Hey, guys, remember that girl in college? The one whose intellect was sometimes intimidating, but sometimes eye-roll-inducing, depending on how far she ventured into clichÃ©? The one you thought about dating, but probably never did, and if you didn’t you figured, well, she’s probably gay anyway?
If you’re buying into my obnoxious stereotype so far – and if you’re part of the distaff sector of the species, I sincerely apologize for it — then you know where this is going. Because if you’re old like me, you sat around with your buddies and called that girl “Janis Ian.” But by the time I got to graduate school in 1990, her name was “Indigo Girl.”
This album is why. And at this point I’ll pull out of the Neanderthal mentality of my opening and state, simply, that Indigo Girls was one of the finest major-label debuts of the ’80s. Its long-term impact is undeniable, not only upon the duo’s career but upon an entire generation of female singer-songwriters who gained a path to popularity on the radio and the concert stage in part because of its success.
Growing up in Decatur, Georgia, outside Atlanta, Amy Ray and Emily Saliers were acquaintances in elementary school, musical partners by high school. They gigged regularly in Atlanta during the mid-’80s, and recorded a single, an EP and an LP (Strange Fire) independently before Epic Records scooped them up in an effort to capitalize on the recent success of Tracy Chapman and 10,000 Maniacs. They built their Epic debut around one of Ray’s songs, “Land of Canaan,” that they’d released twice already, and their label unleashed Indigo Girls in February of ’89 with a veritable blitz of publicity that seemed almost unbecoming for a pair of female folkies.
The secret weapon in Epic’s arsenal was one John Michael Stipe, a fellow Georgian who had already proven (with the Maniacs) his ability to help friendly acts gain wide acceptance via his stamp of approval. Stipe talked up Amy and Emily on MTV, in Rolling Stone and elsewhere, and soon enough MTV and VH1 had placed the video for their first single, Saliers’ “Closer to Fine,” in (somewhat) regular rotation.
Considering the Girls’ longstanding stature as gay icons, and the widespread recognition they’ve received for helping make the musical mainstream more gay-friendly, it’s amusing to recall that the earliest hype surrounding them focused on the intellectual quality of their songwriting. Or, from some quarters, intimations of pseudo-intellectualism. Rolling Stone tempered a generally approving review with a note that “because they mean each song to be ‘serious,’ they feel compelled to drop lifeless ‘meaningful’ lines, like ‘Darkness has a hunger that’s insatiable’ … that frequently undermine the power of their delivery.” Robert Christgau, who positively hated the album, said their “big declamatory voices convince people to take their verse seriously, which is the only way they want it.”
Yes, there are plenty of cringe-inducing lines across the spectrum of Indigo Girls’ 10 tracks – and yes, the relentless earnestness of Saliers and Ray took some getting used to. But apart from their pleas to “fasten up your earthly burdens” (whatever that means) and their takedown of college life (replete with stereotypes that put my opening gambit to shame), the sound that burst off of Indigo Girls was the blending of their voices. Each is imperfect on its own – Ray’s often seems to lack subtlety, Saliers’ too frequently devolves into a thin rasp – yet when combined they sound a clarion that’s irresistible … particularly when they sail atop the duo’s driving acoustic-guitar settings. (The occasional tin whistle solo and other Irish touches don’t hurt, either – particularly when they’re provided, as on “Closer to Fine” and “Secure Yourself,” by the Hothouse Flowers.)
Christgau didn’t have it wrong on the details – the Girls were hellbent on having their songs taken seriously during their early years – but he certainly had it wrong on the merits. Even the callous listener who could turn a deaf ear to the hootenanny charms of “Closer to Fine” would surely be lured in by the drama of Ray’s “Kid Fears” (where Stipe makes his presence felt), the vocal counterpoint and gripping lyric of Saliers’ “Prince of Darkness,” or the soaring affirmation of “Land of Canaan.”
College kids of the era, in particular, ate this stuff up. No doubt they heard themselves in the music – the earnestness of their own academic efforts, their own ambitions to engage in lives of Deep Thinking. I attended an outdoor gig the Girls performed on the University of Pennsylvania campus in 1991 – one of numerous times I’ve heard them play, in all sorts of settings – and I was amazed by the ease with which songs as complex as “Prince of Darkness” and as downbeat as “Blood and Fire” so captivated a crowd of rowdy college students. Emily and Amy, their distinct personalities ricocheting off one another through their songs and their voices, have always created that kind of connection with their audiences.
Indigo Girls was the first most of us had ever heard from them, but of course there’s been so much more. If you’ve been following them all these years, you no doubt have your favorites – some prefer the expansion of their folkie sound reflected on Rites of Passage and Swamp Ophelia, while others are fans of the rock moves on Shaming of the Sun and All That We Let In. (Personally, I still harbor the same sort of irrational adoration for Nomads Indians Saints – even over their more beloved debut – that I do for R.E.M.’s Reckoning over Murmur.) But this eponymous Epic debut remains, in many ways, the Girls’ quintessential work … not to mention a keystone for the Lilith Fair generation and, no matter what your gender, the source for some definitive (sorry) late-model, singer-songwriter folk-rock.