Monday, September 7, 2009


"I think the Indigo Girls are gay," said Beth.

"What? Why?"

Her statement surprised me, not because I disagreed, but because I'd honestly never given one thought to the sexual orientation of Emily Saliers or Amy Ray. As we listened to their CD together, I tried and failed to pick out anything in the music that would prompt my friend to wonder about this.

Beth couldn't give me much in the way of a concrete reason. Essentially the Indigo Girls had set off her gaydar, though this was 1990 and we had yet to learn that word. The only solid piece of evidence she could produce had to do with the songwriting.

"They never use pronouns," she pointed out.

She was right. Whenever they sang about love or breakups, they didn't give away the gender of whoever they were singing about. For instance,
Hey, Jesus, it's me
I'm the one who talked to you yesterday
I asked you please, please for a favor
But my baby's gone away
Went away anyway
I pondered this, less interested now in the original question than the songs. Say Beth had guessed correctly. Even if I hated the bigotry that had most likely inspired these pronoun games, I approved of the songwriting technique. By keeping gender ambiguous, they made their songs more accessible. Straight women and gay men could more easily insert themselves into the stories.

I resolved that if I ever wrote songs, I would do the same.

* * *

Eventually I did try my hand at songwriting. With a few necessary exceptions, I stuck to my principle of gender neutrality. I also discovered that the universality issue extends way beyond gender.

For instance, here's the last verse from "Not Going to Run," which we included on our album Highways and Hiking Shoes:
Picking up the jagged pieces
Kneeling on the floor
Far away the road still beckons
But I've been there before
I will never understand it
Why you feel that I deserve the wonder of your love
But I'm not going to run
At some point in the middle of writing this, it occurred to me that religious people might think I was talking about God. Not a believer myself, I contemplated throwing something in to indicate I was referring to a romantic relationship.

I discarded the idea half a second later. When it came down to it, the song wasn't about how Mary Sue Peterson, a 32-year-old accountant with short red hair, had changed the narrator's life. It was about how the narrator, whose only coping mechanism had been to run away, had lucked into something worth sticking around for -- love. It didn't matter whether that love came from a person or a deity.

* * *

These moments came floating back to me when I read a recent post by Angel on Fibromyalgia Journal. Angel wrote,
Browsing through my iPod at the gazillion songs I've downloaded, I stumbled across an oldie-but-goodie ... The more I listened to it the more I realized that the song was about US! People in chronic pain.
Here's an excerpt from the song, "Unwell" by Matchbox 20.
But I'm not crazy, I'm just a little unwell
I know right now you can't tell
But stay a while and maybe then you'll see
A different side of me
I'm not crazy, I'm just a little impaired
I know that right now you don't care
But soon enough you're gonna think of me
And how I used to be... me
Her entire post is here, along with the full set of lyrics.

I read all the words to the song twice. My take? Maybe Angel was onto something. Everything there could apply to living with chronic pain and dealing with other people's lack of understanding. On the other hand, it could just as easily be about feeling paranoid or depressed or out of control.

The only way to know would be to ask Rob Thomas, the guy who wrote "Unwell." But if it turned out he'd had something else in mind, I bet he would still like Angel's interpretation. This song is about not feeling right, whatever right means to you, and feeling that people are judging you because of that. In the end, the specifics don't matter. It works as a fibromyalgia anthem even if Thomas has never heard of fibromyalgia.

* * *

Our lives are filled with experiences that are specific, distinct, unique. Songs are powerful because they cut through those isolating specifics to get at the universal themes.

Marissa Moss sums it up perfectly in this piece:
The first time I heard an Indigo Girls song, or remember hearing one anyway, I was about 11 years old. I had just survived what felt like an overly traumatic dissolution of a crush on a boy named Joey, and for whatever reason, the song Ghost made everything feel a little bit better -- that, maybe, we all feel this way sometimes. When I learned that the lyrics were probably written for a woman, by another woman, I also remember it being the first time understanding that in love, life, or anything else for that matter, we were all the same. Felt the same.

* * *

Next time: when to be vague in songwriting, and when to add the nitty-gritty details.


Angel said...

hmm... what in insightful post! You've put to words what I couldn't quite get out there in my own blog post. I'm a painter and not a song writer or musician. You've got the gift of words, m'dear!! Very eloquently put.

"Universality" is a great theme when it comes to art of all varieties. When art is perceived or created by people with physical or mental ... quirks... then I think the meaning is made more broad or refined. More approachable and accessible.

Thank you so much for such a lovely post. You do your craft justice.

Anonymous said...

I do vaguely remember that 20-year-old conversation, Susan! I still have most of their CDs, by the way, as I have always been a fan of their intricately woven lyrics. As you so eloquently have put, they speak to love, regardless of circumstance. And I adore Rob Thomas' lyrics for the same reason. With your songwriting, and theirs, I appreciate that there's always far more under the surface, if only we dare to explore.

"The" Beth

cinderkeys said...


Thanks. I thought your own post was good -- I was just approaching the subject from an angle I've had lots of time to think about. :)

THE Beth (none other):

I own almost every album the Indigo Girls put out too. I may have to start paying more attention to Rob Thomas/Matchbook 20.

Oh, and thanks for the fact-check. I was so sure this conversation happened right after I graduated, but I guess not. I've revised the year in the post. :)

Jannie Funster said...

I think it was 1987 that "Closer To Fine" was on the airwaves and I just thrilled in those vocal harmonies every time it came on.

Never actually have had a Matchbox 20 album but maybe it's time!

And yes, these days I do tend to think when I'm writing a song that is not obviously gender-specific how I can eliminate pronouns, more with the intention of selling the song to a broader market. If it works for the song , of course. Altho with he / she, depending on the subject matter of course, it's actually pretty easy sometimes to make them interchangeable for both guys and gals to sing.