The Indigo Girls know full well that they were treated like a punchline – and it still hurts them. But it’s this lack of cool composure that makes the alt-rock duo mischievously appealing. Amy Ray, the dark-haired hot-tempered, and Emily Saliers, the strawberry blonde ocean of emotions, have never shied away from digging up their deepest feelings during their 40-year careers of hyperverbal acoustic exile. 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 have believed weaken them musically.
For decades, referencing the Indigo Girls in pop culture became shorthand for the rampage of a certain American archetype, the crispy, feel-good, bleeding-heart, militantly sincere, ’90s-type social justice warrior in flannel who was either coded as queer or blatantly belittled. as strange. Actually, it was this kind of satire that first introduced me to who these musicians even were when I was a kid in the 90s. And in fact, a 2015 TV series that gently teases their self-esteem boosts rockin which a trans mom and her queer daughters sing along to their catchy “Closer to Fine” in a car on their way to a Woodsy Wimmin’s festival was what also helped me fall in love with them.
After all, it’s only life
It comes down to
The rare confessional rockumentary that envelops you like a soft blanket.
In the intimate and heartfelt rockumentary After all, it’s only life — an unfortunately long-winded and nonsensical string of words when ripped out of the context of the aforementioned song of its origin — filmmaker Alexandria Bombach tenderly persuades Ray and Saliers to look back on their body of work, politics, and collaboration. Even I, who is generally drawn more to edgelord irony than guileless sincerity, was instantly drawn into the story 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 discovered and ultimately inspired an entire generation of young listeners to embrace introspection. I’m also just a sucker for archival rock history footage, and this document is a seamlessly edited treasure trove of old photos, audio recordings, recorded performances, and video interviews from their early years. The hair! Their to vote!
But as lovingly portrayal as this film is, it’s not entirely hagiographic either and I don’t think Ray and Saliers would ever let it happen. During the one-on-one interviews, you get the sense that these people are their own worst 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 over the top and fiery at times,” Ray admits. “And had some stupid self-indulgent gestures that made me annoying to look at now.”
So effaced as they all look back on their past emotionality, their flow candor remains the running engine of the documentary. Viewers can easily see how they balance each other, not as light and dark, but as raw and wistful. Unlike other musicians when asked to define their legacy, the two are never dull cryptic or mechanical as they reflect on their careers. Instead, they delve into topics like envy and comparison. It is indeed a delight to watch them honestly assess their early texts. Ray, who emerges as the duo’s mouthpiece, denounces her song “Blood and Fire” as the kind of dejected and self-centered frippery you write in their early twenties when depressed in college. (Not realizing that’s exactly what makes the song and its visceral delivery brilliantly relatable! I’m not sure I knew anyone who wasn’t depressed in college.)
Likewise, Saliers, whom Ray even describes as “elusive,” hilariously cringes at the ethereal poetic self-seriousness of her younger days, laughing to herself as she admits to writing pretentious songs about the Lady of Shalott. I mean, really, what artsy girl doesn’t have that? Painfully humble, she deviates when forced to struggle with her own strength as a songwriter. The documentary made me think about the flip side of a long artist career: an early work can leave you immersed in the shame of youthful folly for accidentally immortalizing a regrettable time in your life.
The film crescendo as it explores how Ray and Saliers’ identity as lesbians was essential to their success, drawing countless young queer people to their music decades before LGBTQ+ acceptance was more mainstream and corporatized. I’m sure every music artist in the world has saved at least one person’s life (there must be a dude who crawled up from the bottom because of Limp Bizkit), but it’s pretty obvious out After all, it’s only life that the Indigo Girls practically invented a small cottage industry in the 1980s and 1990s to offer even a little bit of hope to queer people who came of age while trapped in homophobic communities. As many fans interviewed note, the Indigo Girls’ music was a survival aid.
Ray and Saliers don’t shy away from addressing the sexism and homophobia that largely exclude them from more conventional popularity. They admit they never fit in with the measly performers of the traditional folk scene, which is why they initially struggled 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 really listen to their lyrics, they’re no more niche than other sincere 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 male, and openly left-wing.
Of course, these signifiers may have been simpler in the 90s when they reached the height of their fame. Saliers says she is sometimes sexually and visually attracted to men, but she is still emotionally attracted to women. Ray reveals that she is on the gender spectrum (and possibly other spectrums as well). 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 have no answers, but the Indigo Girls aren’t too concerned about these differences anyway. As always, they embrace the liminal, the awkward. Especially the awkward parts of herself.