Song Review – “Gaslighter” by The Dixie Chicks

Hey, so what does everyone think about American politics?

That’s basically the anthill you’re kicking over whenever you invoke the name of the Dixie Chicks, even though their music was never really that political, and the polarization of their name was more due to misunderstanding and hysteria as opposed to some true injury suffered by anyone. But of course, try telling that to an incited electorate that is quick to act like their hair is on fire at even the most perceived slight from someone with an opposing viewpoint to their own.

Meanwhile the media has been no help in diffusing the situation or realigning the public’s focus back where it belongs, which is on the music itself. They’re here to exacerbate Dixie Chicks polarization for clicks by ginning up political acrimony, and often misrepresenting the history and legacy of this important and groundbreaking country band while misinterpreting their output specifically.

But here we are nonetheless, being tasked to regard the first original song in 14 years from the Dixie Chicks called “Gaslighter.” The trio does themselves no favors in attempting to leave behind their polarizing and politically-tinged legacy by naming this song and their new album with such a term. Beyond the classical meaning, “Gaslighter” has become a favorite retort of the “woke” call out culture—a trump card to play in an argument no different from “mansplaining,” or accusing one’s adversary of an “ism” to supersede and undercut any argument being made by them, especially if that argument is salient, and can’t be defeated. It’s a conversation ender.

But the song “Gaslighter” does not have a political heart to it really at all, except possibly in subtle undertones which are forgivable, if not beneficial by allowing the song’s meaning and message to connect with more people. Instead, “Gaslighter” is a very personal song, pertinent and autobiographical to the primary singer and songwriter, Natalie Maines, and specifically her marriage to Adrian Pasdar—an actor that Maines met at the wedding of Charlie Robison and fellow Chicks member Emily Erwin in 2000.

Lines from the song such as, “We moved to California and followed your dreams,” and “Hollywood welcomed you with open doors” make it very clear who the subject and ire of “Gaslighter” is, though you can expect swaths of the media and fans to get this wrong, and say it’s all allegorical to that “orange guy” or old white men in general.

Similarly, the story of how the Dixie Chicks originally dissolved has been repeated so wrongly for so many years, most believe it’s: “They were banished from country music for being outspoken women and shortly retired,” as opposed the band launching a big comeback record after the fracas surrounding the President Bush comments, which netted them 2.5 million copies sold and five Grammy Awards. Then Natalie Maines specifically decided to walk away from the group to move to California and start a family with Adrian Pasdar. The couple has two kids, and formally divorced in July of 2017. It was that divorce and the aging of Natalie’s kids that opened the door for a Dixie Chicks reunification.

Of course what can get lost in all the choosing of sides that immediately grips the audience whenever the Dixie Chicks are cited—with half spitting raspberries at these anti-American bimbos, and the other half often embellishing their efforts in a show of political solidarity—is the actual music itself. Don’t buy into what any of the naysayers of this important country trio attempt to portray. The Dixie Chicks were revolutionary neotraditionalists during their mainstream country heyday, bringing traditional instrumentation and three-part harmonies back to the forefront of the format at a time when it was much needed, writing many of their own songs, and playing their own instruments in a way that inspired an entire generation of girls and women to pick up fiddles, mandolins, guitars, and banjos, making them cool once again.

But you don’t get a lot of that in “Gaslighter,” similar to how the trio forwent this rootsy approach on their final record before the hiatus, Taking The Long Way from 2006. The greatest fear when this new record was announced was that producer Jack Antonoff might take the trio in an electronic direction, as he’s done with the production of many of his records, including from former “country” performer Taylor Swift. That fear really doesn’t bear out with the song “Gaslighter,” but you still just get sort of this basic, pop rock style approach that for sure has plenty of dynamics and moments that will lead to an infectious reception to many in the audience, but doesn’t really smack of roots, or really any sort of significant originality.

But “Gaslighter” is not really safe either. The approach both lyrically and sonically is bold. The militant approach of the song and video will not help in the mending of wounds though. The use of open sourced file footage from the 50’s that you see in many popular videos these days is getting a little old. But it does fit the mood of the song well.

Possibly what holds “Gaslighter” and its video back the most is the palpable anger that you feel flowing from Natalie Maines, which has fueled the lingering resentment for the Dixie Chicks despite their hiatus beyond the original political acrimony swirling around the band. Certainly “Gaslighter” does a good job being expressive and personal, which is at the heart of most great songs. But there’s no resolution, or moving on from the pain.

A song like “Gaslighter” just sort of boils your blood, but doesn’t leave anywhere for that emotion to go afterwards. Perhaps this will be resolved in subsequent songs from the record. But for now, a band that toys with your emotions at the mere mention of their name fans the flames of frayed nerves with this new song. “Gaslighter” is about the farthest thing from moving on, burying the hatchet, or building bridges that the Dixie Chicks could have brought to the table to bring the focus back to the music. The song may not be expressly political, but it’s red meat for their constituency, while their detractors will find ample ammunition to hate on through this effort, and validation for their knee jerk acrimony at the band’s mere mention.

Nonetheless, extricating yourself from the incredible circus and anger that comes with the Dixie Chicks, “Gaslighter” is fine, even if it isn’t especially “country.” That ship sort of sailed with the Dixie Chicks in 2006 anyway. It’s a shame, because in a time when country music could use an injection of chicks playing fiddles, guitars, and banjos to counteract the electronic incursion into country and the male dominance of the format, the Dixie Chicks look to be moving in the direction of delivering songs for an explosive arena rock tour.

But a song like “Gaslighter” is not the problem in country music, or music in general. It’s probably slightly above average, even though you will see many obsequiously singing its praises to the rafters, while others will discount it before hearing a peep just because these women once chose to exercise their 1st Amendment Rights.

“But they were on foreign soil during a war when they said that!!!” Yeah yeah, whatever. Like Dave Chapelle once said, “Why you care so much what the Dixie Chicks say? It’s not like they’re political scientists or nothing. They’re just bitches that can sing good. You know what I mean? Just stop worshiping celebrities so much.”

And if you do that, “Gaslighter” renders itself as being just fine, but only “just fine” instead of a formidable comeback that could have reunified positive sentiment behind this important band.

1 1/4 Guns Up (6/10)

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