The Week In Pop

Before The Chicks Met This Moment, They Spent Their Whole Careers Preparing For It

What does Dixie mean, exactly? For nearly two centuries, the term has been broadly applied to the American South, specifically the states that seceded from the Union at the dawn of the Civil War. But depending on who you ask, you might get many different answers about Dixie’s boundaries and its essential character. “Sociologically, climactically, historically, politically, topographically, and racially, Dixie is a quilt,” wrote Washington Post editor Joel Garreau in his 1981 book The Nine Nations Of North America. “Rigid analysis of what constitutes Dixie can lead one to believe that it doesn’t exist, and never did.” Yet Garreau did not draw that conclusion. He recognized Dixie as less a place than a concept. “Like New England, Dixie is an idea that has been around a long time,” Garreau wrote, “and people have had a lot of time to savor it, curse it, love it, and leave it.”

The band formerly known as the Dixie Chicks have decided to leave it. This was a recent choice, but in many capacities, the superstar country trio left Dixie behind a long time ago. Geographically, the band’s members have all moved west from their original home base of Dallas, itself already an outpost on Dixieland’s western fringe. (On the first page of his book, Garreau alludes to an imaginary border in Texas “where the gumbo of Dixie gives way to the refried beans of Mexico.”) Ideologically, the group has increasingly stood against the historic values of the former Confederate states, aligning itself with progressive causes at a time when protecting the stars and bars has become a mainstream conservative ideal. The one thing everybody knows about this band is that singer Natalie Maines told a London audience in 2003 that the band was ashamed to be from the same state as George W. Bush, just days before he sent troops into Iraq to hunt for nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. The statement alienated the Chicks from much of the country music industry and audience that once celebrated them, ultimately inspiring 2006’s Grammy-winning triumph Taking The Long Road.

And then there’s the music. Gaslighter, their first album in 14 years, finds the Chicks farther than ever from the traditional bluegrass and country they started out playing in 1989, styles that continued to inform their sound even as they became one of the most prominent forces in the country mainstream circa Y2K and, eventually, one of their genre’s crossover success stories. It’s not that they’ve completely abandoned banjo, fiddle, and twangy vocal harmonies, but those synths on “Julianna Calm Down” speak volumes about this segment of their creative journey. Even before they began working with Jack Antonoff, a guy with experience helping country stars push further into the pop realm, there was a widening spiritual divide between the Chicks’ hits and the lineage of nostalgic “Dixie songs” dating back to Daniel Decatur Emmett’s 1860 minstrel song “I Wish I Was In Dixie’s Land” — a continuum that stretches up through Southern rockers Little Feat’s 1973 album Dixie Chicken, which inspired the Chicks’ original nomenclature.

On the other hand, if officially dropping Dixie from their band name a few weeks before Gaslighter’s release was kind of perfunctory within the group’s larger narrative, it was also a stunning gesture after all these years. The switch was part of a broader reckoning about race and nostalgia instigated by the resurgent Black Lives Matter movement, one that forced Americans in particular to reconsider their romanticized notions of the South. Despite the foibles that followed, it made sense for the Chicks’ fellow crossover country stars Lady Antebellum to let go of a band name that glamorized a society built on the backs of Black slaves.

“Dixie” struck some people as more innocuous, a more general blanket term for the South. Beyoncé featured the Dixie Chicks on Lemonade; how bad could the name be? But as Southern scholar Karen L. Cox — a professor at UNC-Charlotte and the author of Dreaming Of Dixie: How The South Was Created In American Popular Culture — told The New Yorker’s Amanda Petrusich, Dixie “not only refers to the states of the former Confederacy but is synonymous with segregation.” For proof, look no further than the Dixiecrats, the bloc of Southern Democrats who opposed the Civil Rights movement in the mid-20th century.

Putting “Dixie” in your band name contributes to the same sanitized vision of Southern culture that resulted in the Dukes Of Hazzard naming their car after Robert E. Lee, a popular conception that sidesteps or paves over the term’s association with centuries of oppression. “These resonances are part of what the Dixie Chicks selected when they selected the name, whether they intended to or not,” UC Davis history professor Gregory Downs told Petrusich in the same article. “It’s important that they — and everyone who received that message of white Southern pride — think about what they took on.” Having thought about it a lot in the wake George Floyd’s killing and the cultural sea change that followed, the Chicks ended their three-decade association with “Dixie” and the ugly history it connotes. Their statement on the matter was short and sweet: “We want to meet this moment.”

As Gaslighter demonstrates, these women have a lot of experience reversing regrettable decisions and cutting ties with the more toxic aspects of their pasts. It is a divorce album through and through, one that showcases the full spectrum of emotion that follows in the wake of infidelity: anger, sorrow, confusion, resilience. All three Chicks have been through divorces over the years, but Maines’ story in particular defines the album. Pieced together from lyrics across various songs, it appears that her ex-husband, Profit/Heroes/Near Dark/Carlito’s Way actor Adrian Pasdar, carried on a secret relationship with another married woman, lied about it for some time, and refused to apologize when he was caught. Allegedly, the other woman left her tights on Maines’ boat, a scenario that conjures images of Tony Soprano romancing mistresses on the Stugots. “My husband’s girlfriend’s husband just called me, how messed up is that?” Maines sings on the whoa-oh anthem “Sleep At Night” (as in “How do you sleep at night?”) She continues, “It’s so insane that I have to laugh/ But then I think about our two boys trying to become men/ There’s nothing funny about that.”

With a title that evokes Lauren Duca’s viral pre-inauguration Teen Vogue article “Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America” and explicit protest songs like “March March,” I initially feared Gaslighter would draft off the last four years of hashtag activism, the audio equivalent of liberals proudly tweeting about “Drumpf” crossed with a Netflix rom-com about putting the pieces of your life back together. The content of the album is far richer than that, especially when heard in the context of the Chicks’ back catalog. The should’ve-known-better lament “There’s Your Trouble,” the longing-for-a-real-man reverie “Cowboy Take Me Away,” the scathing revenge fantasy “Goodbye Earl,” the righteous and resolute kiss-off “Not Ready To Make Nice”: They’re all precedent for this album’s scorned clapbacks and weary laments. The biggest difference is that, even more so than Taking The Long Road’s response to industry-wide betrayal — and let me switch into my best movie-trailer-guy voice here — this time it’s personal.

Well, that, and this time it’s more explicitly pop. In addition to Antonoff, who has worked closely with the likes of Taylor Swift, Lorde, and Lana Del Rey on statement albums, the Chicks welcomed an array of pro songwriters into their circle. Justin Tranter and Julia Michaels are all over the album, both together and separately. Teddy Geiger, a key architect of the last Shawn Mendes album, has writing and production credits on “Sleep At Night.” “March March” includes contributions from Semisonic’s Dan Wilson, who previously worked with the Chicks on “Not Ready To Make Nice,” and Ian Kirkpatrick, who cowrote Dua Lipa’s two biggest hits. Some of the outside names skew indie, as well — Antonoff collaborator St. Vincent worked on the acoustic “Young Man,” while Haim/Vampire Weekend mainstay Ariel Rechtshaid had a hand in the gospel-inflected “For Her,” one of several tracks with Chad Smith of Red Hot Chili Peppers on drums.

The pop influences don’t always result in overt Top 40 bait — a cover of Charlotte Lawrence’s breathy Spotify-core piano ballad “Everybody Loves You” nudges the song in a more organic direction — but the overall the album situates the Chicks’ rootsy signature sound in a more polished metropolitan context, even more so than prior crossover hits like their cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide.” Those who gravitated to Dixie Chicks for their grassroots aesthetic may suffer some slight whiplash, but Gaslighter’s sound isn’t a radical leap, especially after the Rick Rubin-produced Taking The Long Road. From those opening harmonies on the title track onward, the guts of the group’s songwriting remains intact. Strayer’s banjo playing in particular keeps the band tethered to its history, while Maguire’s violin remains capable of channeling vast spectrums of emotion, from the smoky “March March” outro to the bittersweet instrumental break on “Hope It’s Something Good.” And Maines remains a piercingly charismatic presence whether getting vulnerable and contemplative or conjuring all her ass-kicking vigor.

Gaslighter is an extremely personal album for Maines, so much so that Pasdar tried to bar her from releasing it on the grounds that it might violate a confidentiality clause in their prenup. I can’t speak on his legal argument, but he certainly had reason to be concerned about being put on blast here. Maines seems to hold nothing back, whether wishing Pasdar a painful death and wondering who’ll pay his taxes now on “Tights On My Boat” or pleading with him to end their prolonged court battle on closing track “Set Me Free.” Yet Gaslighter is an often somber album, one that moves beyond the details of infidelity and into the wreckage of the aftermath. The sense of genuine biography and real-life stakes grounds and animates these songs. Really only on “March March,” when the Chicks lose that personal focus, does the album descend into sloganeering.

You can feel the pain coursing through the album, yet Gaslighter is ultimately a forward-focused collection with a scope broad enough to see the people in Maines’ vicinity. “Julianna Calm Down” and “Young Man,” situated back-to-back near the end of the album, are wounded but hopeful addresses to the Chicks’ daughters and sons respectively. There’s even room for a playfully sprightly offering like “Texas Man,” on which Maines begins the search for a new partner: “If I’m not too much for you/ Then sign me up, sign me up/ I’m a little bit unraveled/ But I’m ready.” Perhaps most resonant, though, is “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” which puts a more wistful spin on the same concepts. With the clarity of hindsight, Maines recalls meeting Pasdar at her bandmate’s first wedding and flashes forward 20 years: “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.” As she processes her own potential for renewal, a path begins to open up in front of her. She sounds ready to let go of the past and move on into some undefined future. It’s the kind of exodus that makes changing a band name seem insignificant by comparison.

CREDIT: Steve Jennings/FilmMagic

CHART WATCH

The late Juice WRLD scores the biggest album debut of 2020 this week with posthumous album Legends Never Die. As Billboard reports, Juice’s LP logged 497,000 equivalent album units and 209,000 in sales, becoming his second #1 album on the Billboard 200 following last year’s Death Race For Love. It surpasses the Weeknd’s 444,000-unit debut for After Hours earlier this year and is the largest one-week total for an album since Taylor Swift’s Lover debuted with 867,000 units last September.

Legends Never Die also posted 2020’s biggest streaming week and the fourth largest weekly streaming total of all time — 283,000 streaming equivalent albums, which equates to 422.63 million on-demand track streams. The only albums to surpass that total are Drake’s Scorpion, Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter V, and Post Malone’s Beerbongs & Bentleys. With Juice WRLD replacing Pop Smoke’s Shoot For The Stars Aim For The Moon atop the chart, it’s the first time two posthumous releases have hit #1 in consecutive weeks. Pop Smoke’s album is at #2 this week, marking the first time posthumous albums have occupied the top two spots on the chart. After the Hamilton soundtrack and longstanding hits from Lil Baby, Post Malone, DaBaby, and Harry Styles comes a #8 debut for Summer Walker’s Life On Earth. The EP tallied 28,000 units and 3,000 in sales, good for Walker’s second top-10 release. The Weeknd and Polo G close out the top 10.

Not only does Juice WRLD rule the album chart, he is a dominant presence on this week’s Hot 100 singles chart. Although DaBaby and Roddy Ricch’s “Rockstar” holds on to #1 for a sixth week, Juice has five songs in the top 10 — a feat only Drake and the Beatles have pulled off before, according to Billboard. Juice also joins Drake as the only artist to debut four songs in the top 10 simultaneously.

Entering at #2 — and tying his previous chart peak “Lucid Dreams” — is the Marshmello collab “Come & Go.” (This also ties Marshmello’s Hot 100 peak, which he set with “Happier.”) The Halsey duet “Life’s A Mess,” which debuted at #74 last week, shoots up to #9 in its second week on the chart, becoming Halsey’s sixth top-10 hit. Meanwhile three more Legends Never Die tracks debut in the top 10: “Wishing Well” at #5, “Conversations” at #7, and “Hate The Other Side” featuring Marshmello, Polo G, and the Kid LAROI at #10. The latter track becomes the first top-10 hit for Polo G and the Kid LAROI. Juice WRLD’s own tally of top-10 hits now stands at eight. As for the rest of the top 10, Jack Harlow’s “What’s Poppin” remix with DaBaby, Tory Lanez, and Lil Wayne holds steady at #3, followed by the Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” at #4. Megan Thee Stallion and Beyoncé’s “Savage” falls to #6, and finally, SAINt JHN’s “Roses” descends to #8.

POP FIVE

Troye Sivan – “Easy”
Few pop stars today are making music this stylish.

Jhené Aiko – “Summer 2020″
Jhené Aiko, of course, is one of the few.

Anne-Marie – “To Be Young” (Feat. Doja Cat)
I will be surprised if either one of these artists can make a hit in the US without a song that doubles as a meme. Also, Anne-Marie peering into her phone in the video just makes me think about Doja in the racial chat rooms showing feet.

Zedd & Jasmine Thompson – “Funny”
Zedd remains an absolute boss at turning adult contemporary tracks with a burst of EDM effervescence.

Powfu – “17again”
I see we’ve moved on to outright Dashboard Confessional parody. “Makes me want the times we used to hug”! I cannot believe this is real.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Nicki Minaj announced her pregnancy with a photo shoot posted to Instagram. [Instagram]
  • Big Sean paid tribute to his ex-fiancée Naya Rivera, who recently drowned. [Instagram]
  • In the new Apple TV+ drama series Palmer, Justin Timberlake will play “a former college football phenomenon who, after a stint in prison, returns to his hometown to get his life back on track.” [THR]
  • Logic, who said he’s retiring upon the release of his new album Friday, signed an exclusive streaming deal with Twitch. [The Verge]
  • Earlier this year Post Malone got a Patrick Mahomes tattoo after losing to Mahomes in beer pong. [TMZ]
  • The American Music Awards will happen 11/22, but it’s still unclear whether they’ll be in-person or remote. [Deadline]
  • “Yodel Boy” Mason Ramsey sings about cow farts in a new Burger King commercial. [YouTube]
  • Migos are suing their lawyer, claiming they were “robbed and cheated out of millions of dollars.” [THR]
  • In other Migos news, Cardi B defended Offset for gifting their 2-year-old Kulture a Birkin bag. [Us Weekly]
  • Carrie Underwood will release a Christmas album 9/25. [CMT]
  • Travis Barker said there’s a Blink-182 x Juice WRLD collab coming out soon. [YouTube]
  • Drake visited Rihanna Drive in Barbados. [Twitter]
  • A new Maroon 5 song, “Nobody’s Love,” is out Friday. [Instagram]
  • Katy Perry released a video for “Smile.” [YouTube]
  • J Balvin joined SAINt Jhn on a new remix of “Roses.” [YouTube]
  • Yungblud released a new song called “Strawberry Lipstick.” [YouTube]
  • WizKid and H.E.R. teamed up on new single “Smile.” [YouTube]
  • Trevor Daniel and Selena Gomez released a video for “Past Life.” [YouTube]
  • Oh how the mighty have fallen: “Despacito” singer Luis Fonsi sings on a new version of “Baby Shark.” [Billboard]

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