The Indigo Girls know full well that they’ve been treated like a punchline – and it still hurts them. But it’s this lack of cool placidity that makes the alt-rock duo mischievously appealing. The irascible black-haired Amy Ray and the strawberry-blonde ocean of emotions Emily Saliers have never been shy about digging into their deepest feelings throughout their 40-year career of hyperverbal acoustic ballads. And, rightly so, their vulnerability has been their greatest strength as artists and activists, despite the fact that vulnerability is exactly what (mostly male) critics believed to weaken them musically.
For decades in pop culture, referring to the Indigo Girls has become shorthand for a certain American archetype, the crispy, feel-good, bleeding heart, serious activist, social justice warrior type of 1990s. 90s in flannel that was either coded as queer or blatantly disparaged. like queer. In fact, it was this type of satire that first introduced me to who these musicians were when I was a kid in the 90s. self-esteem, in which a trans mom and her queer daughters sing along to their infectious “Closer to Fine” in a car en route to a woodsy wimmin festival, was what helped me fall in love with them, too.
It’s only life after all
The rare confessional rockumentary that wraps you like a soft blanket.
In the intimate and sincere rockumentary It’s only life after all — a sadly long and nonsensical sequence of words when taken out of the context of the aforementioned original song — filmmaker Alexandria Bombach tenderly persuades Ray and Saliers to reconsider their artwork, their politics, and their partnership. Even I, who tend to be more drawn to edgelord irony than innocent sincerity, was immediately drawn into the tale of how two queer Georgian misfits, who first met at school elementary school in the 1970s, discovered the alchemical power of their combined songwriting talents and ultimately inspired an entire generation of young listeners to embrace introspection. I’m also just a sucker for archival footage of rock history, and this doc is a neatly edited treasure trove of old photos, audio recordings, taped performances, and video interviews from their youth. The hair! Their voice!
Still, as loving a portrait as this movie is, it’s also not entirely hagiographic, and I don’t think Ray and Saliers would let it go anyway. Throughout the one-on-one interviews, you feel like these people are their own biggest critics; Ray in particular berates himself for his history of alienating anger management issues and publicly insecure responses to dismissive reporters. “I sometimes feel like I’ve been too over the top and fiery,” Ray admits. “And I had a few self-congratulatory gestures that I was now bored to watch.”
As erased as they each look back on their past emotions, their fluent frankness remains the engine of the documentary. Viewers can easily observe how they balance each other, not as light and dark, but as raw and melancholy. Unlike other musicians when asked to define their legacy, the two are never dull, cryptic or mechanical when reflecting on their careers. Instead, they dive into topics like envy and comparison. Indeed, it is a pleasure to see them honestly evaluate their first words. Ray, who identifies himself as the duo’s spokesperson, denounces his song “Blood and Fire” as the kind of downcast, self-centered thrift you write in your early 20s when you’re depressed in college. (I don’t realize that’s exactly what makes the song and its visceral delivery brilliantly relatable! I’m not sure I know anyone who wasn’t depressed in college.)
Likewise, Saliers, whom Ray even describes as “elusive”, hilariously cringes at the poetic, ethereal earnestness of her youth, laughing at herself as she admits to writing pretentious songs about the Lady of Shalott. I mean, really, what artistic girl doesn’t? She is painfully humble, deviant when forced to confront her own power as a songwriter. The documentary got me thinking about the downside of career longevity for artists: a first job can throw you into the shame of youthful madness because you’ve inadvertently immortalized a regrettable time in your life.
The film crescendos as it explores how Ray and Saliers’ identities as lesbians were critical to their success, drawing countless young queers into their music decades before LGBTQ+ acceptance was more common and corporatized. I’m sure every musical artist in the world has saved at least one person’s life (there must be a dude over there who crawled from the bottom because of Limp Bizkit), but it’s pretty clear d ‘after It’s only life after all that the Indigo Girls practically invented a small cottage industry to give even a little hope to queer people in the 1980s and 1990s who were coming of age while trapped in homophobic communities . As many interviewed fans note, the Indigo Girls’ music was a tool for their survival.
Ray and Saliers aren’t shy about addressing the sexism and homophobia that have largely barred them from more conventional popularity. They admit that they never adapted to the soft artists of the traditional folk scene, which initially made it difficult for them to find a wider audience. As Ray shrewdly points out, “They can understand Rage Against the Machine, but they don’t understand the Indigo Girls.” After all, if you really listen to their lyrics, it’s no more niche than other heartfelt wordsmiths like Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Stevie Nicks or Dolly Parton. They have a pure listening. What made them controversial was their package: they were openly lesbian, openly male and openly leftist.
Of course, these signifiers may have been simpler in the 90s, when they reached the heights of their notoriety. Saliers shares that she is sometimes sexually and visually attracted to men, though she remains emotionally attracted to women. Ray reveals that she’s on the gender spectrum (and maybe other spectrums too.) In 2023, is the word “lesbian” too rigid to describe what is probably considered the most lesbian group in all the time ? Bombach and his subjects don’t have answers, but the Indigo Girls aren’t too concerned about those accolades anyway. As always, they embrace the liminal, the uncomfortable. Especially the uncomfortable parts of themselves.
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