Why Straight, Christian Men Should Listen to Lesbian, Agnostic Songwriters

When I bought the Indigo Girls’ Retrospective, I endured some awkward questions from the cashier. 

“Is this a gift?” she asked. 

“No, it’s for me.” 

“I thought most of their fans were… you know….” 

I shrugged.  “They’re amazing lyricists and musicians.” 

And it’s true.  Whatever criticism one might have of their views, one cannot deny that Amy Ray and Emily Saliers speak with great clarity and beauty.  To be sure, in their protest songs they may shout at you.  But, in their love songs and life songs, they warmly invite you to walk in their shoes.

What is the nature of love, as expressed by the Indigo Girls?  With shocking Biblical imagery, Amy Ray presents it as “Strange Fire.”  This is a reference to Leviticuts 10, when two priests gave an unauthorized offering to God and were destroyed by his wrath.  But here, that fire is love, which is offered to each other, not to God, and forms a “refuge from the wrath.”  The poet then lashes out against those who oppose that love, with “haughty eyes and lying tongues and hands that shed innocent blood” (Proverbs 6:17, quoted verbatim in the song).  At the very least, the song illuminates the greatest transgression of Christians toward those experiencing homosexual desires: by stigmatizing the struggle and “casting stones,” we have committed greater sins than the sin we sought to oppose.  (“Is it a sin?” is a conversation for another day.)

It is not my place to attempt to summarize the entire body of the Indigo Girls’ work, but I would be amiss not to at least mention “Ghost.”  Emily Saliers captures the utter bitter-sweetness of unrequited love: “I burn up in your presence and I know now how it feels to be weakened like Achilles with you always at my heels….  I can’t swim free the river is too deep, though I’m baptized by your touch, I am no worse than most…. in love with your ghost.”  Is this unrequited love the same as that between a man and a woman?  How can you know if you don’t listen?


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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I am in your club. I have certainly not listened to their entire oeuvre by any means, but have listened to Indigo Girls and Swamp Ophelia a lot. And they are full of thoughtful lyrics that are steeped in Biblical imagery, and I like almost all of the songs musically too.

    A selection of lyrics:

    “There I am in younger days, star gazing,
    Painting picture perfect maps of how my life and love would be
    Not counting the unmarked paths of misdirection
    My compass, faith in love’s perfection
    I missed ten million miles of road I should have seen”

    “so what is love then is it dictated or chosen does it sing like the hymns of 1000 years or is it just pop emotion and if it ever was here and it left does it mean it was never true and to exist it must elude”

    And a brilliant (though I do not agree completely with its conclusion) reworking of “This train is bound for glory” that rocks. Mind you, I don’t completely agree with the original lyrics of that song either.

    “it’s a fish white belly lump in the throat razor on the wire skin and bone piss and blood in a railroad car 100 people gypsies queers and david’s star this train is bound for glory measure the bones count the face pull out the teeth do you belong to the human race doctor doctor are you unkind do you shock the monkeys cover our eyes with clear blue skies this train is bound for glory here is a dancer who has no legs here is a teacher who has no face here is a runner who has no feet here is a healer who has no hands here is a builder who has no back here is a thinker who has no head here is a writer who has no voice these are the questions these are the answers stacked like wood this train is bound for glory these are the questions stacked like wood these are the answers here is potential gone for good”

    Finally, I don’t know if I anticipate any vocal more in a song than when I am waiting for Michael Stipe’s low growl entry into “Kid fears,” when soon he will be soaring in with his disctinctive grainy voice, singing antiphonally (not sure that’s the right term) with the main vocalist. Nice.

  2. IG: Undeniably awesome and undeniably hard to find on the radio. Keep spreading the word, man. It’s because of people like you that I found out about IG in the first place.

  3. Strong post, and I agree with your logic. Don’t suppose you’re a Bright Eyes fan?

  4. Not yet. Must investigate…. I only this year discovered Sufjan Stevens and the Decemberists. It’s taking some time for my friends to rub off on me, but I’ve at least heard of Bright Eyes.

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