Is Dixie Chicks’ gaslighter really just a jerk?

It only took 14 years.

When the Dixie Chicks triumphantly returned earlier this month, dropping a fist-up emoji of a song called “Gaslighter” — also the name of a long-awaited album, coming soon — my thoughts darted to a few places. One, I remembered how much I bloody love the Dixie Chicks.

Two, a reminder of the fuss that engulfed the game-changing country trio, back in the early aughts, when frontwoman Natalie Maines publicly denounced both the Iraq War and the then-president George W. Bush (and how quaint all of that sounds now).

Three, a fixation on the idea that while “Gaslighter’ has the ire and the tang of songs on their 2006 comeback album — thinkNot Ready To Make Nice” — and that it, additionally, makes pulp of a term that is ubiquitous these days — “gaslighting” is an in-vogue word, employed everywhere from politics to reality TV — I was not entirely sure that what thing sing about was actually … well … “gaslighting.” Maybe it’s just a bummer?

Indeed, visions of Alanis cascaded upon me, as I wondered if gaslight might just be the next “Ironic”? You remember, dontcha, that ’90s anthem which describes any number of things — “a traffic jam when you’re already late,” for one; “ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife,” for another — few of which were especially ironic?

Some background: “gaslighting” has become a more popular expression, in this Trump-era zeitgeist of “alternative facts” but in its purest essence, in the personal realm, it refers to a form of sustained emotional abuse that involves manipulating the truth to make someone doubt their grip on reality — and the term actually goes back decades. To a 1938 play “Gaslight,” in fact — one that later became a classic movie with Ingrid Bergman. In that plot, a husband wrecks havoc on his wife by subtly altering things, including playing with the gaslights in the house.

Lying. Manipulation. Keeping your victim foggy-eyed and off-balance. The toolbox of the classic gaslighter in that original incarnation. And one that has become a staple in psychology, and has now morphed into a go-to bit of invective in this era, it reaching its own sort of pop-political apotheosis when, in an interview last year, none other than Taylor Swift accused Trump of “gaslighting the American public.” Lately, I have heard everyone from Real Housewives to contestants on “Love Island” throw around the term.

The term has also been enjoying a good run on bookshelves, too, especially in a form of domestic noir as practised by authors like Gillian Flynn. There is, for instance, Tara Isabella Burton’s pretty great, gender-bending Talented Mr. Ripley redux from a couple of years ago, “Social Creature,” in which the anti-heroine uses gaslighting via the very 21st-century modes of social media. And also, even crazier, the meta-ness of A.J. Finn’s bestseller “The Woman in the Window” (soon to be a movie with Amy Adams), which was sold as a gaslight novel but then got even more curiouser, when the author was unveiled as a serial liar himself in a long profile done of him in “The New Yorker,” with his past deceptions including claiming to have had cancer, among other things (cue the allegations of Finn as a gaslighter by colleagues).

A Guardian columnist echoed some of my own reservations, though, when she warned against cheapening the term. “Put simply, all gaslighters are lying creeps, but not every lying creep is a gaslighter,” Barbara Ellen wrote. Meaning: it is not a convenient umbrella term for all mendacious behaviour, nor is it “gaslighting every single time someone lies, or makes excuses.”

When it occurs, “it is a systematic dissolving another person’s sense of self, until they’re questioning every move and instinct.” And not just a phenomenon that pops up on a show like “Love Island,” where male contestants are tagged as gaslighters, when — girl, please — many of them are just himbos who’d say anything to get laid.

So, what say you, Dixie Chicks? In their album — which the group has called “the most personal and autobiographical” — the just-out song clearly traces Maines’ very public divorce from a liar-face. And the full-blast lyrics? Well, they speak for themselves. Exhibit A: “Give you all my money, you’ll gladly walk away … Gaslighter, denier, doing anything to get your ass farther …”

It is an earworm, all right, but is, actually … gaslighting? Let the debates begin.

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Shinan Govani
Shinan Govani is a Toronto-based freelance contributing columnist covering culture and society. Follow him on Twitter: @shinangovani


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