Dixie Chicks Return at Last
When the Dixie Chicks said they were releasing their first original music in almost 14 years, fans had great expectations. A teaser tweet spelling out the definition of Gaslighter increased the hype and anticipation.
Gaslighter — “A psychological manipulator who seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or in members of a group, making them question their own memory, perception or sanity,” the tweet read.
That set the stage for lead singer Natalie Maines to drop her bomb. A bomb aimed at her ex-husband, actor Adrian Pasdar that came disguised as a catchy pop song entitled (surprise, surprise) Gaslighter.
Artists create from what they know. Sadly, lead singer Natalie Maines, obviously still reeling from a bitter divorce, dumped her fans with a mean-spirited rage-rant. Considering the band’s past achievements (and Maines strong political profile) the petty, low-blow lyrics created an epic letdown. The song itself is boppy, competently crafted pop, with an earworm hook. It will be played, download and sung, for sure. And it will make money.
So now the world knows how pissed off Maines is at the outcome of her divorce. Big whup. Dixie Chicks hard-core fans, the women who revered Maines for her talent and courageous will to speak the truth, deserved better.
Her song destroyed the band’s hard-earned “fem-cred.” That’s because we secretly hoped, post #MeToo, Times Up, after the sexual assault charges and high-profile trials, someone would give us an anthem for female empowerment. Who better than Maines, brave, ballsy and outspoken? But all she gave us was revenge trash talk from a talent who should have known better.
With hindsight, knowing Maines’s love of controversy (the reason for the band’s 14-year hiatus) we should have seen that the devious tweet hoped to cash in on women’s anger in the post #MeToo era.
And as a branding ploy, the tweet, and the lyrics, no doubt generated chatter, clicks, and eyeballs. At a price. The cost of disenchanted long-term fans, women who’d been fans for than two decades, now mourning the loss of a voice they once saw as their champion.
Women loved the Dixie Chicks. So did their friends, mothers, sisters, and daughters. The songs mirrored their heartaches, hurts, and fears. Whether the Chicks sang of love lost to a senseless war,(Travellin’ Soldier), outrage from blatant betrayal,(Not Ready to Make Nice), or the fear of being trapped by the conventions of marriage, (Ready to Run), the Dixie Chicks told women’s truth, straight up and with no bullshit.
And that’s why Gaslighter is such a disappointment. In the past, Dixie Chicks’ songs called men out for abusive behavior. But Gaslighter comes off as a petty, personal attack, rife with one woman’s drama. The song labels Pasdar a “liar” and “denier” who’d do “anything to get your ass farther” and who wanted all her money and is, “just like his father.”
Maines sings she was broken. Duh? Divorce is always brutal. Almost half of us have been through at least one, and we already know that too well.
Feminists today see “gaslighting” as a control bid and victim-blaming. When she sings, “You’re sorry, but where’s my apology?” Maines is not coming from a place of power, but the headspace of a pleading victim.
And women can’t relate to the song because Maines’ bitter divorce was not typical. She was rich. He, too, but less so. They fought over millions of dollars, eventually, split between them when their settlement ignored much of their prenup. In real life, women are financially disadvantaged compared to men, and can’t afford a protracted legal battle.
Maines is far from the poster child for, or the artist to champion, the fight against gaslighting. To start, she knew she was getting hitched to an actor, a man whose profession has a notorious track record when it comes to sexism. And he was a man who made his living by pretending, the essence of gaslighting. Without victim-blaming, one might ask, WTF did she expect would happen?
What’s really sad is that the Dixie Chicks used to know better. They painted exceptional pictures of soul-destroying divorce in two tunes, Cold Day in July, from the album Fly, and in You Were Mine, from the album Wide Open Spaces. The latter became one of their top hits. In concert, Maines often brought the audience to tears when she belted out the gut-wrenching lyrics, “I can give you two good reasons to show you love’s not blind. He’s two and she’s four, and you know they adore you, so how can I tell them you’ve changed your mind?”
Overall, compared to other Chicks’ tunes about nasty male behavior, Gaslighter seems petulant and shallow. Take, Goodbye Earl, from the album Fly. That song did become a feminist anthem. That’s because the story of two high school friends who murdered one’s abusive husband was laced with satire and twisted, dark humor.
The rousing delivery of the refrain, “Earl had to die, goodbye Earl,” pounded home the tragedy and fury of abused women, but with a hyperbolic touch that made murder funny and justified.
“We need a break, let’s go out to the lake, Earl,” Maines sang. “We’ll pack a lunch and stuff you in the trunk, Earl.”
These lyrics made the song a rallying cry for all women who survived domestic abuse. However, Gaslighter targets a real man, unlike the fictional Earl.
Gaslighter also manipulates in its reference to a watershed moment in women’s history. “You made your bed and then your bed caught fire,” Maines sings, referencing the late Francine Moran Hughes. Hughes set fire to her husband while he slept after enduring years of his brutal abuse and repeated rapes. When a jury found her not guilty, it was the first time any court had recognized “battered woman syndrome” as a defense. But Maines was not battered. She filed for divorce due to irreconcilable differences.
The video for Gaslighter is a manipulative mish-mash of images and clips. It starts with a black-and-white Mr. Potato Head television commercial, in which the announcer gushes that Mrs. Potato Head gets her own shopping cart!
Then it tries to highlight the social and cultural repression of women, complete with the Chicks dressed in creepy Third-Reich-style outfits, and dancing kicks reminiscent of goose-stepping. There’s archival footage of women with guns and tanks, intermixed with vintage clips of synchronized swimmers and dancers who look like they’ve stepped out of a Busby-Berkeley musical. In all, it is very hard to get what the band aimed to accomplish.
We all know each party in a divorce has widely divergent views of reality. But gaslighter is a very public flogging. And ex-hubby Pasdar seemed like a caring guy — at least in the Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck documentary about the Dixie Chicks, Shut Up and Sing. But again, no one knows the real truth but Maines and Pasdar.
Let’s hope future songs from the album ring with the down-to-earth authenticity we’ve come to expect from the Dixie Chicks, and earned them 10 Country Music Association Awards and 13 Grammys. Let’s hope they tell stories that champion women and that women can champion, too.