On March 4th, 2020, before The Chicks had changed their name and before the world as we knew it ended, the all-female trio dropped their first single in over ten years: ‘Gaslighter’. The song ‘Gaslighter’ was a country pop empowerment number that centered around a woman calling out an abusive partner. With themes related to manipulation, dishonesty, and deep-seated woundedness, ‘Gaslighter’ chronicles the gauntlet that is dissolving a toxic relationship. It was also the title of their then-upcoming album that premiered the following summer.
By making it the titular song and their first single, The Chicks had made a statement about domestic violence and the women’s rising political voices because they used charged, direct language that originated in describing trauma, and they reinforced this connection thanks to a music video filled with propagandistic Americana imagery. The Chicks stated in no uncertain terms that gaslighting extends from the domestic space onto the national stage and behind the presidential podium.
Before I dissect the music video, however, I want to discuss the meaning behind ‘gaslighting’ as it embodies the intersections between women’s history, the history of trauma studies, and media representation.
The term ‘gaslighting’ refers to a type of psychological abuse in which the perpetrator denies the target’s reality and implies that the target is mentally deficient, if not outright insane. They make the target doubt their memories and perception of reality. Some of the ways that the perpetrator does this include lying, manipulating the target’s environment, and minimizing the target’s feelings.
Gaslighting as we now understand it has its roots in theatric, visual storytelling. In 1938, British playwright Patrick Hamilton wrote “Gas Light”, and the story follows a husband who manipulates and abuses his wife while he tries to find hidden, stolen treasure. The title alludes to the gas lamps that the husband dims in his search; he then accuses his wife of imagining the house going dark. Ingrid Bergman later starred in a 1944 film adaptation Gaslight, and the classic movie further cemented this concept in culture. As one of the 1944 characters puts it, gaslighting is when, “You’re slowly and systematically being driven out of your mind.”
While associated with domestic violence — familial abuse like partner abuse and child abuse — gaslighting encompasses all types of relationships. Abusers traumatize partners and countries by using the same sorts of dirty tricks. In terms of politics, Sean Spicer exaggerating the crowd size of Trump’s Inauguration against mountains of evidence that said otherwise remains a prime example of political bodies gaslighting their citizens.
As an abuse survivor, it has been interesting for me to watch a relatively obscure feminist-trauma term enter into the mainstream as the Trump administration took power five years ago. The fact that The Chicks released a song and album with this title implies that the term has become normalized to the point that it can be understood by a vast number of general listeners and thus be palpable for radio. Promotion for the song even included The Chicks’s tweeting out a definition for a ‘gaslighter’, thus ensuring that listeners understood the title’s meaning: “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 music video dropped the same day as the song and applied the theme of the lyrics to the various imagery that shared the screen with the band. Overall, the ‘Gaslighter’ music video combines detailed lyrics with political symbols to capture the marriage that is the age-old phrase, “The personal is the political”.
Mistakes of the Father:
The Chicks already covered domestic violence in their twangy murder bop ‘Goodbye Earl’ back in the late ’90s, but unlike that fun narrative romp, ‘Gaslighter’ is personal, having been co-written by the band after lead singer Natalie Maines began divorce proceedings, as the end of her marriage catalyzed a creative endeavor. She and her bandmates, Emily Strayer and Martie Maguire, wrote and produced the song with Jack Antonoff. Seanne Farmer subsequently directed the video. Rolling Stone critic Jonathan Bernstein succinctly wrote, “[W]ith its unsubtle political and historical imagery, [the video] uses Maines’ travails as a template for decades of personal and collective national pain.”
The Chicks establish from the beginning of the video how gaslighting intersects with gender relationships due to the prevalence of it in abusive relationships. As I will explain later, the song’s charged takedown on toxic masculinity and the cycle of abuse, due to patriarchal conditioning, reflects The Chick’s history of addressing misogyny in their lives and in their careers.
The video opens with an old Mr. Potato Head commercial that shows children at play, and the narrator mentions Mr. Potato Head’s wife. It then cuts to a freckled-face girl picking petals off a flower, counting them off in such a way that it’s reminiscent of the “he loves me/he loves me not” game. The sound distorts as a montage of crashing vehicles and general destruction takes over. A plane crashes, and the word “TRUTH” blares across the screen in yellow, surrounded by pink fireworks. Then images of military women appear as other, faceless women in voiceover swear, “I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me…” Their voices distort on the “so help me”, and a baby chick falls across the screen, a visual pun on the band’s name. This transitions to The Chicks, who appear immediately belting, “GASLIGHTER!”, as they sing the opening chorus.
The Chicks and Farmer clearly wanted this introduction to stand out as it’s the only part in the video that features audio besides the song, and this introduction lays out the video’s themes immediately. Between references to Mr. Potato Head’s wife and the petals game, viewers are primed to think about romantic relationships before the song even starts. Then viewers watch the romantic context transition into a political context, specifically a military one that fits into later imagery referencing factory women from World War II. Overall, the opening focus on crashing vehicles reflects the mindf*ckery of leaving the gaslight.
The actual phrase should end with “so help me God”, but by manipulating the audio to cut out in place of the song, the “Gaslighter” takes the place of the “God” in the statement. The women are swearing to be honest to the figure gaslighting them. The editing echoes Sierra DeMulder’s 2015 poem ‘After Googling Affirmations for Abuse Survivors’ and its exploration of the cycle of abuse and its effects on survivors: “Do you know how hard it is to write yourself swathed only in softness/to not worship the shipwreck that stranded you here?”
The power of the perpetrator seems absolute to the target, and in many respects, that perspective holds weight, due to the nature of gaslighting. The perpetrator manipulates his partner into doubting her reality, unbalancing her to the point that she’s questioning her sanity. Such a power seems godly, if perverse.
The “GASLIGHTER!” belted by The Chicks in harmony also serves as a lead into the song, kicking off a shortened form of the chorus: “Gaslighter, denier/Doin’ anything to get your ass farther/Gaslighter bigtimer/Repeating all the mistakes of your father.” Maines draws a direct line between the titular gaslighter and his father, and from a political standpoint, it speaks to how we socialize abuse from one generation to the next. Overall, the video reinforces the cycle, how a son follows his father, and then ties it into America’s history of violence.
For the shot, The Chicks stand in unison, wearing white suits, perpendicular to the camera. They alternate between staring into the camera, thus staring down the viewer, and looking away offscreen as they sing. Their posing is reminiscent of people standing in line to give the Pledge of Allegiance, and their outfits recall military uniforms. As they sing, pink-colored footage of explosions begins to appear over them, before transitioning to old, black-and-white footage of a family. The family waves at the camera, and the fathers lifts his toddler son into the air, the camera focusing on the tot before cutting to a new scene of The Chicks.
In 1975, anarcha-feminist Peggy Kornegger observed, “The radical feminist perspective is almost pure anarchism. The basic theory postulates the nuclear family as the basis of all authoritarian systems. The lesson the child learns, from father to teacher to boss to god, is to obey the great anonymous voice of Authority,” (p. 30). The video’s beginning set up recalls the patriarchal authority structure built into every institution, and the music video, coupled with the song’s lyrics, intentionally blurs the lines between marriage, the military, and religion. Here, American propaganda hits home, literally. It isn’t Uncle Sam who wants you but Father Sam, Husband Sam. The Head of the Family.
And The Chicks then take it a step further, not only alluding to the destructive effects of the father as we know him, but that of his son once grown and on his own, the perpetuating class of Son to Husband and Father. By connecting the gaslighter’s actions (his “mistakes”) back to his father, The Chicks are not hiding him behind the flimsy “bad childhood” excuse but reminding listeners about how society contributes to interpersonal violence. The implication being that gaslighting is one of the father’s mistakes being repeated by the son in the present.
A Backstory Rooted in Misogyny and Resistance
With all of that in mind, the use of intense, varied imagery is reminiscent of their video for their 2006 song ‘Not Ready to Make Nice’. ‘Gaslighter’ is in many ways the spiritual successor to the former song. The lead single was their comeback song after facing backlash for Maines’s remark on Bush and the upcoming Iraq invasion, leading to the women being ostracized and blacklisted from country music. The subsequent video featured numerous scenes based on symbolism imbued with references to the controversy, and it took on a political edge at the end. One of the last scenes featured the bandmates as characters in a Victorian-esque hospital: Maines played a patient that the other two singers, as nurses, tried to restrain, while male doctors stood in the background, debating what medicine to give Maines’s character.
That period in the history of medicine featured women being tortured, experimented on, sexually assaulted, and overall contributed to the ‘hot, crazy girl’ archetype that deserves to die. So often, women were locked up in mental hospitals and sedated so as to silence them, literally and figuratively, as was with the case of Elizabeth Packard. The Chicks brought this history into their art for a reason: They had been told to shut up and sing for being women with political opinions, specifically the ‘wrong’ opinions. (This attempt to silence them still affects the country music community today, especially female artists and other marginalized artists, like artists of color, almost twenty years later.)
A person would have to stick their fingers in their ears and hum a bro country song very loudly in order to drown out the misogyny screaming in the backlash that The Chicks faced. Gendered insults that the public threw around included “Dixie twits” and “bimbos”, and Bill O’Reilly even derided them as “callow, foolish women who deserve to be slapped around.” (O’Reilly’s casual, threatening remarks about violence against women holds more significance than ever in light of the allegations that he sexually harassed women at Fox News. If predators are anything, it’s consistent.)
The world had tried to silence The Chicks, and they came back, angry and sure of themselves with ‘Not Ready to Make Nice’. ‘Gaslighter’ the song, and its subsequent album, marked a second return after a prolonged hiatus. It also came with strife and attempted silencing, though this time it came from more personal circumstances.
From 2017 through 2019, Maines’s ex-husband, actor Adrian Pasdar, kept her in legal battles after she filed for divorce. First, he tried to invalidate their prenup in order to gain spousal support. Then he tried to block release of new music on the grounds that it breached the confidentiality clause in the prenup. Maines has never accused Pasdar directly of gaslighting her, but it’s hard not to associate her experiences with the song and its subject matter, since she explained that it was her divorce that inspired the album. She also described the album as being The Chicks’s most autobiographical work. References in the song to the gaslighter’s work in Hollywood match Pasdar’s profession and the family’s longtime residence in California.
On top of that, in the second verse of the song, Maines sings, “You thought I wouldn’t see it if you put it in my face/Give you all my money, you’ll gladly walk away.” The timing of the song’s release, with this reference to money, being so close to Maines’s court battles, also leads one to wonder what inspired Maines to write those lyrics with that specific detail. Regardless of Maines’s personal life, the song itself tells a believable story about an abusive relationship and how a perpetrator weaponizes different forms of abuse against a target, as abuser-rehabilitation specialist Lundy Bancroft has observed.
The Chicks subtly criticized the misogyny that fueled the harassment campaigns they suffered in the early 2000s. With ‘Gaslighter’, they started the new decade with a song and video that comments on domestic violence, interweaving themes on marriage and American ideals, in order to take personal tribulations and fit them into a greater context.
Throughout the music video, The Chicks apply visual tropes related to American cinema and propaganda and connect them to the lyrics. They are undoing the gaslighting of our country by refuting the story of the good ole boy beloved by Hollywood and his peers. They are telling the other story about the woman at home who has finally left that boy and who knows her reality.
Messages flash across the screen: Liar. Gaslighter. You Picked The Wrong Chick. Multiple times The Chicks appear on screen either singing on a stage or within a television, their clip cut into old videos to incorporate them into history. The video also features the classic hypnowheel several times, implying hypnosis. They are fighting propaganda with propaganda.
At the same time, they recognize the damage wrought by gaslighting. There are several shots throughout the video of Maines looking at the camera, physically and/or emotionally vulnerable, while being supported by her bandmates.
When the scene cuts away from the family back to the band, for example, we see Maines sitting on a stool with a theater curtain behind her, Strayer and Maguire standing on either side. Both sisters have a hand on Maines’s shoulder, expressing support and solidarity. The shot communicates vulnerability as Maines sings the first verse, recounting her and her partner’s idyllic beginnings, their promises to one another, and his piles of lies. Grainy, black-and-white home videos play behind them, including footage of a couple cutting into their wedding cake.
Judith Herman, in Trauma and Recovery (1992/2015), repeatedly stresses the importance of a witness in the recovery process. To grow from victim to survivor a person needs social support, and that comes from voicing her story, sharing it with another person as a form of “testimony.” Throughout the music video, The Chicks appear on stage and on television, singing about a gaslighter and his misdeeds, turning the implied audience into their witnesses.
Notably, The Chicks, and Maines in particular, sing with their signature bravado, while still portraying woundedness. They create a nuanced story of a broken relationship, trauma, and the hundred feelings that ram through one’s heart all at once after such a break-up. This is no clearer than in lyrics added to the chorus after the first verse and then retained for the rest of the song: “Gaslighter, you broke me/You’re sorry, but where’s my apology?/Gaslighter, you liar.”
Overall, The Chicks appropriate familiar imagery, associated with classic movies and wholesome, white-picket fence America, in order to co-opt the ‘Uncle Sam wants you’ energy.
A Burning Bed:
The third verse of the song applies fire imagery to the relationship to describe how the gaslighter destroyed his partner’s trust: “Just had to start a fire, had to start a fire/Couldn’t take yourself on a road a little higher/Had to burn it up, had to tear it down/[…]You made your bed and then your bed caught fire.” The reference to the bed closes out the verse before the song transitions to the bridge. The Chicks harmonize this part, stressing that the gaslighter is facing the consequences of his actions, that his manipulations rebounded onto him and what he did to isolate her within the relationship ultimately ended with him alone. By referring to it as “your bed”, The Chicks hold the gaslighter solely accountable for the abuse.
And that detail about the bed on fire caught my attention in the context of a song about abuse. My mother grew up during the second wave, and so she raised me, subsequently, on news stories about women’s advancing rights from the ’60s into the ’80s. That included the story of the “burning bed.” Whether they intended it or not, The Chicks alluded to a landmark case in domestic violence, both legally and culturally.
In 1977, Francine Hughes killed her ex-husband Mickey by setting his bed on fire as he slept in it, destroying the house in the process. While the couple had divorced, Mickey had moved back in and exerted his brutal will over Francine, continuing to beat her during their separation as he had during their marriage. He battered her for thirteen years in total, and the night that she killed him was no different. The day of the murder, after he verbally abused her and forced her to destroy her school books, he repeatedly beat her and eventually raped her. After he fell asleep, she had their children get into the car, and proceeded to pour gasoline on the bed before setting it alight. Francine Hughes ended up driving herself and her children to the police station, turning herself in.
What makes the ‘burning bed’ case significant, besides the manner in which Francine killed her abuser, was that it helped set legal precedent for abuse survivors as the court had found her not guilty by reason of temporary insanity. Her lawyer had used what would later be named “battered-woman syndrome” as her defense, and it was one of the first of its kind. The case ultimately brought domestic violence to national attention and helped to reshape society’s perspective on issues related to ‘privacy’ and the home.
In my opinion, it’s not unreasonable to speculate that The Chicks pulled inspiration from Hughes’s experiences, if not consciously then subconsciously. (A domestic violence shelter even noted the allusion when the organization annotated the lyrics for a blog post.) The subject holds great importance for both women’s history and the history of trauma studies, and it wouldn’t be the first time that the story has inspired music. Back in 1987, folk band Rude Girls included the ‘Ballad of Francine Hughes’ on their album Rude Awakening. Then, Gretchen Peters had Hughes’s story in her “consciousness” when she wrote ‘Independence Day.’ Martina McBride released the song in 1994, and it’s a modern classic not only in country but specifically in the beloved subgenre of songs that center around women killing their no-good, often abusive husbands. Or, as I like to call them, feminist murder power ballads.
By connecting a song about gaslighting to a real-life case associated with physical and sexual violence, The Chicks simultaneously acknowledge the seriousness of gaslighting and further politicize their work, due to the burning bed’s legacy. The image of a burning bed, fire eating up the symbol most associated with the union of marriage, stresses the corrosive nature of domestic violence, no matter the form it takes.
Society still easily discounts the idea of gaslighting, which falls under the broad category of psychological abuse, because society tends to dismiss how people can weaponize speech to harm those they have power over. Indeed, we’re watching this dismissal happen in real time as certain segments of the planet rush to condemn Will Smith for slapping Chris Rock, relying on racist stereotypes of Black men, while ignoring the context that Rock had mocked Jada Pinkett-Smith for her health condition — on television no less.
(Though to be clear, I’m not trying to say that Chris Rock gaslit Jada Pinkett-Smith at the Oscars. Rather, bigoted jokes that mock a person’s social status — such as their health or race — belong in the same category of abusive behavior as gaslighting, except at opposite ends of the spectrum.)
Music, especially the act of singing, functions as such a powerful way to refute such dismissal because the silenced person reclaims the very act of speech and not only gets their voice back, they also transform it into art. Action and creation, together, shout back. ‘Gaslighter’ does this wonderfully as Maines sings about a liar and repeatedly reminds him of being one, asserting the truth and giving him no place to hide, and this is made all the more poignant by the fact that Maines literally fought for the legal right to release music, which possibly included this song.
This chick opened her beak and breathed truth instead of fire, and with the music video, she took the whole dang country along for the ride. America tried to shut up The Chicks once, and ‘Gaslighter’ proves that no matter how many hiatuses they may take, the band will never be shut up for good.
Images courtesy of The Chicks and Columbia Nashville
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