Behind the Song: Dixie Chicks, “Gaslighter”

The beloved Dixie Chicks announced their highly-anticipated return with the lead single, “Gaslighter.” 

Videos by American Songwriter

The term ‘gaslighter’ gained meaning in George Cukor’s 1944 film, Gaslight. Ingrid Bergman plays a housewife whose husband manipulates her into eventually doubting her sanity. More recent associations of the word led to speculation of a politically charged entrance back into the industry that all but exiled them in 2003. Though always tuned in on a cultural level, the Chicks’ new song seems to be more personal. 

Lead singer, Natalie Maines, with the support of her long time friends and creative cohorts, Martie Maguire and Emily Strayer, begins: 

“We moved to California and followed your dreams / I believed the promises you made to me / Swore that night’ till death do us part / But you lie-lie-lie-lie-lied/ Hollywood welcomed you with open doors / No matter what they gave you, you still wanted more / Acting all above it when our friends divorced / What a lie-lie-lie-lie-lie.” 

The opening lines are an undeniable stab at Maines’ recent ex-husband, Adrian Pasdar. During the court preceding, Pasdar requested access to the unreleased music over concerns that it may violate a confidentiality clause in their prenuptial agreement. Given the publicity surrounding Maines’ divorce, which became final in December, she needed to share her side of the story. 

The chorus hook: “Gaslighter, denier /Doin’ anything to get your ass farther,” stings with finality, concluding seventeen years of marriage. 

Beyond the political, many factors kept the Dixie Chicks relatively quiet for the last fourteen years. In previous interviews, they had rejected the notion they were plotting a comeback of this scale. 

“I think the tour in 2016 kind of solidified our want to do this,” Strayer explained in an interview with Apple Music’s Zane Lowe. Maguire attributed their combined nine children to the hiatus and the realization that “teenagers are harder than babies.” “Babies pull you off the road, teenagers push you back out on the road,” Maines joked in response.  

For many years, Maines avoided writing songs in fear of the emotional implications of the self-reflecting process. “I didn’t want to analyze my life or my relationship,” Maines admitted on the Spiritualgasm podcast. “I was just in it and dedicated and devoted, and if I had started writing songs about it … I don’t want to say I was in a ‘survival mode,’ but I was just not ready to open up like that.”

The trio held the idea they would host multiple co-writers and producers to bring the dynamic album they had in mind, to life. After writing this burning anthem, those plans changed. “Gaslighter” was the first song the Dixie Chicks wrote with Jack Antonoff. “He blew us away,” Emily Strayer remarked in the same interview with Lowe. Strayer remembers thinking, “This needs to be the sound of this album.”

“Gaslighter” burns it all the way down with the accompanying video, produced by Seanne Farmer. Vintage vignettes flash between militant invasions of the Dixie Chicks, cloned to present a front with three times the strength of the trio. The radical approach signals that the Dixie Chicks have returned, and this time, they demand to be heard. 

Political snafus inserted throughout the video create a broader cultural context. The introductory scene, known historically as the “Daisy” ad, comes from Lyndon B. Johnson’s campaign. Johnson ran the ad against Barry Goldwater. Johnson, along with much of the United States, believed his opponent to be dangerously incompetent to the point of threatening the world’s future. As the 3-year old girl innocently picks petals from her flower, she is unknowingly repeating a mission-control countdown. The original advertisement follows with a massive nuclear blast, portrayed with a classic mushroom cloud. This point is where the Chicks derailed. 

For a brief moment towards the end, the fanfare dies down, and a vulnerable, heartbroken Maines faces the camera. Her voice carries on its own: “Gaslighter, I’m your mirror / Standing right here until you can see how / You broke me / Yeah, I’m broken.”

Before a tear can well, the scene cuts back to raw footage, and Maines erupts in vocal fury: “You’re still sorry, and there’s still no apology.”

The messaging of female empowerment turns devastation to anger to strength. The warm and familiar sound welcomes back fans who have waited more than a decade for this moment. 

“Our last album was the most personal and autobiographical we’ve ever been,” said Maines. “And then this one is ten times that.”

Watch the video for “Gaslighter” and listen below:

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