Let’s Talk About Lady A

There’s an ugly side to this antebellum scene

“It is a good lesson — though it may often be a hard one — for a man…to step aside out of the narrow circle in which his claims are recognized, and to find how utterly devoid of significance, beyond that circle, is all that he achieves, and all he aims at.”

― Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Lady A controversy. It’s one of those play-within-a-play moments in our culture, where the macrocosm is played out in microcosm. For those whose attention has been elsewhere, here’s a primer:

In 2006, Charles Kelley, Dave Haywood, and Hillary Scott — all white musicians — formed a band called Lady Antebellum. “When we set out together almost 14 years ago, we named our band after the Southern ‘antebellum’ style home where we took our first photos,” the band wrote in a recent statement. “As musicians, it reminded us of all the music born in the South that influenced us…southern rock, blues, R&B, gospel, and of course country.” On June 11, during the massive, nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, the group decided to drop the “antebellum” part.

This decision tracks with a basic sensitivity to marginalized voices. The antebellum (Latin for “pre-war”) South is the highly-romanticized veneer which covers a nasty history, typified by huge Greek Revival mansions and mannered, aristocratic Southerners (think Gone With The Wind on infinite loop). What lay beneath this polished surface — indeed, what propped it up — were the horrors of human chattel slavery and systemic, massive wealth inequality. In making their decision, it seems that Lady Antebellum more or less jumped right before they were pushed. NASCAR had banned the Confederate flag at all races and events the day before the band’s name change announcement.

Realizing their old name was problematic, the band affected the change and issued a public apology. “We are regretful and embarrassed to say that we did not take into account the associations that weigh down this word referring to the period of history before the Civil War, “ they wrote, “which includes slavery. We are deeply sorry for the hurt this has caused and for anyone who has felt unsafe, unseen, or unvalued.” Needless to say, this move generated quite a bit of media coverage.

Alas, real life intervened on the best-laid plans of the erstwhile antebellum people. It turns out that there is another artist who has used the name Lady A for years, in public performances and on recordings. Her name is Anita White, and she’s a Black blues singer from Seattle. She found out about the Grammy-winning band’s name change through phone calls from colleagues and the media — not from the group itself.

“This is my life,” White told Rolling Stone. “Lady A is my brand, I’ve used it for over 20 years, and I’m proud of what I’ve done. They’re using the name because of a Black Lives Matter incident that, for them, is just a moment in time. If it mattered, it would have mattered to them before. It shouldn’t have taken George Floyd to die for them to realize that their name had a slave reference to it.

“It’s an opportunity for them to pretend they’re not racist or pretend this means something to them,” White continued. “If it did, they would’ve done some research. And I’m not happy about that. You found me on Spotify easily — why couldn’t they?”

On July 8, the new Lady A filed suit against the original Lady A, claiming that White and her team demanded a $10 million payment. They are not seeking monetary damages from White; just asking a court to “affirm our right to use the name Lady A, a trademark we have held for many years.” The group claims that they’ve been using the name Lady A as a “source indicator” for their merchandise since around the time of their inception, and formed the LLC “Lady A Entertainment” in 2010. White also claims to have a business trademark for a “Lady A LLC,” and as previously mentioned has been performing under that name since before Lady Antebellum formed.

In my mind, there are two issues here. One is legal, and the other ethical. From a legal standpoint, it’s not at all clear that Lady Antebellum can willy-nilly change their name without consequence. There’s a strong argument to be made that the original Lady A has what is known as a common law trademark which would predate any claims to the name by the former Lady Antebellum, who only recently decided to perform under that name. I should stress here that I’m no lawyer, and anyone who tells you how this will be resolved in a court of law is lying. This can go either way, and we’ll find out how it does soon enough. Others don’t appear to have any doubt about the outcome: the band’s Wikipedia page already refers to them with the new name.

I have personal experience with this kind of trademark conflict. In the early 1990s, I joined a band called Squirrel Nut Zippers, named after an old-fashioned brand of chewy candy. (I never liked the name, but the group was already established in our little village of Chapel Hill, North Carolina.) After the group’s first single came out, the month before I joined, one of the members wrote the Squirrel Brand Corporation in Cambridge, Massachusetts, asking their permission to use the name. They gave their consent in a written note with a charming, antiquated letterhead. Three years later, we were a platinum-selling act, and the head of the Squirrel Brand Company died. The day after The Walt Disney Company bought our indie record label (telling newspapers that they intended to mostly recoup from my band), the Squirrel Brand Company sent us a letter demanding that we enter into a licensing agreement with them. That agreement would provide them many benefits, including right of first refusal over album material and art, as well as a percentage of our merchandise sales. Our initial thought was to change the band’s name, but the label went ballistic, calling it career suicide. We refused the candy company’s demands, and they sued.

A sticky situation

One of the many reasons I left the Squirrel Nut Zippers was because I would never have signed a deal that gave other people de facto control over our art. (The band did just that after I quit.) Years later, when I told this story to a group of Duke Entertainment Law students, their jaws dropped. “All you had to do,” they told me, “was take out a trademark for the name as an entertainment group.”

From a capitalistic perspective, it’s important to have a brand, and vital to vigorously defend that brand. But anyone who’s been paying attention has probably also noticed that capitalism depends on maintaining a permanent underclass, from whose undervalued labor maximum profit can be extracted. Just ask the families of all the meat processing plant employees dead of coronavirus.

It’s clear that Lady Antebellum needed to change their name or suffer adverse publicity as a result of a broad cultural consensus that Black lives do, in fact, matter. It’s also clear that going on to sue the original Lady A is a dick move, which has rightly resulted in adverse publicity anyway. It screams privilege. Inspired by music largely, if not entirely, created by Black people, the band named themselves after a time when Black people’s labor was exploited and profited from. Having come to realize that this is a bad look, Lady Antebellum decided to change their name. Instead of finding a new name after discovering a Black woman had already been using it for decades, they chose instead to sue her for getting in their way. After all, they’re the ones with Grammys and hit singles. They don’t appear to have considered that allowing Anita White the dignity of keeping her stage name would have generated tons of great press for everybody.

Instead, the band’s lawsuit goes into great detail about how they’ve established themselves as “one of the twenty-first century’s premiere vocal groups” and have lots of hits and awards, and how the original Lady A is kind of a nobody who didn’t have the money or foresight to trademark her name in a legally defensible way. The thing that’s not said, but should be obvious, is that it costs money to litigate, and a lack of financial resources often translates to defeat in most criminal and civil actions.

You understand why Southern towns have been so quick to remove many of their Confederate statues, right? It’s not so much because of the bad publicity, but rather because it’s better to bust out some performative window dressing rather than make the real sacrifices of fixing the rot and restructuring the store. Taking down a few ugly old statues is much easier than leveling the playing field. We’ll soon see as many Black Lives Matter road names as we did Martin Luther King boulevards.

This has always been about the money — from the monstrous capitalism of the pre-Civil War South to the band that named themselves after it — and for that reason and because of their actions, I see no need for Lady Antebellum to change their name at all. It’s a pretty good fit.

Tom‘s work has appeared in Longreads, The Oxford American, Bitter Southerner, Slate, Salon, and Southern Cultures, among others. He usually writes about music.

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