Turning the Tables is NPR's ongoing multi-platform series dedicated to recentering the popular music canon on voices that have been marginalized, underappreciated, or hidden in plain sight. In 2020, we will publish an occasional series looking closely at the careers of significant women in music, treasured albums or significant scenes. Find all Turning the Tables content here.
Are you an Emily or an Amy? Few mainstream fans of the Indigo Girls would even consider that question, but for the lesbians over age 40 who love them, it's an elemental personality test. The duo, which releases its 16th studio album Look Long tomorrow, has been together for 35 years. Early publicity materials established an enduring impression of the contrast between them – like this bio, written three years before their self-titled 1989 album: "Amy's songs are gutsy, powerful and upbeat. Emily's are lyrical, jazzy and more ballad-like."
Like a lot of baby butches in the '90s, I wanted to be like Amy: an aloof yet accessible alpha butch whose salt-of-the-earth zeal, both political and emotional, broke a lot of guitar strings, and presumably a lot of hearts. But in my own heart, the one I wear on my sleeve, I knew that I was at core an Emily: a formally skilled sentimentalist with a deft touch for finely wrought love songs, a sensualist with a penchant for the good things in life like food and literature. Though the "Emily and Amy dialectic" might initially present itself as neatly divided, all the gradients and the inevitable syntheses between the two are what ultimately matters. Thinking about what it means to be part Emily and part Amy, and how those identities or stances both merge and diverge, gave many women a way to understand themselves along the lines of what the radical feminist poet Adrienne Rich called "the lesbian continuum."
Most commonly known for their modest chart hits peppered throughout the 1990s, like "Closer to Fine," "Galileo" and "Shame on You," the Indigo Girls were a cardinal constellation in the Lilith Fair cosmology. During the festival's original run between 1997 and 1999, the duo acquired a reputation for being the most convivial of the Lilith brood by encouraging jam sessions, group-singalongs and backstage card games among artists as spiritually distinct as Sheryl Crow and Sinéad O'Connor.
Generations of guitar-strumming camp counselors and rootsy stoners of all ages and genders, as well as the global Sapphists who loved them from the beginning, have sung along to the Indigo Girls' expansive songbook by heart. All have aspired to hit their deceptively simple countermelodies and harmonic intervals so locked-in that people assume they could only be achieved by a romantic couple. But even though Emily and Amy have been together forever, they are not, nor have they ever been, romantic partners.
Such information doesn't bear repeating for those of us who have carried their music like touchstones for most of our gay adult lives. Nevertheless, I'm constantly surprised by the number of listeners — my own wife included — who assume the two must have dated each other at least once in their lifetimes. This couldn't be further from the truth, driven as it is by the slightly phobic assumption that anyone of the same sex will do for anyone who identifies as a lesbian. Just because we are gay doesn't always make us gay for each other.
What the Indigo Girls' story as longtime collaborators and friends who practice a healthy and gregarious exogamy with other romantic partners, musicians, producers and political comrades models for us is an enduring, communitarian project of world-building. In other words, the Indigo Girls have, with music as their conduit, accomplished the very best of what both queer theory and queer politics always aspired to achieve. A deeper dive into the Emily/Amy dialectic, the heart of what makes the Indigo Girls' music so compelling with its wide swerves between gentle, lovelorn balladry and the anguished yawps of activist souls struggling to be born (at least in their earliest records) gives us insight into what female friendship — what lesbian friendship in particular — can offer to our divided worlds.
"Are you on fire from the years?
What would you give for your kid fears?"
Ray and Saliers, or Amy and Emily (as their true fans refer to them with a loving ease and familiarity) have been making music together since they were young teens in Decatur, Ga. The two met in elementary school, but didn't start harmonizing until the dawn of the Reagan era in 1981, when they were both in the choir at Shamrock High School. Their young hearts swelled with music, while their eager sentimentality was stoked by Literature with a capital "L." Indeed, their catalogue is replete with songs alluding to literary personages like "Virginia Woolf" and the poet Frank Stanford ("Three Hits"). "When We Were Writers," from Look Long, looks back with a mix of fondness and maybe even a little mortification at some of their youthful pretensions as would-be scribes. For what it's worth, Emily majored in English at Tulane (a time that served as the inspiration for "When We Were Writers"), before transferring to Emory and narrowly escaping English graduate school once the Indigo Girls' career began to pick up steam in the mid-1980s. Amy majored in religion at Vanderbilt and Emory, which explains something about the devotional ferver in her compositions.
The musical partnership forged between Emily and Amy flickered with the platonic passion of teen girlhood, musical fellowship and a younger girl's admiration for a slightly older one (Emily was a year ahead of Amy in school). This dynamic is beautifully documented in A Year A Month, the Tumblr blog the Girls established in 2013 to archive their journey together from high school onwards. Looking back on those first heady days of new friendship and discovery, Amy writes, "The biggest and most intense feelings I had were in that intimate space of a 1970s ranch house basement [with] a pool table from Sears, a Panasonic tape recorder, and hours of learning cover tunes."
The two spent all their time together picking apart chords, crafting countermelodies and learning to cover their favorite songs by artists like Jackson Browne, Carole King and James Taylor. Both admit Emily, who comes from a musical family, was more adept at plucking out the intricacies of Joni Mitchell songs; her grandfather was a professional big band musician, after all, and her father was an aspiring jazz pianist before the life of a theologian called him. As Emily describes it, the guitar began to feel like a physical extension of her truest self: "Playing the guitar captured me fully from the moment I took my first lesson at the YMCA in the third grade."
Meanwhile Amy, the younger, was fueled by a sense of urgency and ardency that surpassed her nascent skill level when the two first met. She knew with absolute certainty that she wanted nothing more than to express the increasing confusion and tumult within her soul by making music with her best friend Emily: "As soon as I felt the way our voices sounded together, I was inconsolable, except by the music we would make." The acuteness of this need endures nearly 40 years later, through our current global crisis.
In their recent Facebook Live concerts, once every Thursday in May leading up to the release of Look Long, Amy and Emily have expressed their relief at having the chance to play music with each other again. After the COVID-19 pandemic canceled their tour in support of the new album along with everything else in the world, Amy and Emily emerged from their respective quarantines by reconstituting themselves into their musical "pod," while imploring us all to keep "thinking about everybody else in the world" together. This give and take, this fundamental trust between them, and among the people in their musical orbit and their fans, is fitting given the formal signature of their songwriting as a duo: the countermelody.
Countermelody is a foundational form in the Indigo Girls' musical arrangements, as "Reunion" (composed by Amy) and "The Wood Song" (composed by Emily), both from 1994's Swamp Ophelia, most clearly illustrate, though nearly all of their compositions to this day feature it in some way or other. The basest definition for a countermelody is that it's a subordinate or secondary melody played alongside, or in counterpoint with, a primary melody. A countermelody played by itself can be beautiful all on its own, yet it becomes something infinitely more special, and more gratifying when you hear it interact with the main line. Sometimes an untrained ear can drift to a well-crafted countermelody and hear it as the main one. In my mind, no songwriting style models humility more, nor captures the Indigo Girls' ethos better than this generous interplay with subordination, this mutual willingness to take the countermelody in one circumstance, with the trust and knowledge that you'll get your turn taking the lead in another. This graceful alternation has defined the Indigo Girls from their time picking out harmonies in the Ray family's basement, to their first years gigging together again in Atlanta after each abandoned their efforts to leave town for college.
By the time they decided separately to come back home and transfer to Emory (Amy attended Vanderbilt her freshman year), Amy rustled up several regular gigs for them performing under the name "The B Band" at bars and coffeehouses in the Atlanta/Decatur orbit. The two eventually veered away from the latter by the mid-1980s, because in Amy's words "the 'coffee house' world ... at the time was actually pretty traditional and straight."
Eschewing the smug heterosexism of the coffeehouse scene proved to be a key decision for the Indigo Girls. It pulled them deeper into an "alternative" bar and pub scene that first exposed them to the grassroots potential of benefit gigs. During this pivotal time of their development as artists and as Atlantans, their aesthetic sensibilities began to merge with their activist commitments. Community work, fundraising and political organizing have since been central to their approach to booking any of their tours. "It became apparent to us that it wasn't hard to get a bunch of folks together and work towards something that needed work in the community," Emily explained in a recent phone interview. "When we realized how easy it was to organize a benefit, we also realized how much more gratifying organizing benefits were than just playing regular shows, even at that young age."
Their stint at John Blizzard's Little 5 Points Pub, an Atlanta fixture, not only brought Emily and Amy into deeper community with other artists and musicians in their local milieu, but it also incubated their first collaborative benefit concert, "Songs for Shelter." The event raised funds and other resources for Atlanta's Open Door Community, which serves the unhoused, incarcerated and disenfranchised. This 1986 event, modest in scale though it was, became the prototype for how the Indigo Girls continued to harness their increasing success, and ever-growing network of fellow musicians for the social justice causes that have mattered most to them throughout their lives, especially indigenous rights and the environment, international workers' rights and LGBTQ+ causes.
With several successful records under their belts, and at the height of their fame in 1995, the Indigo Girls launched the Honor the Earth tour, the most enduring of their activist projects. To call it a series of "concerts" fails to do justice to the continuing grassroots change affected by the Honor the Earth foundation, so deeply enmeshed is it with other Native organizations and communities. Amy and Emily met the activist Winona LaDuke (who would eventually become Ralph Nader's vice-presidential running mate in 1996 and 2000), at an Earth Day concert outside of Boston in 1991. Emily explains that after that encounter she and Amy "could no longer see environmentalism except through the lens of indigenous communities."
What began as a brief three-day run of Indigo Girls shows in the Midwest to benefit the organization became a massive intersectional undertaking that thrives to this day. Founded in 1993, Honor the Earth picked up steam by 1995 with a slate of concerts in big Western cities, as well as shows on First Nations lands and in border towns, which also featured native musicians and artists. The shows not only fundraised and "raised awareness," which is often the limit case of causes célèbres; they also became site-driven resource-sharing opportunities explicitly geared towards tangible environmental and social justice actions — from sacred site preservation to halting nuclear waste disposal on native lands.
Their political work with indigenous activists and First Nations pushed them into transposing their facility with countermelody, their aesthetic disposition, into a deeper communitarian practice of interdependence, not only with their musical and activist collaborators, but also with their audiences. The Indigo Girls don't merely entertain their audiences, they also do everything they can to serve them: After over 25 years in operation, with the duo's continued and focused involvement, Honor the Earth has "re-granted over two million dollars to over 200 Native American communities." Their May 14 livestreams on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube raised upwards of $230,000 for the foundation, shattering their initial, more modest goal of $25,000. Tonight, they'll be back on the same three platforms playing an all-request show to raise funds for FeedingTheValley.org, which addresses food insecurity in their native state of Georgia, as well as Alabama.
Over the last 25 years, the Indigo Girls' touring schedule has been increasingly devoted to their activist commitments, as much as to supporting their new albums. "Amy and Emily are very hardworking touring musicians who are basically constantly on the road," noted Duke University professor and Indigo Girls true believer Taylor Black in a recent email exchange. "While they are never credited as such, they are committed to something akin to Bob Dylan's 'Neverending Tour' lifestyle to raise money for their communities, as well as Honor the Earth."
In a recent conversation, Amy clarified the nature of her commitment to native causes: "One thing I knew is that I didn't want to be walking into native communities and co-opting their spirituality. I'm not working for these environmental causes, or going to these native communities looking for myself, which is what a lot of white people do." Like the environmentalists both she and Emily have learned to become, Amy understands herself and the Indigo Girls as beholden to a much larger ecosystem, to the greater multitude. "We grew up in community, and community is important to us," Amy explains. "Activism is accomplished that way, and music and art should be too."
"When God made me born a Yankee he was teasin' ..."
The low-key, high-intensity investment of their resources and labor speaks volumes about the kind of Southerners the Indigo Girls have grown to be after decades of disidentification, soul-searching and internal struggle. Their relationship as musical companions was also a political one even in childhood, as they witnessed the enduring inequalities of a suburban southland in deep denial about the gains made by the Civil Rights movement. Emily came from what she describes as a "dyed in the wool liberal family" who moved from the Northeast to the South in 1974, just in time to become staunch Jimmy Carter Georgians. For the Saliers, faith was inextricable from a commitment to public service, as much as it was their spiritual conduit to music. Emily recalls her parents openly encouraging deeper conversation about the social and political issues of the day at their dining table, including their support for the ERA and every candidate nominated by the Democratic party from McGovern to Dukakis. Emily's first professional solo gig was singing and playing guitar at the age of 14 for what she describes as "a Democratic gathering in Minnesota."
Amy was raised in a more politically conservative family, but she came to consciousness through two of her older siblings, both of whom were also gay. It was after listening to her older sister Laura's "Woodstock records," as she called them, that she felt moved to peel the Reagan bumper sticker right off her first car in 1981. As it was with their musical dynamic, then, Emily possessed a more structured relationship to the political world through party fundraisers and her family's liberal, Democratic leanings. Meanwhile Amy's spirit percolated with insurgency, and a more radical approach to activism. True to form, these two disparate but adjacent approaches, combining a classically liberal approach with a more anarchist bent, have come together as part of the Indigo Girls' larger mission in the world, one that offers resources through foundations like Honor the Earth while supporting the more radical mission of revolutionary movements like the Zapatistas.
Throughout their many political efforts, both women have repeatedly come to terms with their Southern identity in their songs, not only through their lyrics, but especially in their music's deepening nods to Americana, roots and country. Earlier in their careers, Emily and Amy good cop/bad copped their way through their Southernness, with Emily singing paeans to the "Southland in the Springtime," while offering quaint flourishes of the mandolin or banjo on other tracks. Amy, meanwhile issued a screed against "Nashville" on their fourth album, Rites of Passage, which she punctuated with the sound of an anxious and bedraggled harmonica. Much of that resentment seems to have eroded and given way to a generative space of reflection mirrored in the arc of Amy's solo forays that began with rock and punk in the early 2000s, but which softened into the vintage country feel of her last two solo efforts, Goodnight Tender and Holler. In "Sure Feels Good Anyway," Amy admits to being both haunted and held by the emotional contradictions of her Southernness, "an ounce of comfort for a pound of grief."
Meanwhile, Emily's regional romanticism has sharpened into a more searing critical perspective on the toll one's search for belonging takes on LGBT folks in the South. "Country Radio," the latest single from Look Long, explores how it feels to try, and to fail, at insinuating one's queer self into the normal lives and loves celebrated by mainstream country music.
The Indigo Girls' Southernness is both the disease and the cure in their political efforts. Within days of Donald Trump's presidential inauguration in 2017, Amy reflected in A Year A Month on the histories of violence in the South that compel her activism: "The South has an awful track record of racism with its history of genocide against Native peoples, its economy of slavery, and dark history of lynch mobs and Jim Crow; there's no way to turn a blind eye and not try to do something to remedy what is still a deep wound and ongoing sin in our region."
For Emily, the abiding sense of faith and religiosity she inherited from her parents is rooted in acts of communitarianism and good works instead of exclusion or punishment: "We were raised to be concerned about others beyond our individual lives," she noted. This commitment to faith, and of being raised well, forms the core of Emily's adoptive Southernness.
In a recent Paste magazine conversation with longtime friend, musical collaborator and Grammy winner Brandi Carlile, Amy explained her own relationship to religion and Jesus through the medium of music: "I think I'm just naturally a worship leader, I mean, a music worship fan. I can't help it. I think, for me, Jesus is like a vehicle for me, of a person that I look at as an activist." Amy actually played the role of Jesus in Michael Lorant's concert production of Jesus Christ Superstar: A Resurrection. The all-star group, constituted by mostly Atlanta-based musicians, performed the show live at festivals in Atlanta, Austin and Seattle in 1994, before Daemon Records, Amy's independent label, released the concept album later that same year. (Emily played the role of Mary Magdalene in the production). Jesus bears special attention in the Indigo Girls cosmology not just for the obvious reasons, but also because, contrary to gestures like John Lennon's controversial claim that the Beatles were "more popular than Jesus," there is an unstudied humility at the heart of both Indigo Girls' practices of devotion, at once religious and secular.
Carlile and Lorant are just two of the many collaborators whom Emily and Amy humbly won't admit to having mentored, even though they brought them on tour as supporting musicians, putting them in front of larger audiences than they had on their own and letting them shine. "We kind of have a working model of 'y'all open the show, then we all play together,'" Amy explains. "Brandi is a good example of someone who was probably mentoring us when we were supposedly mentoring her. Intergenerational sharing, not mentoring, is something else we learned from our work with native communities." The Southernness each inhabits and bodies forth into musical and political expression, then, is not one of obstinance. It doesn't manifest as an intractable pride, or as false confidence borne from a white supremacy outfitted in stars and bars. Instead Emily and Amy exist together in a social and spiritual economy of generosity — one might even call it grace.
"There's just enough of you in me
For me to have this sympathy"
To know if you are an Emily or an Amy is akin to declaring a strong preference for Wordsworth or Coleridge, as much as for Lennon or McCartney. The question I asked at the beginning of this piece is less about who we find more erotically appealing, or "cute" on the level of preference, but a much weightier character assessment calibrated to our aesthetic sensibilities. It offers an impression of where we might situate ourselves in a spectrum between the sentimental and the prophetic; between realist musings on tenderness and blunt irruptions of passion. It is also the declaration of a political style and approach, from the reformist to the revolutionary; from electoral change to grassroots transformation.
Early on in their careers, and in ways that still persist as quick and ready points of contrast to this day, each of the Indigo Girls' compositions branched off into stark musical styles depending on who wrote which song. (An easy way to tell, with a couple of rare exceptions, is that each of them sings lead on the songs they write). Over the course of the last several decades, to be an Emily has often meant indulging one's belletristic sensibilities, and (no matter how young one is), undertaking a long, melancholy look upon those Wordsworthian "hedgerows, hardly hedgerows," imagining we might "Soon Be to Nothing." To be an Amy has often meant being visited upon by visions that come in dreamlike fragments, only in the folksier form of a "Chickenman" instead of Coleridge's mystical Kubla Khan. After listening to their body of work across the decades, these particular assessments no longer hold true given the maturation of each of their writing styles, even if they remain nostalgically resonant to those of us who've bothered to stick around for the whole journey. But as Amy reminds us about the Indigo Girls: "The difference between us is what helped to define us, and it helped us create our sound."
To a mainstream listening public, these important differences across all registers, from the stylistic to the political, must constantly reassert themselves against the tired misconceptions of what "lesbianism" — the putative framework, for better and worse, of the Indigo Girls' identity and their presumed audience — signifies. To be lesbians together implies an unbounded confluence, a compulsive "urge to merge" between two distinct entities. As Emily herself has sung in "Power of Two," a wedding standard for all genders and configurations of lovers: "the closer I'm bound in love to you, the closer I am to free."
Despite the kindheartedness, and let's admit it, the co-dependency of sentiments like this, lesbianism also infers a certain sternness, a stubborn imperviousness to evolving that seems to fuel only the crankiest forms of separatism. The Indigo Girls' screen cameos as a plaid-wearing bar band in 1995's Boys on the Side, and more recently as themselves singing "Hammer and a Nail" at a Michigan-style women's festival on season two of Transparent (2015), strike just the right note of herstory and earnestness that overburdens this idea of lesbianism. As Amy once wrote on A Year A Month, "I feel like our earnestness served us well, if not always artistically. It helped us have the energy and convictions to persevere."
"Does it sing like the hymns of a thousand years?
Or is it just pop emotion?"
Thirty-five years into a career that has made each of them rethink the wisdom of using "girls" in their band name, that earnestness and perseverance is the Indigo Girls' true musical and spiritual legacy. Despite the fact that mainstream chart success has never been a major feature of the band's resumé, their music — and they — have endured. Their peak success during the mainstreaming of gay pride during the Clinton-era, can be read as a happy set of historical confluences. The '90s was a decade that began unplugged, and felt more amenable to guitar slinging female singer-songwriters like Amy and Emily: "the trend gods were shining upon women with acoustic guitars: Suzanne Vega, Tracy Chapman, Melissa Etheridge, Shawn Colvin, Mary Chapin Carpenter and so on," Emily reflects now.
In the annals of American popular music, it's possible the Indigo Girls will be reduced to a historical moment that actually can't contain them. Throughout the '90s, the Indigo Girls captured the swell of yet another feminist wave that swept up within it a handful of harmless gays, and chic lesbians who just wanted to get married like everybody else. Yet the Indigo Girls were never really that kind of creative class, cosmopolitan gay, the kind audiences became habituated to through sitcoms like Will & Grace. They were never so flashy, and to paraphrase their own lyrics, they were never that "cool." They simply did the work, and learned how to work well with others.
After an extended lifecycle of almost 20 years as major label artists, the two returned to their indie roots and have been producing albums on their own label, IG Recordings (distributed by Vanguard), since 2009's Poseidon and the Bitter Bug. As they've come full circle — from recording themselves on cassettes in Amy's basement to broadcasting themselves on Facebook Live from their manager's modest office with a water-stained ceiling — both Indigo Girls, each cornering 60, are deeply self-reflective about the echelon they occupy as artists. In my separate conversations with each of them, both used the word "echelon" to strongly imply they didn't quite belong to an upper one. It didn't read as a falsely modest gesture, but instead a clear-eyed, almost contented assessment of their enduring role in American popular music. Both downplayed any notion of their legacy, and continued to express a kind of wonderment and surprise at any of the major achievements they've logged, as well as by the expansiveness of the audiences they've reached.
True to their collective sensibilities, they see themselves as part of a groundswell of music from a Georgia that is in every fiber of their being, and that radiates outward to a larger interconnected world of like-minded musicians, artists and activists, many of whom they've given a platform to, and many of who are female, queer, trans, of color. Of course, the two would probably say they merely shared these platforms with artists who they happen to admire, not the other way around."We just have more fun playing with other people, because we're fans of a lot of other musicians," Amy admits. This genuine, multi-directional admiration applies not only to the many famous people they've worked with, including their idol Joni Mitchell, but also to each and every musician they've ever played with on tour, in the studio, or in a bar. Emily and Amy remember everyone, and hold them close to their hearts.
The two are genuinely gobsmacked when anyone they imagine who is cooler than them — and that is pretty much everyone — offers the Indigo Girls unbridled praise. As JD Samson, formerly of Le Tigre and currently with the band Crickets, reminisced about being asked to sing "Closer to Fine" with them on tour in the early 2000's: "I can't even begin to tell you what it felt like to stand on that stage and be a part of their world. The most indelible part of the experience was looking out at a crowd of women sharing in Amy and Emily's example, and understanding how beautiful it is to be sincere, emotional, unapologetically authentic. That's exactly what makes them so cool and so consistently relevant to me and the rest of their fans."
What is abundantly clear throughout their many decades of collaboration is that Amy and Emily have, most crucially, remained fans of each other. Even in the affectless environs of a two-dimensional Zoom, one can spy the twinkle in each of their eyes when they look back on what they've accomplished, and what they're still continuing to do not only for themselves, but for the fellowship of artists, activists and "good people" they accrued throughout their years putting in the work on the road.
For some of us, especially those of us who've spent a lifetime in queer worlds, our longest relationships aren't always with our lovers or our spouses. They're with our communities, with our best friends, often geographically scattered, receding in and out of our lives through many twists, turns and transformations of self and the world. So many of us found one another through the Indigo Girls. So many of us rediscovered each other again, when in our current crisis of pandemic isolation, the Indigo Girls played their first Facebook Live set on March 19, 2020. Over 60,000 people tuned into this live broadcast, which also coincided with the early chaos of the COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders.
By the time they concluded with encores of "Closer to Fine" and "Galileo" — two of their biggest "sing-along songs," as they call them — many of us were in tears, both real and emoji, because we felt a momentary reprieve from our anxious vigils for symptoms. The physical distance imposed by state decrees felt broached, if ever so briefly. Emily and Amy spun together the threads of our remote intimacy, as they so often have, with the countermelodies we committed to our queer hearts. Our bodies somatically remembered, even as we sang along to our screens, that we used to sling our arms around each other, wantonly fluid-bonding through our botched harmonies. And in the end they sparked the hope, as they so often have, that we might someday all gather to sing together again.
Karen Tongson is the author of Why Karen Carpenter Matters (2019), and Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries (2011). She is Professor of English, gender & sexuality studies, and American studies & ethnicity at the University of Southern California, and the 2019 recipient of the Lambda Literary Jeanne Córdova Award for Lesbian/Queer Nonfiction. Karen also co-hosts the podcast, Waiting to X-hale with Wynter Mitchell-Rohrbaugh. (www.karentongson.org; Twitter @inlandemperor; Instagram @tongsonator)