Bowl. In fact, the album is full of so many similarly intimate details that Pasdar unsuccessfully attempted to prevent its release, citing a breach in the confidentiality clause in his and Maines’ prenup.
One of the album’s more cheerful songs, “Texas Man,” offers an unfiltered glimpse at a woman trying to get back in the dating game post-divorce with cheeky lyrics that are begging to be scream-sung by fans in a stadium. Maines’ flirtatious, knowing twang adds humor to lyrics like, “Been way too long since somebody’s body kept me up all night/ Yeah, that good kinda keepin’ me up all night.”
Fans of the pre-name-change Chicks will likely be left wanting more of this upbeat energy, but a later track, “Tights On My Boat” brings another dose of the trio’s signature sass. Maines does not mince words when she spits the opening lyrics: “I hope you die peacefully in your sleep / Just kidding, I hope it hurts like you hurt me.” She also leaves little to the imagination as to the reason behind her split from Pasdar, singing, “And you can tell the girl who left her tights on my boat / That she can have you now.” Not that anyone expects subtlety from the group who wrote a song about a woman murdering her abusive husband with poisoned black-eyed peas at a picnic (“Goodbye Earl”). To paraphrase the famous proverb, Hell hath no fury like a Chick scorned.
It is Gaslighter’s quieter, less vengeful moments, though, when the Chicks are at their strongest. Ethereal harmonies and melancholy strings on “Hope It’s Something Good” remind listeners that in spite of their woke political views, the group remains firmly in touch with their bluegrass roots. Maines proves that she has one of the most emotionally evocative voices in music today, cracking on the chorus as if from heartache as she recounts meeting her ex-husband at bandmate Emily Strayer’s first wedding in “My Best Friend’s Weddings.”
In the song, a highlight from the album, Maines sings, “I’m back here at my best friend’s wedding / Yeah, she married again / I’ve never seen her look more happy / Guess from ashes, we can really grow.” That last line not only encompasses the resilience of women who have emerged stronger from toxic relationships, but of course, the band’s own rebirth after being rejected by the country music world for speaking their minds and refusing to apologize.
Fourteen years, a solid album, and a new name later, the Chicks have made it clear that they are still not ready to make nice, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.