Politics of Pop Music

While Al Gore’s documentary has been getting major buzz, I’ve also been fascinated by this summer’s other high-profile blend of politics and popular culture, the realease of the new Dixie Chicks album, with its unapologetic single, “Not Ready to Make Nice.” As Atrios and others have noted, their latest album debuted on top of the Billboard country charts, selling over half a million copies despite getting very little airplay on most country radio stations. Their appearances on Larry King’s show and 60 Minutes have given them some publicity and an opportunity to discuss their experiences since 2003.

The Dixie Chicks, of course, made major headlines in 2003 in the days immediately before the US launched a pre-emptive war in Iraq when Natalie Maines criticized President Bush during a concert in London, leading many country music stations to participate in a boycott of the band’s music. Maines and her bandmates faced death threats but refused to back down from their criticism of the president. Of course the new album has been quite successful, and there have been a number of interesting editorials on the topic, including this Eugene Robinson editorial in The Washington Post that explains the band’s popularity in part through the unpopularity of Bush’s war.

But a far more interesting narrative is offered in this Atlanta Journal-Constitution op-ed by John Sinton, an FM radio pioneer and the creator and co-founder of the Air America radio network. Sinton argues that the Dixie Chicks have benefitted from satellite radio, which he reads as supplanting the increasingly homogenous playlists available on FM radio (what he calls “terrestrial radio” or “earthbound stations”). For me, the jury is still out on satellite radio, but in explaining the potential appeal of satellite radio, Sinton offers a brief history of how the FM revolution in the late 1960s and ’70s became sidetracked into the homogenous radio formats we have today. It could be a nice companion to Susan Douglas’s account of that history in Listening In, which covers some similar ground.

Update: I was still waking up when I wrote this entry (10 AM is surprisingly early in the summer), so it doesn’t quite do what I want it to do. I think, more than anything, I was trying to comment on Sinton’s discussion of satellite radio, which I find interesting but problematic. I think satellite radio can open up playlists, but Sinton’s comments don’t take into account the fact that the Dixie Chicks’ new album has been promoted havily on TV and on the Internet (thanks to a number of liberal bloggers such as Atrios and the folks at Crooks and LIars). And while I agree with many of Sinton’s criticisms of commercial FM radio, to characterize all of FM as a musical wasteland isn’t quite fair, especially given the number of very good college and community radio stations in many cities. I have been intrigued by media representations of the Dixie Chicks and probably have a lot more to say about tht topic, but I really need to get some work done this afternoon.


  1. McChris Said,

    June 2, 2006 @ 5:27 pm

    It’s interesting that someone associated with a liberal project like Air America would ignore the regulatory situation of FM radio in the 1960s and hint toward a market explanation of FM’s emergence as a radio format. He says, “By the mid-1970s manufacturers were putting AM/FM radios in all automobiles, and music began to migrate to the FM band.” I’m working from memory, but in 1963 or 64 Congress mandated that all new radios had to receive both the FM and AM bands, so auto-makers weren’t putting them in cars to satisfy customer demand – they had to. In the same period, license holders had new restrictions on how much content they could retransmit from AM to FM (up to that point, most FM stations simply served as a high-fidelity repeater for urban AM station, with classical and community radio left of the dial) needing to fill up 12 hours a day with unique content, they hired young, inexpensive DJs who played youth-oriented records, turning FM into a music format. (This is probably all in the Douglas, which I haven’t read.) Certainly, FM found a way to meet the desires of baby-boomer audiences, which led it to become the dominant radio band, but I think changes in regulatory policy rather than the market have more to do with the shift he describes.

  2. Chuck Said,

    June 2, 2006 @ 5:48 pm

    Douglas talks quite a bit about the role of regulatory policy in shaping the history of FM in the 1960s and 70s, but given teh book’s emphasis on the social history of radio, she’s also very interested in how FM was “used” (i.e., the move towards album-oriented radio). I don’t think these narratives are incompatible, but you’re certainly right that Sinton probably should have been more attentive to the policy history.

    I’m now trying to remember whether the Delta 88 my father bought in 1976 had FM radio. For whatever reason, I’m convinced that it didn’t, but given that my parents simply didn’t listen to rock music for religious reasons, that may be a false memory.

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