How to write a catchy song about Trump: You don't
Revenge is a dish best served with a side of twang. Country is the genre of getting back, where Loretta Lynn isn't afraid to take the other woman out to Fist City, where Carrie Underwood digs her keys into the side of his pretty little souped-up four-wheel drive, where Miranda Lambert commits arson to teach her man a lesson. The Chicks — now without the culturally-questionable "Dixie" — also know their way around a good revenge anthem, having put Earl six-feet under with a special dish of black-eyed peas.
Gaslighter, the Chicks' newest album, released Friday, follows in that storied tradition of women lyrically torching what has hurt them. In the 14 years since the band's last album, the trio has experienced hurt anew: there is lead singer Natalie Maines' turbulent divorce from her husband of 17 years in 2019, yes, but there is also, well, America. In the wrenching way we live now, the personal and political easily become muddled; Gaslighter is the impressive result of indiscriminately splashing kerosene on both, and lighting the match.
The Chicks are experts, at this point, on the messiness of breakups. All three of the members — Maines, Emily Strayer, and Martie Maguire — have been divorced; they also had a very public, very messy breakup with country music's conservative fan base in 2003, when, in the lead-up to the American invasion of Iraq, Maines said she felt "ashamed" of President George W. Bush being from Texas. Their first album after the incident was Taking the Long Way, a frustrated and defiant work that addresses their critics directly ("It's too late to make it right/I probably wouldn't if I could"). But while "people may assume that [Taking the Long Way's] content is predominantly political, a response to what happened to the group in 2003," NPR wrote after its release, "[t]he musicians say the album … is actually very personal and autobiographical." Gaslighter today only further proves how inextricable the political and autobiographical are for the band.
That is to say, it is not, or not exactly, an album about President Trump, which might come as a surprise. After all, the album's name seems to be a direct reference to Lauren Duca's viral 2016 article for Teen Vogue, "Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America." "To gaslight is to psychologically manipulate a person to the point where they question their own sanity, and that's precisely what Trump is doing to this country," Duca wrote at the time; the Chicks announced their album's first single, its title track, on Twitter also by offering a definition of the noun: "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."
While almost none of the lyrics of "Gaslighter" can be read sincerely as being "about" the president, the band's history of being outspoken on political issues seems to winkingly encourage misreadings. "I mean, I see Trump in it," Maines told The New York Times. "But that is not who I wrote it about." Even so, she complicated the track even further by posting a remix on Instagram that juxtaposes the chorus with clips of Trump downplaying COVID-19. On the surface, Maines' is clearly singing about her ex-husband, but not so deep underneath that, she is singing about politics. And there is a third layer, too, perhaps even an unconscious one: where Maines herself is the gas lighter, igniting what cannot be salvaged.
Though there is a rich tradition of protest music in America, and even a handful of good protest songs about the current administration, the musical pushback on Trump has been noticeably lacking, as my colleague Jacob Lambert has written; anti-Trump music has largely failed to "coalesce into a recognizable movement … [perhaps because] Trump's presidency is a disaster so grotesque that commentary is redundant." (Not to mention the practical problem: all the rhymes available for lyricists are rather unsavory. Hump, bump, rump). Yet a large part of why Gaslighter is successful as an album is because it doesn't bother to make the same mistake of earnestly trying; instead, as with the title track, the Chicks suggest the political by singing about something they understand: hurt.
Many of the album's general lyrics, for example, can also be transferred to apply to politics or the president, like the pointed evocation of "how do you sleep at night?/How do you tell those lies?" in the chorus of "Sleep at Night," a track that would be perfectly at home on the next Taylor Swift record. (Gaslighter was produced by Jack Antonoff, who's best known in part for his work with Swift). Likewise, in "Julianna Calm Down," a tender track written for Maguire and Emily Strayer's daughters, Maines sings to Maguire's Eva, "breathe, you're gonna make it through"; the lyrics are both resistant to associations, personalized with a specific name, but also invite associations, in the way that a general platitude about their being light after darkness feels, at this moment, like a generously-offered life raft. Meanwhile, in Maines' song to her sons, "Young Man" there is both an overt nod to the great protest artist Neil Young, but also the assurance "you're gonna be alright," a likely unintentional, but not entirely ignorable, echo of Kendrick Lamar's protest song.
The one overtly political song on the album, "March March," inverts the technique. After starting out with the lyrics "march, march to my own drum/hey, hey, I'm an army of one," the song seems like it's going to serve as the album's post-divorce, don't-need-no-man anthem of empowerment — only to twist back into being a direct criticism of American's failure on gun laws, climate change, and women's reproductive health. The song also contains the album's one unmistakable reference to Trump, "what the hell happened in Helsinki," citing the president's summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin where the two had a mysterious two-hour closed door meeting.
The course the album runs tonally is political, too, because optimism is political. Yes, the album is Maines' payback, served country-music style: a humiliating public airing of her ex-husband's faults, peaking with the scathing "Tights on a Boat," and ending in the stirring plea of "Set Me Free." But it's more of a purification by fire than straight arson. The central image of the album is of a phoenix-like rebirth: "You just had to start a fire," sung in "Gaslighter," transforms later into "guess from ashes, we can really grow" in "My Best Friend's Wedding." Pain is something to learn from and grow from (after all, the ability to call someone a "gaslighter" means you've risen above their mind games).
The linguistic conflation of divorce and politics is fraught; there are those who compellingly argue, for example, against using the vocabulary of female victimhood or abuse to talk about politics. And the Chicks don't, at least not really — "March March" aside, anytime you think you've nailed down a firm political statement, it seems to wiggle back out of your grasp with its specificity. Gaslighter, more than a political album or even a breakup album, is a phase-of-existence album: there will always be things to endure, and to emerge from stronger and wiser.
"The weight of this hate was exhausting," Maines sings on the last track, the use of past-tense like a sort of release. Like the whole album, it is both ambiguous and not, both specifically about her divorce and somehow too general to expect audiences not to cling to it. As the coda to Gaslighter, which otherwise kindles righteous outrage and tender healing, it's a bucket of water. It sends you up like smoke.