The Dixie Chicks have just released their first new music since 2006. The band’s new single is called “Gaslighter,” and it dropped on Wednesday with an accompanying music video.
The term “gaslighter,” which comes from a 1944 film in which a man tries to convince his wife that she’s crazy, has become a politically charged term since the 2016 election. “Donald Trump is gaslighting America,” Lauren Duca wrote in a much-shared essay on Teen Vogue, arguing that Trump was trying to make Americans doubt their perception of reality.
But although the Dixie Chicks have long been a political band, the lyrics for their “Gaslighter” are more personal. They’re singing about that most archetypal of country song topics: a man who lied, cheated, and was generally up to no good. “Hollywood welcomed you with open doors; no matter what they gave you, you still wanted more,” sings lead singer Natalie Maines, in what appears to be a reference to her ex-husband, the actor Adrian Pasdar.
Personal or not, “Gaslighter” is political by its very existence. In releasing the song after 14 years without producing any new material, the Dixie Chicks are speaking back to the industry that discarded them long ago.
The group, who has 13 Grammys and whose four studio albums sold more than 30 million copies worldwide, was once the biggest act in country music. But then came the moment they came to call just “The Incident.”
In 2003, during the lead-up to the Iraq War, the Dixie Chicks were performing in London when lead singer Maines, who is from Texas, addressed the crowd. “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all,” Maines said. “We do not want this war, this violence. And we’re ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas.”
Outraged supporters of George W. Bush called country radio stations and demanded that the Dixie Chicks be blacklisted. Country singer Toby Keith began performing in front of photoshopped projections of Maines cuddling with Saddam Hussein. (He later said he was “embarrassed” about that response.) Protesters held what CNN called a “Dixie chicken toss party” where they threw away Dixie Chick CDs, tapes, and concert tickets. The band received death threats.
Within a week, their single “Landslide” went from No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 to No. 43. Then it disappeared from the charts entirely.
At first, the Dixie Chicks reacted to their country music exile with equanimity. Maines told the German magazine Der Spiegel that the band no longer considered itself to be part of the country music scene, but instead part of “the big rock ‘n’ roll family.” In 2006, they released the defiant single “Not Ready to Make Nice,” and a documentary about the backlash they were facing called Shut Up and Sing.
The Incident came to take on a legendary status among country stars. In the Netflix documentary Miss Americana, released just last month, Taylor Swift cites what happened to the Dixie Chicks as the main reason she refused to talk about politics in public until 2018: Her management repeatedly told her that if she ever did, she would lose her country fan base.
And for a long while, it looked as though the Dixie Chicks would never fully recover. Their 2006 album Take the Long Way debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s pop charts and won the Grammy for Album of the Year, but country radio stations refused to play it. And ticket sales for the band’s accompanying tour were anemic.
In 2019, it became fashionable in certain corners of the internet to argue that while we’re continually wringing our hands over “cancel culture” today, the Dixie Chicks are the only group that’s ever actually had their careers ruined for expressing an opinion in public.
Take the Long Way would become the last new material the Dixie Chicks released for 14 years. While the group has intermittently toured since 2006 — and their 2015 US tour was a major hit — they haven’t created any more new material. Until now.
“Gaslighter” is the opening salvo of a band that was punished for its politics, at a moment in which music is often very political. So the question now isn’t whether the world will ever forgive the Dixie Chicks for what they said about Bush. It’s whether here in 2020, the rest of the world has caught up to where the Dixie Chicks were back in 2003.