SANTA MONTICA, Calif. — Since the Dixie Chicks first emerged on a national level nearly six years ago, they have benefited from numerous votes for music industry awards. Now, just months after an off-the-cuff remark about the president drew them into national debates about free speech and patriotism, the Texas-based trio hopes to impact a more significant ballot.
The Chicks have aligned themselves with non-partisan Rock the Vote in an effort to register 100,000 young female voters before the 2004 presidential election. They have also donated $100,000 — more than any other artist has ever given to Rock the Vote — to create a forum section on the agency’s Web site, in which voters can learn where presidential candidates stand on specific issues that affect their lives.
“I think everything that has happened in the last few months happened for a reason,” lead singer Natalie Maines said during a press conference Monday (July 21) in Santa Monica, Calif. “A lot of positive things have come from that, and this is just one of them. We’re very dedicated and motivated about all of this now.”
For anyone who may have been living in a remote jungle during 2003, the Chicks were lambasted in the U.S. after Maines made a caustic remark about President George W. Bush just days before war broke out in Iraq. During a concert in London, she introduced “Travelin’ Soldier” by telling the audience she was “ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas.” The crowd cheered wildly, but many Americans were not amused. Despite apologizing for the “disrespectful” tone of the comment, the group was branded in some quarters as unpatriotic. Many radio stations banned them from the airwaves, CD burnings were organized and the group claims their personal property was vandalized.
Still, the American concerts were sold out before the controversy ever erupted. Their fans have almost unanimously gone ahead and attended the concerts, even buying T-shirts that encourage the Chicks’ critics to “Free Natalie.” Instead of being beaten down by the experience, the Chicks are apparently inspired by the idea that Americans not only have the right to speak their minds but also have an imperative to exercise that right.
“From our personal experience,” Emily Robison admitted, “sometimes that’s difficult to do.”
But not every citizen is challenged at the same level as the Dixie Chicks, particularly at election time.
“The voting booth is anonymous,” Robison observed. “You close the curtain, and you don’t have to answer press questions.”
The “incident,” as the group likes to call Maines’ infamous British statement, has literally forced the Chicks to become more aware of the democratic process. They insist, as Martie Maguire said, that they “don’t have any agenda” outside of empowering young women to exercise their voice.
Each of the Chicks has voted in recent presidential elections and at least some Texas gubernatorial votes, although Maguire says she regrets the years that she passed up the privilege.
In fact, many members of the Chicks’ fan base routinely ignore their right to participate. Only 36 percent of Americans aged 18-24 voted in November 2000, according to Rock the Vote, which is part of the reason they have enlisted the band as “spokesChicks.”
“If you wanna know why we’re focusing on young women,” Jehmu Greene, executive director of Rock the Vote, said, “you should’ve been at the concert on Saturday night.”
The Chicks played to a sold-out Staples Center, one of three dates this week in Southern California. With the audience tilting heavily toward young women, many of them were parroting the words of all the Chicks’ songs — including the non-hits — back to the artists. Several of their trademark songs, including “Wide Open Spaces” and (in a darkly humorous manner) “Goodbye Earl,” encourage women specifically to actively change their own future. If that female demographic gets behind the Chicks’ Rock the Vote initiative, they may contribute to a change in a much greater manner.
Rock the Vote press materials emphasized that the last presidential election was decided by a margin of just 450 votes in Florida. More than 170,000 young people, eligible to cast a ballot, did not.
In its 13 years of existence, Rock the Vote has registered 3 million new voters with the assistance of artists from every musical field, including R&B veteran Stevie Wonder, rock activists Rage Against the Machine, rapper Kid Rock, soft-rocker Elton John and country stalwarts Reba McEntire, Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakam.
Voting, Maines emphasized in a prepared statement, “gives us all equal opportunity, when it really counts, to affect so many things that influence what our lives, our children’s lives, our country [and] our world will be like.”
“Contrary to what has been portrayed in the media,” she added, “we never had intentions of becoming a political band, but like it or not, we’ve been placed on a unique political platform in the past months, and we feel it would be irresponsible not to try to make something positive come of that.”