EXPECTATION VS. REALITY: “GASLIGHTER” BY THE CHICKS

This article is part of a new Untitled Magazine series called “Expectation vs. Reality,” where we examine the hype surrounding popular projects before and after release, and examine whether they ultimately meet the general public’s expectations. The first part, “Expectation,” was written prior to release, while the second part below, “Reality,” was written after release.  

Album cover art for “Gaslighter.” Courtesy of Columbia Records.

EXPECTATION

After 14 long years of waiting, of American boycotts, death threats, CD burnings, and emotional stamina, The Chicks are back with a new record, Gaslighter. Their first album since 2006’s Taking the Long Way, Gaslighter is poised to be the triumphant return to the spotlight (and the recording studio) that fans have been desperately awaiting for over a decade. The album’s lead single and title track was showered with praise, and follow-up “Julianna Calm Down” saw the group adapting their voice to modern country-pop sensibilities. But like any LP from an artist coming off the heels of a hiatus, especially a particularly long one like this, Gaslighter instantly complicates The Chicks’ relationship with hype and expectations.

Way back in 2003, just nine days before the American invasion of Iraq, lead singer Natalie Maines proudly announced to the crowd at a London performance that the band was “ashamed” that then-President George W. Bush was from their home state of Texas. What followed was a progenitor to current-day “cancel culture:” The band was blacklisted by hundreds of country radio stations, had their records publicly burned by Republican country music listeners, and was shunned at the American Country Music Awards for years.

But in what is commonly seen as one of the most triumphant comeback stories of 2000’s entertainment, 2006 saw the release of Taking the Long Way, which contained the crossover sensation “Not Ready to Make Nice”. The song tackled the political controversy head-on, and became a top five hit that went two-times platinum. Its parent album went on to be lauded by critics and win Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards.

Lead singer Natalie Maines performs with The Chicks in Austin, Texas in 2006. Courtesy of Ron Baker/Wikimedia Commons.

Since that whirlwind of publicity, The Chicks remained largely dormant, on an unofficial hiatus that would go on to last over a decade. What is fascinating though is how the group has managed to stay so popular and more importantly relevant through all that time, which does spell good things for Gaslighter. For one, their decision to drop the “Dixie” from their original name (“Dixie Chicks”) could have been a PR nightmare of fake social awareness that would have shattered any potential comeback. But in stark contrast to fellow country artists Lady Antebellum, who are currently suing Black artist Lady A, who has used the name for decades, The Chicks actually did their research and received the blessing of the New Zealand band of the same name.

More importantly, unlike Lady A(ntebellum), The Chicks mostly avoid callouts of fake allyship with the simultaneous release of single “March March” with their name change announcement. Ordinarily, a move like this would, and indeed has, come across as token by other artists; an act of virtue signaling. But with tactful execution and a music video very deliberately focused on the Black Live Matter movement and not the band itself, “March March” for the most part avoids the trap of coming across as performative wokeness.

Perhaps the reason “March March” has largely not been accused of this, and indeed also why The Chicks remain relevant in 2020 is their inherently political nature following their 2003 cancellation. The release of Taking the Long Way saw The Chicks doubling down on their controversial 2003 comments, showing they were not afraid of a political fight. They supported the Al Gore campaign, raised money following Hurricane Katrina, and have been a prominent voice in the world of protest music (just watch their appearance in the documentary Sounds Like a Revolution). Those familiar with The Chicks know that their political nature is part of their identity, which is why they stand out in the country music scene and why a song like “March March” comes across as genuine.

The Chicks subscribe to the sentiment of “white silence = black violence” and broadcast that loud and clear, which makes the appropriately titled Gaslighter so apt. It is important to note that this is not to glorify The Chicks as the ideal poster children of the Black Lives Matter movement. During this time, Black voices like Lady A’s are those we should be celebrating and raising up the most. The point here is only to signify that The Chicks are one of the few white artists of late to put out socially aware content while mostly avoiding claims of disingenuousness, and that is due to their genuine political nature. That’s why in 2020 expectations for The Chicks, a group emblematic of country music defiance, run particularly high. Perhaps it will have been for the best that Gaslighter was delayed two months.

Overall Expectation: like any acclaimed artists after a long hiatus, extremely high, but cautiously optimistic.

REALITY

Those hoping that The Chicks would recede to apolitical status for potential fear of another boycott will likely feel conflicted about Gaslighter (though if that was your hope you probably aren’t a Chicks fan in the first place). On the one hand, the record is without a doubt an incredibly personal breakup album, rife with the kind of send-offs and biting jabs the Chicks have been known for since hits like “Goodbye Earl” in the ’90s. On the other hand, given the subject matter, current climate, and The Chicks political nature, it is hard not to think of a good chunk of these tracks as direct messages to not only those in lead singer Natalie Maines’ life, but to our current government administration.

The Chicks official Apple Music Promo Image. Courtesy of Philippa Price/The Chicks/Apple Music.

Within the first couple of tracks of The Chicks comeback album, the title theme of gaslighting becomes commandingly clear. This dominating motif might on the surface refer to a number of things: a toxic relationship, Maines’ semi-recent divorce from actor Adrian Pasdar, etc. But given its release and The Chicks as a whole, it is hard to separate the messaging from our current political situation.

The album may not be directly inspired by politics, bar a few specific songs (namely the singles), but that doesn’t stop most tracks from feeling directly addressed to not only the Trump administration, but every entity standing up to it, like Planned Parenthood, Black Lives Matter, and the LGBTQ+ community at large. “For Her” is clearly addressed to Maines’ ex-husband as well as herself, but it is hard to hear the chorus chant of “stand up for her” without thinking of the female oppression this country has faced, particularly in the last four years, and how the track could easily stand as a #MeToo anthem. Similarly, it’s hard to hear The Chicks brazenly ask how the recipient of “Sleep at Night” manages the title action without imagining the question aimed squarely at our current Commander-in-Chief.

The Chicks have always been queens of the country send-off. No southern “bless your heart” niceties or backhanded gestures; they shoot strait from the hip. Some of the best callouts are those that could apply equally well to an ex, police officer, or current president. “Tights on my Boat” pulls no punches with its opening line: “I hope you die peacefully in your sleep. Just kidding. I hope it hurts like you hurt me.” Or the direct message to her ex “why does everybody love you? They don’t know enough about you” on the cutting “Everybody Loves You.” Whether Maines is singing to her daughter, ex-husband, or the American public, her personal sentiments ring loud and clear. Gaslighter is just as much a breakup album from Maines to her ex as it is from us as a nation to those in power. She calls out the gaslighters from her own circle to The White House.

Had the album been released on the originally scheduled May 1, it might not have had the same impact. But after a serendipitous two month delay, the album’s sound, themes, and messages have merged with their source inspirations and current day ideals to create a remarkably on-the-nose indictment of the times.

Is it fair to give the album props for somewhat incidental messaging that comes across as a result of good timing? Certainly not, and such actions do run the risk of promoting The Chicks as white saviors. As mentioned before, white allyship is important, but Black voices are the ones we should be broadcasting the loudest. Here we just highlight the inherently political nature of The Chick in the first place and their past history of applying personal messages to broader political issues in the name of introspective protest (“Travelin’ Soldier,” “I Hope,” “Easy Silence”). Besides, as previously established, songs like “March March” do directly address current issues with little left to imagination.

There is something to be said about making political statements by way of autobiography, and that is something Gaslighter accomplishes beautifully. Does that make it quintessential protest listening? Absolutely not. That distinction goes to current artists like Noname, Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, Jamila Woods, H.E.R., Janelle Monáe and countless others. But Gaslighter stands as a triumphant breakup album, with the added bonus of being adaptable to our corrupt political climate.

Overall Reality: Not the full-on protest album we may have expected, but essential Chicks listening nonetheless

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