There seems to be a bit of confusion from the left about freedom of speech. Well, in all fairness, they are remarkably consistent that freedom of speech applies only to the left. That’s unfortunate, but it is where we are at these days. I don’t care what Bill Maher or Rush Limbaugh say in their shows, but clearly there is no set standard here. It is an interesting tie in for me, as I have thought about artists and free speech, and the contrast between the Dixie Chicks and the Beatles.
1966 was a very rough year for the Beatles. John Lennon stated that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, which caused a huge uproar. They met record burnings, protests, and death threats. They also encountered controversies in Japan and the Philippines. This was all part of the decision to end touring in 1966.
Lennon did apologize, and the Beatles went into the studio. Rumors were that they broke up. The end of the group was a significant theme that played a part in the Sgt Pepper’s cover.
When the public finally got a glimpse of what had happened to them, it was through the Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane release. Strawberry Fields did not address the issues at all directly, but the message was very peaceful.
“Nothing to get hung about.”
The Beatles went on later to release Sgt Pepper’s which became one of the greatest albums of all time. The controversy was never revisited afterward, and they continued on a very successful career collectively and as solo acts.
The Dixie Chicks Natalie Maines, as the U.S. was preparing to go to war with Iraq, said before a live audience in England, “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.”
Maines also apologized, and then they did everything they could to continue to throw the incident into the faces of their fans. The Rolling Stone cover, the FUTK shirt directed at Toby Keith at the ACM’s, the Lipton commercial, the tour, the interviews, all continued to bring the situation front and center.
Like the Beatles, the Dixie Chicks finished the tour and went into the studio to record, “Taking the Long Way.” There was little activity, and there was much speculation about the future of the Dixie Chicks. When the album finally came out, “Not Ready to Make Nice” again continued the controversy, further alienated the Dixie Chicks from their fans, and resulted in a weak tour. Great song and honest enough, but it was gasoline on a fire. Contrast “Not Ready to Make Nice” with “Strawberry Fields Forever” and it doesn’t take much to see why the Beatles were able to move forward where the Dixie Chicks were not.
The Dixie Chicks may well come back, but what a waste of talent and emotion. They were not going to succeed following the course they did. They are not the Beatles.
A band is a business that sells music. The artist does have freedom of speech but the public likewise has the freedom to reject your product based upon what you are saying and or doing. It really doesn’t matter if it is hamburgers or songs, even if the quality is in the product. Your success does not mean that you have the right to push your views on your fans. There are those who do, but their success is limited. Where love and human experiences are universal, politics are not, and it will limit success. Elvis understood this. The Beatles learned the lesson, but really knew it early on.
The Dixie Chicks said what they said, and aligned their product with a position while criticizing everyone who didn’t want to follow them. They have the freedom to say whatever, but the expectation that everyone would follow them was deeply flawed. Freedom of speech works both ways, and the fans had every right to say no to the music, be it the Beatles or the Dixie Chicks. I like their music, but honestly Natalie Maines could have learned much from John Lennon, and all artists can learn much from the example of both the Beatles and the Dixie Chicks.
I wish them all the best.