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?