Content warning: Psychological abuse.
Now I will tell you what I’ve done for you…
OK, now that the preamble’s out of the way, I’m going to be honest: The reason I’m writing about any of this at all is that I turned on Fallen in the car one day, listened a little too carefully to the lyrics, and suddenly thought midway through: “Holy shit, this song is exactly about gaslighting.”
Let me start with how we’re going to do this: Most of what I want to do is analysis of lyrics in the context of specific concepts. Basically, we’re doing a feminist reading of individual songs through as narrow a lens as possible, mostly to keep me from tripping over my own feet and misusing, misstating, or misunderstanding things too often. We’ll also poke at the music outside of the lyrics, because that’s part of the fun here–2003 was a weird and silly time for music, and it’d betray the whole idea of this thought experiment not to admit that.
So let’s start there, with the music: I think most people might be surprised to realize that this album didn’t start with mega-hit “Bring Me To Life” (there’s a bit more of a story there that we’ll get into next time), but I think “Going Under” sets tone and expectations much better. It starts with just two pieces of music: Amy Lee’s version of a growl (which doesn’t have much growl to it, honestly) and a chugging, one-note guitar riff that does most of the work to make this a menacing opener.
Then drums, then piano, and we enter the Archetypal Evanescence Song: mid-tempo, metal-lite verses intercut with soaring-vocal bridges and choruses that take out some of the guitar chug but otherwise maintain the same tempo and tone. Purposefully monotonous, to a point, even with all the bombast. It’s like a fireworks show where the same red explosion repeats in precise ten-second intervals.
I make it sound like a chore to listen, but there’s a smoothness to it that belies the simplicity, and I will die insisting that Lee’s vocals are genuinely, consistently great, taking every single song several notches above where it might otherwise deserve to lie. And her voice and the way it’s repeated across the production pulls in a lot of variation missing in the instrumentation — doubling her voice in post for a choral effect, layered whispering across parts of the verses, singing over her own held notes. None of it is magic, but it’s what gives the stock-standard “what if nu-metal, but pianos” craftsmanship some extra pull.
Musically, I give this song three and a half “got to break through”s out of five. An exemplar of its form, for better or worse.
A quick history: the term gaslighting comes from a 1938 play, Gas Light, by British playwright Patrick Hamilton. I am recounting this from other recountings because I have not seen the play, but as I understand it the play is about a man who tells his wife that she is going insane and imagining things when she claims to see the eponymous lights in their home dimming each night. She’s not imagining anything, of course — the man is lying to her and manipulating her for his own ends.
Gaslighting is making someone feel like they’re crazy — prodding them into questioning their memories and sanity with lies and misdirections. It’s a man who ogles the waitress at a bar and then tells his girlfriend she’s crazy for being annoyed because he was just looking over at the football on the TV; it’s an abusive husband telling his wife she deserves it so consistently and layered into so many apologies that she starts to believe it, or even making her believe that she’s the abusive one, driving this poor man to hurt her.
(Yes I know full well those two examples are on completely opposite sides of the spectrum; that there’s a spectrum, though, and that both the little things and the big ones can reside on the same scale and contribute to the same effect, is in fact an important aspect of systemic cultural concepts like this, and it’ll be important to emphasize when we get to things like rape culture, which so often get boiled down in popular discourse to “so you’re saying every man is a rapist!?!?”)
(Also, “Fun” Fact of the day: Sigmund Freud gaslit his female patients when they confided in him about sexual abus by their male partners.)
“Going Under” is a song about a woman coming to understand that her partner has been gaslighting her and breaking free of the resulting abusive cycle. It’s also a song more broadly about being on the other side of a bad relationship, which comes up basically constantly in Evanescence lyrics, but the gaslighting aspect is really stark, particularly as we enter the second verse:
Blurring and stirring the truth and the lies / So I don’t know what’s real and what’s not
Always confusing the thoughts in my head / So I can’t trust myself anymore
There’s a really important kernel in here — that gaslighting also involves telling the truth, just often enough that the lies aren’t so much constant as they are indistinguishable. You might call this the “false hope” piece of the abuse pattern. Abusive partners (the “primary aggressor“) will apologize for the most superficial aspects of their abuse and sporadically validate the feelings of their victims (“don’t want your hand this time, I’ll save myself”) so that their lies and verbal abuse and dismissal of other feelings (“defeated by you”) end up equally weighted. It’s a pretty horrific form of psychological violence and it’s easy to see how it becomes cyclical, because once someone’s dismantled your sense of true and false, they become able to rationalize and explain a much wider breadth of behavior than should be acceptable.
It also removes your sense of self. Gaslighting breaks a person’s moral and truth-telling compass and replaces them with those of the gaslighter; it tries to take a person with agency and turn them into a puppet, a dependent (“drowning in you”).
The chorus of the song sits in the present moment of abuse (I’m falling forever / I’ve got to break through) but many of the lyrics sit in a future moment, which is crucial because it allows for something that is denied to victims of active gaslighting: self-awareness and clarity. So how did our protagonist break the cycle? Running very far away, it seems:
So go on and scream / Scream at me, I’m so far away
I won’t be broken again
Again, a nice insight here: You can only escape cycles of abuse by breaking them entirely and giving the abuser no quarter to restart the abuse. Full separation, ex-communication, can be the only way to get out.
Of course, that kind of full escape isn’t genuinely possible for many people in these relationships, who are trapped by various circumstances in close, continuous proximity to abuse. Our narrator is lucky, and by design: This song is a sort of power fantasy, both true and triumphant in a way that provides a template for how freeing it might feel to escape abuse.
Which might be why the anger here feels so righteous. I said last time that this music fits into an era of singers singing about their pain and anger, but here that anger feels so appropriate — we’re not describing a girl who didn’t love us enough, we’re talking about an abuser who’s been put on the other side of concrete walls so the victimized can breathe again, can break through to find an identity not consumed and drowned in the abuse.
The song never actually gets there, though. Maybe it’s just because of songwriting conventions, but it ends up still in that chorus of active gaslighting, reiterating the drowning and falling and need to break through. This probably isn’t meant to feel as depressingly cyclical as it does, but there it is: even at the end, after a defiant stance, we have to sit with the notion that we’re still falling, still uncertain. Maybe the gaslighting lingers even after the gaslighter is removed; a lack of trust in the self can be hard to rebuild.
Still holding so much to be angry about, so much reason for despair. Defiant, but constantly backpedaling into turmoil. Maybe you never get fully outside these patterns, once they’re stitched into your brain.
Whew! One more thought about gaslighting, which seems relevant in the context of this song: you can totally do it without realizing it. This is a feature of most concepts in a feminist/rape-culture view of culture — these patterns aren’t so much conscious efforts by shitty individuals to be shitty as they are perpetuations of systemic damage via social expectations and norms.
For example, “Locker room talk” was a pretty shitty and obvious lie, but “it’s just a joke” still works on many people if not most, as an excuse for horrible behavior, and among those for whom it works are usually the people who say it. In fact I’d throw most “anti-PC” talk into this bucket: people arguing in bad faith without realizing it, trying to recontextualize legitimate complaints as hysteria (with everything gendered that the term entails), reframing victimizer as victim to maintain power and status quo. Nobody really does these things for those explicit reasons; my guess is it usually works like this:
- Person thinks X is funny
- Person says X
- Person is told that X is offensive
- Person still thinks X is funny but doesn’t want to be called offensive
- Person gets defensive and lashes out: “It’s not offensive, you crazy SJW”
So the gaslighting here is at a macro scale (i.e. we’re gaslighting an entire community of people who might be offended) and, more importantly, instinctive, i.e. not a reasoned calculus of manipulative behavior. In the play from which the term gets its name, the man’s manipulation is a deliberate attempt to ward his wife off the scent of his devious behavior, but in reality no one thinks of their behavior as villainous like that.
Thus gaslighting might be even better described, and more horrific if understood, as a process in which an abuser convinces both their victim and themselves of an alternate reality in which their worldview is king under which all other feelings and opinions are subservient. Adolescent narcissism, basically, just given free reign to destroy other people in its wake.
Hence our song’s protagonist, not just stuck with a person but with a worldview, unable to shake it even when they no longer hear that person’s complaints. If you flood the world, everybody drowns!
Next up: “Bring Me To Life”, the Grammy-winning hard-rock anthem of ’03, depicts a man who thinks that being an ally (I CAn’T WaKE UP) means not knowing when to shut up (SAAVE MeeEEEeEE).