Those similarities, though, didn’t extend to the way the songs were received: while both were popular, only “Earl” prompted public consternation -- which proved convenient for the song, from a sales and publicity perspective. In retrospect, it’s a response that appears to have less to do with its content and more to do with who was singing it.
Eve’s single, the second off her debut Let There Be Eve...Ruff Ryders' First Lady, was initially released in mid-1999, but received a full promotional push after the album entered the Billboard 200 at no. 1 in early October with 213,000 copies sold in its first week (coincidentally, knocking the Dixie Chicks’ Fly out of the top spot). The dark, understated single wasn’t necessarily the obvious choice to follow the success of “Gotta Man,” a lilting love song, but it did align with what Eve said she was aiming to do with the project.
“This is going to be a female anthem record, because I have so much respect for myself and I want other females to have that same respect for themselves,” she told the Philadelphia Inquirer of the album as a whole. “I want people to know that I’m a strong Black female.” “Love Is Blind” was inspired by the experience of Eve’s close friend Andrea, who (thankfully) came out of an abusive relationship with an older man alive -- unlike the victim described in the song, who dies after being beaten by her partner. Andrea and Eve appeared on The Queen Latifah Show in January 2000 to share the story behind the song, just a few days after Eve and featured chorus singer Faith Evans had performed the single at the American Music Awards.
“One night she called my house and was like, just come over,” Eve recalled on the show. “She opened the door and her face...I’d never, ever seen somebody’s face...her face was black, blue, red, puffy…She had to get 20 stitches, right after she had had her baby. I was so hurt to watch her go through that. I had to write that song.” While Eve performed “Love Is Blind” on the show, the camera cut to Andrea wiping away a tear. The audience cheered when she rapped, “You heard my gun cock,” and Eve smiled as she shared the lines about being thrown in jail for getting revenge. “You could never figure out even if I let you live/ What our love was all about/ I considered her my blood and it don't come no thicker,” she concluded.
Eve had done her best to translate that raw emotion into the song via its explicit, anguished lyrics, as well as its Dave Meyers-directed music video -- which depicts a man attacking a woman repeatedly in front of their children, and the eventual deaths of both parents. On her album, the track is preceded by the unflinching “BM” (Baby Mama) skit, in which hitting and screaming and crying sounds are reproduced to frightening effect.
Yet critics were mostly positive about “Love Is Blind,” and didn’t raise any red flags about the song’s brutality. The Washington Post called it “the album’s best track by far,” and Greg Tate praised it as “bold” and “smart” in the pages of Rolling Stone. Others lauded it for being “conscious” -- now semi-controversial shorthand among rap fans for art that explicitly addresses political issues. The single spent 16 weeks on the Hot 100, peaking at no. 34 in March, thanks in large part to strong airplay and video spins on BET and MTV.
The only real concerns about the song’s bloody end came in the context of broader, implicitly racist questions about the impact of real-life and fictional violence in rap music. “For example, the Eve record ‘Love Is Blind’ had a really positive message -- until the end,” a Dayton radio programmer told Billboard for a piece on that topic. “She shoots the guy. I mean, what is that saying to kids? That revenge is the answer?”
Only a few critics compared the track with “Earl.” “[‘Love Is Blind’ and ‘Goodbye Earl’] raised cheers from women who felt empowered by them,” wrote Ann Powers in the New York Times as part of a reflection on violence in popular music prompted in large part by the notoriety of Eminem’s “Kim,” in which the rapper describes killing his then-wife. “Yet they, too, traveled to muddy gray areas of the psyche, where the battle of the sexes becomes a bloody mess.”
“Goodbye Earl” was certainly received as a war cry, even if it wasn’t necessarily intended that way. “It's an anti wife-beater song, not an anti-man song,” Natalie Maines insisted a few months before the track was released as a single. “We love men."
The Dixie Chicks were essentially running country music in 1999, thanks to the record-setting sales of their major label debut Wide Open Spaces. The group earned accolades -- Grammys, gold and platinum records and more -- that they started chronicling with matching chicken footprint tattoos (by fall 1999, they had six). They were touring with George Strait, Tim McGraw -- and the Lilith Fair, where they were performing “Goodbye Earl” months before Fly was released, proving their real country and crossover cred simultaneously.
Fly was among the year’s most anticipated albums, and its lead single, the Celtic romp “Ready To Run,” had gotten a healthy boost on the soundtrack for Julia Roberts vehicle Runaway Bride (get it?). Garth Brooks (the biggest-selling artist of the entire SoundScan era) was trying to launch his Chris Gaines project simultaneously, which wound up being a fool’s errand. "There isn't the passion one usually sees for a new Garth Brooks record," said Dallas/Fort Worth promo director Paul Williams. "It's been, ‘OK, that's the new Garth Brooks -- can you play the new Dixie Chicks now?'”
“The new Dixie Chicks,” by the time Fly was released in September 1999, probably meant not “Ready To Run” or “Cowboy Take Me Away” (the second single) but “Goodbye Earl,” which began garnering organic airplay the second radio programmers had the full album in hand. The jaunty, impossible-not-to-sing-along-to track (complete with background “na-na-nas”) deploys kitsch to turn what could easily be a “Love Is Blind”-style tragedy into a happily-ever-after tale, complete with two lifelong friends running a farm stand. No one goes to jail, and everyone dances around and eats pickled vegetables.
The band had been performing the song live for some time ("Wife-beaters, be afraid of the Dixie Chicks,” Maines would tell the audience), so some fans took initiative and started calling stations with the album advance to request the song. "I took phone calls for three and half hours afterward," said a Pittsburgh program director who played the “Goodbye Earl” exactly once. "I talked to abused women, police officers, social workers. I've never had a response like that."
Those tasked with reviewing the album also found “Earl” polarizing: it was “unredeemable” (Stereo Review) or “a gem” (Billboard) or “the only misstep” (The Chicago-Tribune) or its best track, depending on who you might ask. One widely syndicated review wrote derisively of its “spunky semi-feminism” (“Love Is Blind,” too, was written off by male reviewers as “quasi-feminist”) but noted positively that the song was “imbued with lusty enthusiasm.”
Both tracks proved an interesting litmus test as a world of almost all-male critics attempted to assign ideology to matricide, while never failing to note how sexy they found both the Dixie Chicks and Eve via fastidious attention to their blonde hair, their outfits and their “feistiness,” as Newsweek put it in a feature on the Chicks (the magazine described “Goodbye Earl” as the band in “cutesy grrrl power mode”). The fact that “Earl” was written by a man -- widely respected songwriter Dennis Linde (Elvis Presley's “Burning Love”) -- was sometimes noted by way of possible redemption. (The song was also originally recorded by the all-male Sons of the Desert in the late '90s, though their version was never officially released.)
If “Earl” served critics (and their knowledge of country music’s long history of songs about both murder and domestic violence) a challenge, it proved remarkably popular with fans -- staying on the Hot Country Songs chart for 20 weeks before the label even officially released it as a single in January 2000. The Dixie Chicks performed “Earl” at the 2000 Grammys, where they won best country album for Fly, and debuted the video as their backdrop -- reportedly the first time a band premiered a video on the telecast.
Then, the phone calls and editorials really ramped up -- as did the requests. Some radio stations refused to play it, while others would air information about domestic violence hotlines after playing the song. Others aired it with disclaimers that their stations “do not promote violence of any kind.” Callers tended to either rebuke the song for its violence, or support it on the grounds that those alarmed were case studies in P.C. culture run amok.
"I think it's a great song," country star Trisha Yearwood said of the track in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "I don't really understand why people are so politically correct. Nobody's singing about anything anymore that may be something at all controversial. Just because you're singing about doing away with a wife beater doesn't mean we're all at home poisoning our husbands. It's getting out of hand."
"Clearly the NCADV and the Dixie Chicks do not condone violence," agreed National Coalition Against Domestic Violence executive director Rita Smith at the time. "However, the subject matter of ‘Goodbye Earl’ is far too often a reality for battered women. The importance of educating the public around this issue is critical to ending domestic violence.” (The Dixie Chicks had included a caveat in the liner notes: “The Dixie Chicks do not advocate premeditated murder, but love getting even.”)
Nevertheless, the track still inspired a fair amount of ire, including an answer song called “My Name Is Earl” by the (all-male) Dixie Dicks centered on the less-than-convincing refrain “I never touched that woman, I only threatened to.” (As the songwriter explained in the track’s YouTube comments, it was from “back when Nashville was going through their man-hating phase and killing off all the men in their songs”).
“Earl” wound up reaching no. 19 on the Hot 100 and no. 13 on Hot Country Songs -- and becoming one the genre’s most enduring anthems. Why it initially sparked so much more controversy than “Love Is Blind” isn’t a question with a satisfying answer. Yes, the Dixie Chicks were far bigger than Eve at that point, and “Love Is Blind” treats its subject with fitting gravity rather than provocative irreverence. But there’s a discomfiting undercurrent of something far more sinister: Women’s Wear Daily, for example, cited lines from “Love Is Blind” with no mention of the song’s domestic violence context as evidence of Eve’s “thug” credentials. In writing on the song, violence both against women and in general was taken for granted by mostly white critics -- suggesting, perhaps, that they saw it as inevitable within the genre.
"The Dixie Chicks singing about murdering someone did cause a certain amount of controversy, but I ain't afraid of the Dixie Chicks, and I doubt most people are,” said critic Christopher John Farley in an interview with the Boston Globe. “But it's different when it's DMX [notably, a fellow member of Eve’s Ruff Ryders] just because he's a man with black skin instead of three cute blond white girls — although DMX is a short guy who really isn't much more fearsome than the Dixie Chicks."
Amid the controversy around “Earl,” the Dixie Chicks had tried to get people on their side by suggesting the song was their “ode to O.J. Simpson,” whose trial -- and the racial lines along which it was unquestionably divided -- still loomed large when they first released the song in 1999. One radio programmer reported that her copy of the single came with a press release suggesting DJs "imagine Earl as O.J. Simpson" because it might make them more likely to play the song. It should be impossible to ignore that while the fictional villain in their music video was white, exaggerated and unrealistic, the real one attached to the track was a Black man. Eve, perhaps unsurprisingly, made no such mention of Simpson during her junkets.
In retrospect, these two similar, contemporaneous songs wind up proving much more about society’s divisions -- and how those divisions, particularly along racial lines -- get reflected in pop music than they do about an experience that might otherwise be about as universal they come. While both remain among the most poignant and memorable depictions of domestic violence in popular culture, only “Earl” has been followed by a veritable tradition of massive songs describing homicidal revenge against abusers (“Gunpowder and Lead” by Miranda Lambert, “Church Bells” by Carrie Underwood). Looking back, what should be a redemptive story about what happens when women fight back -- on the airwaves and on their own terms -- seems like just more depressing evidence that society has historically deemed only violence against white women as abuse worthy of its attention.