Meghan Linsey took a knee. With just one note left in her performance of the national anthem before the Seattle Seahawks faced the Tennessee Titans in Nashville this Sunday, the first half of “brave” already out of her mouth, the country singer looped her arm around her guitarist’s elbow and plunked her knees on the field, bowing her head as she finished the song. Hers was not the most graceful choreography; her guitarist, Tyler Cain, knelt first, and Linsey plopped down after him, bouncing a bit from the impact.
She’d considered taking a knee sooner in the song, she said by phone. But she felt that if she did, “People would just boo through the whole thing.”
— Michael Skolnik (@MichaelSkolnik) September 25, 2017
Neither the Seahawks nor the Titans were on the field, having coordinated in advance to participate in the protests through a kind of pointed abstinence. So Linsey was almost alone on the field in her gesture, even though, beyond the stadium, she was part of a massive movement which began last August with San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s statement against police brutality and racist violence in the United States.
In the 13 months since Kaepernick started his protest, multitudes of athletes have joined in. By ThinkProgress’ count, more than 3,500 people have participated in over 200 protests during the national anthem at sporting events in almost all 50 states, including Washington, D.C.
The movement has also spread from stadiums to stages: Stevie Wonder, John Legend, and Pharrell, among others, have taken a knee during recent concerts. As he knelt, Stevie Wonder told his audience, “Tonight, I’m taking a knee for America. But not just one knee. I’m taking both knees.” And the same day that Linsey took a knee, singer Rico Lavelle did the same before the Detroit Lions played the Atlanta Falcons, going down on one knee, as Linsey did, on the word “brave.”
“If she took a knee for the entire song, would she still be alive for the end of it? People would be rushing the field.”
But she isn’t a star in pop, hip-hop, or R&B. Linsey is a white woman in a genre that is overwhelmingly white, conservative, and notoriously unforgiving toward its members who take any political stance more polarizing than “support the troops.” Though she’s in the process of pivoting toward pop, fans know the Louisiana native from her career as a country artist: as half of Steel Magnolia, a country outfit that played the Grand Ole Opry and opened for Reba McEntire, and as a finalist on The Voice, where she was coached by country megastar Blake Shelton.
Linsey knew what her audience would be like on Sunday. “I thought about [the fact that I was performing in Nashville]. I know I’m in a red state. And probably a lot of people there were Trump supporters, obviously. But it didn’t deter me, or change my mind about my decision, in any way.”
The reaction to her performance has ran the gamut between praise and “hate mail,” she said. Though confident and unsparing in her comments on police brutality, white privilege, and Trump, Linsey still worried that her actions — and the press surrounding them — would be misinterpreted as insufficiently patriotic, or worse. When asked at the end of the interview if there was anything important to her that hadn’t been covered, she reiterated her love of America and support for the military, even though she’d already described her work with veterans and military families at length.
It’s not surprising, really, that Linsey would be concerned that her all-American devotion came through loud and clear. Everyone knows what happens to a country singer who dares to express an anti-establishment viewpoint when the establishment is Republican: You get Dixie Chicked.
“Just so you know, we’re ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas.”
You could say country music never recovered from the Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines’ onstage aside during a London show in March of 2003. The industry’s rejection of the then-massively successful trio, who’d sold ten million copies of their last eight albums, over a comment about George W. Bush, whose approval ratings on the homefront were steadily declining from a post-9/11 high, was unprecedented.
“I don’t think there was any serious Dixie-Chicking before the Dixie Chicks got Dixie Chicked,” said Chris Willman, author of Rednecks & Bluenecks: The Politics of Country Music. “At no other time in history in any genre have we seen a performer find out that nine out of those ten [fans] will turn on you on a dime.”
The Dixie Chicks’ number one single, “Travelin’ Soldier,” vanished from the charts and, to this day, the group has never again seen the inside of the top 30 on country radio. As singer-songwriter Radney Foster told Billboard earlier this year, the backlash against the Dixie Chicks “put the fear of God in any country artist out there.”
“I wish I could say things have evolved since [then],” Willman said. “But things are much the same. The term ‘Dixie Chicked’ still comes up as a phrase of how people would potentially be punished if they stepped out of line… Forgiveness is not coming from that audience. So the lesson remains that even if you’re proven to be right eventually, you’ll still pay the cost and we still won’t forgive you. So that’s a harsh lesson for anyone else within that genre thinking, I can be bold, my audience is smart enough, they’ll get the nuance if I express a complicated political opinion.”
Linsey agreed. “I think it’s always going to be hard for country artists to speak out. They’re afraid people won’t buy their music and people will boycott them, and they’re probably right.” She wishes country singers would “band together and start a movement,” but she doubts such solidarity will come anytime soon. “There’s no support in country music for people who want to take a stand like this.”
Even if a country performer could find allies among fellow musicians, they’d still face backlash from their listeners. “A large part of country fans are Trump supporters, and they’re very conservative, and they see things only one way,” Linsey said. Not to mention “there’s not a lot of diversity, at all, in the country music space.”
“There’s no support in country music for people who want to take a stand like this.”
The predominately white fanbase in country, Willman said, doesn’t necessarily want to hear artists talk about racism. “I do think that country music does not have to worry about the same concerns as African Americans. A large part of their audience is just not attuned to it,” Willman said. “So they can agree with Trump when he says this has nothing to do with race. It remains a shockingly white genre. Despite outreach attempts, you don’t see a lot of black faces at a country music festival.” (Efforts at reaching black audiences include the deeply regrettable 2013 Brad Paisley duet with L.L. Cool J., “Accidental Racist.” It did not go over well.)
But Linsey is something of an exceptional case. Her upcoming album is pop and she’s no longer on a country label’s roster. “If someone were signed to a major country label, it’s pretty unthinkable that they would do this,” Willman said. “A, just because they don’t have that strong convictions a lot of the times that it’s something they should do, and B, if Meghan were still on Big Machine, I can just imagine the wrath that would immediately come down on her just from the label and the promoters.”
Still, the notion that Linsey would kneel “seemed out of the realm of possibility,” said Willman, given the outrage that would surely ensue. Her balancing act — sing, then kneel — made sense to him. “If she took a knee for the entire song, would she still be alive for the end of it? People would be rushing the field.”
As she walked into the stadium, Linsey said, she was so nervous she was “shaking.” But once she started to sing, “I was overcome with this feeling of peace. I just felt like I was doing the right thing, and I felt good about that. And it was emotional singing it. I’m just sad. I’m sad about where we are as a country. And I’m sad that people feel the need to be so hateful.”
Making matters all the more fraught was President Trump. Over the weekend and into the week — as, among other pressing concerns for the President of the United States, 3.4 million American citizens in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico went without electricity and clean water — Trump sent out tweet after tweet after tweet after tweet after tweet after tweet after tweet after tweet after tweet after tweet after tweet after tweet after tweet blasting the protests as “disrespectful” to the country and the military; dissing the NFL for its “WAY DOWN” ratings; calling for protestors to be fired; and, contrary to what Kaepernick and his fellow protesters have clearly expressed more than once, declaring that the kneeling has “nothing to do with race.”
As the protests spread, so too did misinterpretations of the protests. Anyone who took a knee was spitting on the military and also on America. Anyone who took a knee and raised a fist in the air was metaphorically punching a Marine in the face. Anyone who said the protest was about race was making it about race, and why are you always making everything about race? Anyone who locked arms was in the clear, because locking arms isn’t about race or even troops — not that it’s not about the troops, not that everything that happens in the vicinity of an American flag is not in some way troop-related — but is really about unity, because you can’t have the United States of America without unity, right?
But Linsey knows what she knelt for. “This started with people peacefully protesting police brutality and racism. That’s where my stance is. That’s why I took a knee.”
“I just think that people are lying to themselves if they think that white privilege isn’t a real thing,” she went on. “I think that it’s important as a white woman to be honest about that, and to speak truth, because I think it’s powerful when you do, because so many [of us] aren’t.”
“I want every word of the national anthem to stand for every citizen.”