Gretchen Peters wrote this song from the point of view of an 8-year-old girl. Looking back, she thinks maybe it wasn't coincidental. She was 8 years old when her parents split up, "So I did kind of have some kind of emotional grounding to understand at least how it feels from a child's point of view to have their world just come apart like that," she told us, "and feel that things are out of control, and they're just in the way. I had some understanding of that. I think I did that subconsciously, but very purposefully, so that I could dig my teeth into it. Because I could understand that."
"This was another one of those songs that took a long time to tell me how it wanted to end, how it was going to end. The chorus's idea is what happened for me first. And really, the chorus doesn't tell you a whole lot, it was just a series of images, and there wasn't much narrative there. So for a while I sort of struggled with, well, what is this about? What is this? The whole idea of independence on a more personal level for one person, for a woman, that sort of became clear to me. And a woman that is in a dire situation. And when I sort of got a handle on that, I was off and running, really, with the verses. Except for the fact that I couldn't end it. I couldn't figure out how it was supposed to end. That was really problematic for me. I think I knew in my bones how it was going to end. I was struggling with that, because I was trying to find another way out, other than her burning the house down. And in the end, I just thought, Nope, this is what happens in this particular story. I think it was compelling for people probably because there was no pat ending, it didn't work out all right. It's a terrible, terrible, tragic thing. And I found it ironic, really, that I struggled so long with that ending trying to find another way out, and afterwards I thought, Well, it's kind of like the character in the song, I'm sure she looked for a way out, every other possible way, before she made that choice." She says it was in her mind that the female character in the song dies in the fire, but "That little piece of information was for me. It's kind of like when actors talk about how they get a script, and they read about the character, and sometimes they'll write an entire outline of this character's life with details that you never hear about in the movie, ultimately. But they need that for them. And I needed that for me in this case. In 'Independence Day' she sacrificed herself, as well. But I didn't need it to be in the song. I needed it for me just simply to go all the way inside emotionally. Again, it's been interpreted both ways."
Although Peters herself has never been in the situation this song defines, she has certainly seen enough to know what the effects are. About domestic violence, Peters says that this song really hit home to a lot of women. "People ask me, of course, all the time, 'Do you have any experience with this? Is this part of your history? Was there abuse in your family?' All that," she says. "And there was none of that. That wasn't anything that I had any familiarity with except for the outrage that anybody ought to feel knowing that it exists."
Singer Martina McBride is the spokesperson for many domestic abuse charities, among them: the National Domestic Violence Hotline, the National Network to End Domestic Violence, and the Tulsa Domestic Violence and Intervention Services. She has dedicated herself to the plight of women and children in emotional and physically abusive relationships. And her recording of this song has had a resounding effect on domestic abuse awareness. Along with songwriter Gretchen Peters, they have raised many hundreds of thousands of dollars for various causes having to do with domestic abuse; whether it be alcoholism, drug abuse, physical, and/or emotional.
Peters says, "We've done a bunch of benefit things for various causes having to do with that. Police working on domestic abuse cases, that sort of thing. But Martina's really taken the banner. She's really made it something amazing. It's part of her work."
"I can't tell you the number of times I've done that song and had a woman come up to me at the end of a show, trying to keep it together and then just losing it and crying. And I usually know, I usually just can feel it. I know what it means, and it's usually that she's been through a situation like that. Or in some cases I've met women who've lost sisters in similar situations. And it's the most powerful thing, it's the most humbling thing. Because you've told this story, and you get emotionally involved with it, but it's still fiction. And these people have lived it. And they feel safe enough and open enough to come to you and just be that vulnerable in front of you, and share these incredibly painful and deeply personal memories with you. It's quite something. It used to make me slightly uncomfortable, because I didn't know what to say or do. I guess I'm just a people pleaser and wanted to make it okay or something. And you can't make something like that okay. And now I guess I've taken on a little bit more grace about it, and I just usually give them a hug. Because what can you do? What can you really do? You can just share that moment with them. And that's really what they want. They just want to tell their story, and I think that's why people respond to music and to songs like that, because they tell the story for them in a sense, in a way that maybe they can't."
Peters makes a vocal appearance in the Martina McBride video for this song. It's her voice singing "Amazing Grace
" in the very beginning. And she says it was a humbling experience. "It's very rare as a writer that you get a chance to hear your song, or you come even close to hearing your song as though you'd never heard it before. But I'll tell you, I worked on the video, and when I first saw the video, when I sat down and they showed it to me, I cried, too. It really moved me."
The scene for the burning of the house was shot once - they had only one house to burn. Martina determined to get the take the first time, because there would not be a second. Naturally, she nailed it.
Conservative radio talk show host Sean Hannity started using the chorus of this song as his introduction music in 2001. Regarding Hannity playing this song, Peters has this to say: "They have to pay me every time they play it, and I don't have any control over whether they play it or not. I can't make them stop. I don't agree with the guy on anything. But they do pay me. I guess I feel it kind of puts me in slightly better position to support the causes I believe in. I know that he's using it, I know he's completely disregarding what the song's about. It has nothing to do with patriotism or anything like that. But that's an old story. That's a really old story. I think it was Reagan who used 'Born In The U.S.A.
' for his campaign song. And I wanted to say, Hey, have you listened to that song? It's about the Vietnam War - hello? So that goes on all the time. And I just figure, as long as they pay and that gives me the wherewithal to support causes that I believe in, it all works out in the end."
American Idol Carrie Underwood did a cover of this song on the show during competition, then after she won, she recorded her own single of it. Gretchen confesses to having heard Underwood's version only one time - and only part of it. "I don't watch TV at all, and my friend called me - my friend who's really addicted to American Idol - called me and said, 'Carrie Underwood's doing your song.' And I asked him, 'What are you talking about?' I really hadn't watched. I had no idea what kind of a phenomenon American Idol was. I had no real idea. And I ran to the TV and turned it on, and realized I don't know what channel it's on, and I missed the whole thing. And then I guess she did it one more time, she only did like a part of it at the end, I guess. And I did see that. And that's the only time I've ever heard it. But she's quite a singer."
Underwood's version was not widely released, and Peters doesn't even have a copy. "That's sad, isn't it?" she says with a laugh. "They should send me one. It's the least they could do. But I mean, I just remember basically hearing that one part of it on TV the one time. It was really funny, too, because my friend was trying to convey to me, 'You don't understand - millions of people are watching this.' And I was like, 'Really? Really?' That song's had so many lives, it's just amazing." (Thanks to Gretchen Peters for talking with us again about this song. To learn more visit www.gretchenpeters.com)