Monday, November 3, 2008

Listen w/o Prejudice: Indigo Girls

The second in a series. Click Here for the preamble.

They're lesbians. They're not particularly attractive lesbians.

I've never heard music lovers say they don't listen to David Bowie because he shared a little "Modern Love" with Freddie Mercury (or maybe Freddie was his China Girl). I've never heard normal people say they don't listen to Motley Crue because they object to a band who has screwed more females than the population of Delaware.

Your guitarist can snort his father's ashes and openly admit to it, and millions will line up to buy $100 tickets to your concert.People in the '80s wore FRANKIE SAY RELAX! shirts and didn't seem to mind that the entire song is about a dude who loves to blow other dudes.

So I'm not sure why it's so easy to dismiss this one particular band because they kiss a other girls. Meanwhile, Katy Perry and that TATU group can do it, sing about it, and reap a profit solely because of it.

Perhaps I'm different from the norm, but I really don't confuse the artists with the art. Celebrities can stump for certain politicians or certain charities, but I pay them no heed. If Tom Cruise wants to snort L. Ron Hubbard's ashes, that won't change the fact that I mostly enjoy the dude's movies. Same goes for musicians and authors. I don't enjoy Hemingway less because he was a misogynistic suicidal alcoholic.

So why is it somehow acceptable to dismiss the Indigo Girls because they're unattractive lesbians?

Fortunately for me, I fell in love with them before I ever knew about that stuff. I saw Emily Saliers and Amy Ray open up for R.E.M. in Murphreesboro, Tenn., on the Green tour in late 1988. I honestly didn't pay attention to their performance at first. Just two girls and two acoustic guitars. Big whup.

But at about their fourth song, Michael Stipe walked out on stage and sang with them. "Kid Fears." And nothing makes a crowd pay attention to the opening act quite like someone from the main act coming out to perform with them. The remainder of their set kept my attention. Six months later, I owned the cassette of what I mistakenly thought was their first album, and who couldn't love "Closer to Fine"?

Lyrical brilliance, exquisite harmonies, and a down-home feel that felt like they were playing in your living room. These were magnetic qualities upon first listen, and they continue to be the key draws of their music. If fairly stripped-down, mostly folk and country-folk music ain't your thing, I doubt any of their music will knock your socks off. If you don't feast off of brilliant lyrical turns of phrase that frequently comes with religious references or allusions to their bipolar Southern heritage, I doubt this band would convert you.

And that's fine. I'm OK with someone not liking music because they don't like the music. It's just annoying when the hypocrisy of values or personality conflicts becomes the excuse, because these judgments are almost always restricted to when they're convenient.

The single greatest weakness of the Indigo Girls is that their songs lose potency in mixes. Their songs tend to get lost in the shuffle, it seems. Ironically, though I own every Indigo Girls album, they almost never show up on mix CDs I make for others. Their songs rarely feel like the "fit" in with the other songs I've chosen.

The Indigo Girls make songs that are like a hidden country creek with clear water that goes deeper than you'd think. They make you wanna sit down, take your shoes off, roll up your jeans, and stick your feet in, leaning back and soaking up the sunlight on your face. It's tough to savor that lazy moment if My Chemical Romance or The Hold Steady has the next song. (I did that for you, Nick!)

Although both women write equal numbers of songs on every album, I'm personally drawn to the subjects and tenderness of Emily Saliers' songs. Amy Ray tends to have rougher edges and harsher words, while Emily mines the timeless (some might say overdone) themes of lost loves and lost souls.

Lesbians yes, but those chicks can express an adult's broken heart better than just about anyone.

My All-Time Top 10 Indigo Girls Songs (in chronological order):
Honorable Mention:Love Will Come to You, Gallileo, Least Complicated, Language or the Kiss, Shame on You, Cold Beer and Remote Control, Collecting You

All Indigo Girls albums can be purchased on iTunes or If you want the single best album, go with Become You. If you want the most well-known ones, try their self-titled 1988 album or Rites of Passage. Their 1200 Curfews live 2CD concert is pretty awesome, too.


Bob said...

I didn't know anything about the "Dis the Indigos" subculture. Who are these people? The only time it got creepy for me was when they covered Dire Straits' "Romeo and Juliet" and one of the girls just kept going on and on about Juliet at the end. Otherwise, count me a fan, though I never felt the need to own anything beyond the first cd.

By the way, are you opening yourself to a charge of "listening with prejudice" by characterizing them as lesbians first, rather than musicians?

Billy said...

I'm less a fan of their "R&J" cover now than I was when I first heard it. As for the dissing, I'd say over the past two decades, when wearing one of their concert shirts, there was about a 50% chance someone would make such a comment to me. "You like the Indigo Girls? Um... they're lesbians. Did you know that?"

Probably I should have been clearer that the first sentence was what people tell me rather than my own personal declaration... I'd go back and change it, but then that would make these comments kind of odd.

Susan said...

You'll probably be surprised to hear this, but Amy Ray is-- hands down-- one of the top ten most desired and lusted-after lesbians on the planet, among a certain generation of *lesbians*. To me the fact that you need to call her and Emily 'not particularly attractive' means you're not aware there are many, many differing standards of attractiveness. Trust me when I tell you that millions of dykes over age 30 would give anything for five minutes alone with Amy. Just wanted to make that known.

Dan said...

In the early 90s I thought Amy Ray was quite attractive. And I am not a lesbian.

Billy said...

Susan, thanks for the correction, and I agree completely that beauty is a fickle beast. I find Patty Griffin to be sexy as hell, but that doesn't mean she's a supermodel in the looks department. And Mick Jagger... well... I'll just let everyone finish that one for me.

Anonymous said...

I think there's also millions of dykes, myself included, who would also salivate @ the prospect of 5 minutes with the divine Ms. Em. You fall in love with the mind first - sure, physicality matters - but the mind takes hold. These two are sirens!

Jim said...

I have to agree with Dan. To me, Amy projects a very earthy sexuality, and is very attractive. Her eyes in particular, but also her empathetic and kind nature. I had the supreme fortune to spend 10 minutes with her at an album signing (only a handful of people showed up, and she may have been moved when I gave her on CD my piano arrangement of one of her songs). I was very nervous being next to her but she gently put me at ease by bringing up, of all things, photography (she likes to take pictures on tour and I had brought my camera). Her sensitivity to me, to her fans, and the clear dedication to her art (she seems just as happy playing to six people as 3,000) left a lasting impression.