The Indigo Girls know full well they’ve been treated as a punchline — and it still hurts them. But it’s this lack of cool placidity that renders the alt-rock duo roguishly appealing. Amy Ray, the dark-haired irascible one, and Emily Saliers, the strawberry blonde ocean of emotions, have never shied away from excavating their deepest feelings across their 40-year career of hyperverbal acoustic ballading. 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 weakened them musically.
For decades in pop culture, referencing the Indigo Girls became shorthand for razzing on a certain American archetype, the crunchy, feel-good, bleeding heart, militantly earnest, 90s type of social justice warrior in flannel who was either coded as queer or blatantly denigrated as queer. Actually, it was this type of satire that first introduced me to who these musicians even were back when I was a child in the 90s. And, in fact, a 2015 TV sequence gently teasing their self-esteem boost rock, in which a trans mother and her queer daughters sing along to their infectious “Closer to Fine” in a car on their way to a woodsy wimmin’s festival, was what helped me fall in love with them, too.
It’s Only Life After All
The Bottom Line
The rare confessional rockumentary that envelops you like a soft blanket.
In the intimate and heartfelt rockumentary It’s Only Life After All — an unfortunately longwinded and nonsensical word sequence when ripped from the context of the aforementioned song of its origin — filmmaker Alexandria Bombach tenderly coaxes Ray and Saliers into looking back on their oeuvre, politics and partnership. Even I, who’s generally more drawn to edgelord irony than guileless sincerity, was immediately swept into the narrative of how two queer female Georgian misfits, who first met in elementary school in the 1970s, discovered the alchemical power of their combined songwriting talents and eventually inspired an entire generation of young listeners to embrace introspection. I’m also just a sucker for rock history archival footage, and this doc is a seamlessly edited treasure trove of old photos, audio recordings, taped performances and video interviews from their younger days. The hair! Their voices!
Yet, as loving a portrait as this film is, it’s not entirely hagiographic either and I don’t think Ray and Saliers would ever let it be anyway. Throughout the one-on-one interviews, you get the sense that these people are their own biggest critics; Ray in particular chastises herself for her history of alienating anger management issues and publicly insecure responses to dismissive journalists. “I feel like I was too exaggerated and ardent sometimes,” Ray acknowledges. “And did have some stagy self-congratulatory gestures that were annoying to me now to look at.”
As self-effacing as they each are looking back at their past emotionality, their current candidness remains the documentary’s revving engine. Viewers can easily observe how they balance each other, not as the light and the dark but as the raw and the wistful. Unlike other musicians when asked to define their legacy, the two are never boringly cryptic or mechanical while reflecting on their careers. Instead, they dive into topics like envy and comparison. Indeed, it’s a delight to see them honestly assess their early lyrics. Ray, who comes off as the mouthpiece of the duo, decries her song “Blood and Fire” as the kind of dejected and self-absorbed frippery one writes in their early 20s when they’re depressed in college. (Not realizing that’s exactly what makes the song and her visceral delivery on it brilliantly relatable! I’m not sure I knew anyone who wasn’t depressed in college.)
Similarly, Saliers, who Ray even describes as “elusive,” hilariously cringes at the ethereally poetic self-seriousness of her younger days, laughing to herself as she admits writing pretentious songs about the Lady of Shalott. I mean, truly, what artsy girl hasn’t? She is achingly humble, deflecting when forced to contend with her own power as a songwriter. The documentary made me consider the downside of career longevity for artists: An early work can keep you steeped in the shame of youthful folly because you’ve inadvertently immortalized a regrettable time in your life.
The film crescendos as it digs into how Ray and Saliers’ identities as lesbians were vital to their success, drawing countless young queer people to their music decades before LGBTQ+ acceptance was more mainstream and corporatized. I’m sure every musical artist in the world has saved at least one person’s life (there’s gotta be some dude out there who crawled his way up from rock bottom because of Limp Bizkit), but it’s fairly clear from It’s Only Life After All that the Indigo Girls practically invented a small cottage industry of providing even just a little bit of hope to queer people in the 1980s and 90s who were coming of age while trapped in homophobic communities. As many fan interviewees note, the Indigo Girls’ music was a tool for their survival.
Ray and Saliers don’t shy away from addressing the sexism and homophobia that largely excluded them from more conventional popularity. They admit they never fit in with the mousy artists of the traditional folk scene, which at first made it tough for them to find a larger audience. As Ray astutely points out, “They can understand Rage Against the Machine, but they don’t understand the Indigo Girls.” After all, if you truly listen to their lyrics, they’re no more niche than other wholehearted wordsmiths like Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Stevie Nicks or Dolly Parton. They have a pure listenability. What made them controversial was their package: They were openly lesbian, openly masc and openly left-wing.
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 remains emotionally attracted to women. Ray discloses she’s on the gender spectrum (and possibly other spectra, too.) In 2023, is the word “lesbian” too rigid to describe what is probably considered the most lesbian band of all time? Bombach and her subjects don’t have answers, but the Indigo Girls aren’t too fussed on these distinctions anyway. As always, they’re embracing the liminal, the uncomfortable. Especially the uncomfortable parts of themselves.
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