Song Review – The Dixie Chicks – “Julianna Calm Down”

The hope when we heard that the Dixie Chicks would be releasing a new album is that it would be a moment of healing and reconciliation with a very important group in country music history that was embarrassingly blacklisted before “cancel culture” was part of the American vernacular. But with the sort of militant edge of their first single “Gaslighter,” the continued insistence by Natalie Maines to participate in outright political propaganda on her personal media pages to continue to poke the bear, and now this new song, any real reconciliation and healing with country music has been rendered quickly fleeting.

The fear when we heard that the Dixie Chicks had employed producer Jack Antonoff for their first record in 14 years was that instead of hearing the acoustic instrumentation that made the Dixie Chicks so vital in the late 90’s, we’d get the three women huddled around Antonoff’s laptop staring intently at pixels on a screen, wondering what best way to incorporate loops and samples behind a vocal track. That’s basically what you get with most Jack Antonoff-produced music. That’s one of the maneuvers he pulled with Taylor Swift right as she made her official transition from country to pop. And that’s what you get with “Julianna Calm Down.”

For all we know, this song will be a bona fide hit on pop radio. After all, that’s what Jack Antonoff is best equipped for—finding the right tempos and pentameters to optimize audio acceptance by the masses in line with current trends and sensibilities. He’s a hitmaker, just below the totem pole to Max Martin, Dr. Luke, and that ilk. But “Julianna Calm Down” is not country or anything akin to it, even if they tried to bury an effervescent notion of maybe some pizzicato on a fiddle or perhaps some spritzes of steel guitar in the mix that you must strain to barely hear.

But really the problem with the song is the writing. It’s already well-established in the forum of common knowledge that the worst thing you can ever possibly tell someone who needs to clam down is to calm down, correct? The setting for “Julianna Calm Down” is a breakup, which sure, can put one in a very ugly and unsettled frame of mind, and one where music is commonly one of the few true antidotes with its avenues for commiseration.

But this song seems to be more obsessed with looking at a breakup as a game, telling the jilted to “put on, put on, put on” a brave face, a “strut the fuck around” for the specific reason of not giving your previous lover the satisfaction of allowing them to see you appear hurt in a sort of adolescent understand of relationships and their aftermath. I mean, what a petty and shallow concern. Natalie Maines is basically compelling the audience to lie, while Emily and Marite get comfortable on the studio couch, stare at their shoes, perhaps surf Instagram or something, virtually non-existent on the track, their instruments resting snugly in their cases in a side room.

Much of the media is promoting the song as “empowering,” which means it will probably win seven Grammys. And it’s not that “Julianna Calm Down” doesn’t include some important lessons and reassurance, including underscoring the impermanence of the heavy emotions that present themselves after a breakup. I’m sure the young women of white American affluence who’ve been bestowed with names like Violet, Juno, Yaya, and Hesper who are name checked in the song will find this track very personal to them. But as a song, it just feels a little “meh” and directionless, and most certainly not country.

What made the Dixie Chicks cool was lush three-part harmonies, blazing instrumentation articulated by the women themselves, supple melodies, along with a strong feminine perspective. Here you get a rhythmic approach in hopes of implanting earworms in inattentive audiences, nouveau production, and mild writing. It’s just one song, but hopefully it’s not indicative of what we can expect from the entirety of their new album Gaslighter once it receives a release date after the COVID-19 quarantine.


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