Saturday, March 29, 2014

Religious Experience

At the end of the day, the closest experience I can relate to an Indigo Girls concert is church camp. Except the best, most awesome kind of church camp that’s over too soon and where you didn’t really get to know anyone but felt like you got to know everyone. The kind where you find yourself drawn closer to a very personal God whose presence and rules are not dictated by some preacher or some charismatic singer, but rather by the swirl of overwhelming feelings generated by positive energy, a sense of one-ness surging through the crowd.

A while back, my co-blogger Bob wrote a harmlessly scathing critique of The Avett Brothers that lamented, among other things, their over-Christianness (my made-up word, not his). His post got so much ceaseless blowback from the nouveau Christian commenterati that he finally pulled it. I didn’t agree entirely with Bob’s argument, but most of it rang painfully true.

The career arc of the Indigo Girls began very much like that of the Avetts. Their early albums wrestle frequently with the collision of religion and everyday life, and it’s done in a way that is neither proselytizing nor urgent. It is the faith of songwriters committed to the marriage of beliefs rather than catching a new wave, of women who know that, for most of us, theology is an Iron Man triatholon, not a sprint. Their frequent use of Biblical imagery and references won the hearts of many young church-goin’ Christians.

While I would love for Amy Ray’s and Emily Saliers’ sexuality not to matter, it unfortunately does. They were “out” before out was cool, and long before their beloved Southland (in the Springtime) was ready to believe people could simultaneously be gay AND bound for glory. (For the historians amongst our readership, the South finally became comfortable with “gay Christians” in 2045.)

There’s no doubt in my mind that the Indigo Girls’ sexuality hindered their path to greater success. They’re better songwriters, lyrically and musically, than the Avett Brothers, but IG’s fan base continues to exist on a different societal fringe than the Avetts. One could argue that the very thing that made them Christian outcasts of a sort also guaranteed that they would maintain their musical integrity.

No matter how desperately some Christians desperately pretend they’re persecuted and despised in 21st Century America, they’re very much in the lap of luxury. When I start getting notices of alumni and friends who killed themselves because they were ashamed of their Christianity, then maybe I’ll begin to believe they’re on the early stages of a path to anywhere near the continent of persecution and separation known all too well by, amongst others, those in the LGBT community. But I digress.

Those of us who believe, but whose belief allows us to recognize our blessings as well as the dangers of the Christian Bully Pulpit, can still cling to these Girls. A young Episcopal minister friend of mine wrote me the other day, talking about how important the Indigo Girls were to her teens and twenties, spiritually. “Lately I’m hearing everything on IG albums anew, including Kid Fears. And Prince of Darkness,” she texted me the day after I attended the Indigo Girls concert in town.

The church camp vibe, when it works, creates an ecstatic feeling of fleeting imperviousness. It’s the feel of being shielded from the dangers and risks of a wild and volatile world, if only for a short while. It’s the feeling that an entire group of people standing together and singing contain the spiritual wattage of a lighthouse. Such has been, in my experience, the power of an Indigo Girls concert.

No offense to Trent, but the Indigo Girls get me closer to God.


troutking said...

Great post. I have never listened to the IG with an eye toward their religious beliefs. When I listened to them a lot--early 90s--was before I moved to the South and became much more familiar with Christianity. I'm intrigued to go back and listen again with new ears. Besides the first album and the one with galileo, nashville, etc, what other albums do you recommend?

Billy said...

Thanks for the comment, trout. Technically, the "first" album you mention is their second. Their 2002 album "Become You" holds up beautifully to the ones you mention. The best of their latter career, written by people a decade older. That would be my top recommendation, although their 2-disc live "1200 Curfews" is pretty frappin' awesome.

Bob said...

While I understand that an IG concert might inspire "religious fervor" among their followers, a reexamination of their lyrics, especially in the two sings you mention, does not suggest to me a Christian-driven message in any way. To link you and Trout, I'd suggest that Springsteen is far more "Christian" than these women. They are perhaps better linked to the gothic southern outlook of a Michael stipe.

By the way, I never suggested any Christian message in Avett brothers' music; I was only suggesting that their musical blandness made them perfect music fior contemporary Christians, not unlike other bland folkies before them.

Billy said...

Bob - (1) I couldn't go back and check on what you did or didn't say about the Avett Brothers' lyrics because you deleted the post. Still, their music is rife with spiritual imagery even when their songs aren't solely obsessed with the topic. "The Once and Future Carpenter," "Solomon," "Me and God." "The Ballad of Love and Hate" swims in Christian values even if it doesn't scream it out.

(2) I probably cut too much out of my post. Emily Saliers is the daughter of a Methodist minister and now professor of theology. While I doubt she subscribes to any strict Christian theology, she has been swimming in Biblical imagery and allusions since birth, and it consistently finds its way into her lyrics. Amy comes from conservative Christian roots as well. They've been swimming in these waters since childhood -- water that hasn't always been particularly welcoming to or embracing of them -- and it's clear in their music.

If you don't "see" the religion in "Kid Fears" and "Prince of Darkness"... maybe look a little harder?

"By grace my sight grows stronger"...?

"I will not be a pawn for the prince of darkness any longer"...?

"Skipping stones, we know the price now / Any sin will do"...?

You don't have to stop and start with those two. Many of their songs are rife with Biblical references. Many of them are intended to force believers to inspect the planks in their own eyes rather than the specs in others'. But even that is a Christian theme.

These aren't proselytizing bands. They're not running revivals. But yeah, they're swimming in religion. Specifically Christian religion.

Here's a transcript of an interview with OnBeing, if that helps. I wish I'd read this before I'd written my post!

troutking said...

I will check them out. I never realized there was an indie album first---I guess that's because I didn't listen to indie music back them. Except for Scruffy the Cat, who remain my favorite unknown band.

Robert Berman said...

(1) Indigo Girls do indeed use a lot of Christian imagery, so much so that in the late 80s, they got a small story in "Contemporary Christian Music Magazine," the one that put Amy Grant and Petra each on the cover once every year around that time. They are also listed in "The Encyclopedia of Christian Music," which has a fairly broad definition of its subject matter. Emily Saliers is one of my favorite songwriters, and I learned to play guitar by practicing her licks.

(2) I clearly missed the Avett post, now gone. Having seen both Indigo Girls and Avett Brothers live, I can tell you that the former was like an Episcopal church service, reverent and quiet, whereas the latter was like a Pentacostal frenzy, just shy of snake handling. They closed out the Strictly Bluegrass festival in Golden Gate Park a few years ago, and probably 10,000 bodies were packed tightly in a light drizzle to see them. (Emmylou Harris was simultaneously performing around the corner, and I regretted having to choose between the two, but I'd already seen her recently.) The Avett's last couple of albums, under the tutelage of Rick Rubin, have been more sedate, more polished, and less memorable than the early work when earned for them their reputation of punk folk. Anyway, it was a great show. But then, I've seen some great Christian music shows too.