I don’t look like your typical country music superfan.
I am ethnically Chinese, grew up in liberal San Francisco, and hadn’t been south of the Mason-Dixie line until I was 16. But as Dolly Parton will tell you, looks are deceiving.
Some of my fondest childhood memories include singing along to Shania Twain’s, “Man, I Feel Like a Woman,” in the car with my parents. They loved country music because like the Chinese folk songs of their childhood, country songs told epic stories. For me country music was a refuge, a release for my pent-up teenage angst—and an introduction to feminism.
When I was 12 years old in 2003, Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks spoke out at a concert in London days before US president George W. Bush launched air strikes against Iraq: “We don’t want this war, this violence,” she said, “and we’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas.”
I was not allowed to be angry, to be emotional, to cry at home, because that was not what good girls did, so I became obsessed with these brave, badass women: For almost two school years, I alternated between listening to “Goodbye Earl” and “Landslide” while I did my homework and studied for exams.
The band paid dearly for taking their stand. One week after Maines made the statement, “Landslide” dropped 33 places down the Billboard 100 Chart. Country music radio stations banned the Grammy-winning country music darlings from the airwaves. Former fans made public demonstrations out of destroying their CDs with bulldozers. (And men think women are overdramatic?)
Last week at the Country Music Awards (CMAs), another of the genre’s biggest stars made a political statement: Keith Urban—Nicole Kidman’s husband—performed his new song, “Female,” a heartfelt ballad about respecting women that was written in response to the tide of sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein and other prominent men.
The song divided critics, with some hailing it as bold and impactful, and others criticizing it as mansplaining. But one thing is certain: Urban will not pay the price that the Dixie Chicks did. And while Urban (who I admire as a singer and songwriter) assuredly had good intentions, his attempt at creating an anthem of solidarity ended up reinforcing country music’s legacy of sexism.
The problem is Urban, like the actor Ben Affleck and many other men, somehow managed to make womens’ allegations of sexual harassment and assault about himself. “As a husband and a father of two young girls, it affects me in a lot of ways,” he told Billboard. “And as a son—my mother is alive. It just speaks to all of the females in my life, particularly.”
Urban is a day late and a dollar short when it comes to feminism in country music—a trope that has a rich history in the genre, through the words and actions of generations of women singers.
The women of country music have also been outspoken about sexual assault and domestic abuse, even as their male counterparts continued to release song after song about ogling big-breasted women in short shorts. Martina McBride’s “Independence Day,” written by fellow country legend Gretchen Peters, is about a woman gaining “freedom” from her abusive husband after burning down the house.
After 9/11, the conservative radio and TV host Sean Hannity began using the rousing chorus for his Premiere Radio Networks talk show, thinking the song was about nationalist patriotism. Peters could not legally stop him from sampling her song, so she collects royalties every time it is played, and then donates them to non-profits that help survivors of abuse.
“I know that he’s using it, I know he’s completely disregarding what the song’s about,” she told Songfacts in 2007. “It has nothing to do with patriotism or anything like that.” (Carrie Underwood has also performed the song, and has continued the tradition of advocating for domestic abuse awareness with chart topping songs like “Church Bells.”)
In 2012, the bro country icons Florida Georgia Line released “Cruise,” an extraordinarily catchy song that, as Ian Crouch The New Yorker notes, was the most influential and bestselling country song for two entire years. The frat boys at my university cheered when the song came on at their sloppy parties, and it is, indeed, great for pretending you’re having a good time when you’re really drinking cheap liquor in a crowded moldy basement. “Lyrically, it’s ass-backwards,” Crouch adds. There is one woman mentioned in the song, and she is described as having “long tanned legs” and her only action in the song is jumping into the truck and saying, “Fire it up, let’s go get this thing stuck.”
The band made millions from this song and it sparked years of copycats, but the women of country weren’t going to let them get away with it. In 2014, the duo Maddie & Tae released their debut song, “Girl in Your Country Song” as a response to bro country’s denigration of women as objects: “Well, I wish I had some shoes on my two bare feet / And it’s gettin’ kinda cold in these painted on cut-off jeans / I hate the way this bikini top chafes / Do I really have to wear it all day?” The song went platinum and peaked as number one on the Billboard Country charts, anointing them the second female duo to ever top that chart with a debut single, and the first since 2006.
This paved the way for Kelsea Ballerini, whose platinum single “Love Me Like You Mean It” demands respect from potential lovers: “Oh hey, I’ve had my share of losers, liars and users / Looking for a heart to break / So if you’re like that well, take a step back.”
When Kacey Musgraves released her single “Biscuits” in 2015, she faced criticism from the conservative country industry for singing about marijuana, homosexuality, pre-marital sex, and questioning Christianity. And when she did go traditional and sang about small-town American life, a favorite theme in country songs (look to Sugarland’s “Everyday America” for comparison), the lyrics were depressing, not celebratory.
(There are plenty of other incredible country music legends who should get credit—including Miranda Lambert, Faith Hill, and Reba McIntyre—but I had to cut myself off somewhere.)
Meanwhile, some of the men of country music are known for racism as well as sexism—Brad Paisley’s notorious “Accidental Racist” single, for example, explains that the Confederate flag on his t-shirt means he’s a “Skynyrd fan” who is celebrating “Southern pride,” not “Southern blame.”
Men still dominate the country charts and win the most CMAs. (Last week, all five nominees for Entertainment of the Year were men.) Those who display sexism and racism don’t get called to account for it, as the Dixie Chicks did.
In 2016, Beyoncé invited the Dixie Chicks, ostracized from the industry since 2011, back to the CMAs as her guests to perform her Lemonade single, “Daddy Lessons,” a country-blues song that forces listeners to reckon with country music’s history of whitewashing its African American influences. That act was a stronger show of support for women than Urban’s performance last night.