How the Indigo Girls Brought Barbie ‘Closer to Fine’

In Greta Gerwig’s Barbieland, where every day is a good day, pop stars like Lizzo, Dua Lipa and Charlie XCX provide a bouncy soundtrack as live-action dolls lead hilarious, blissful lives. That is, until Margot Robbie’s “stereotypical” Barbie doll smashed record with the rare and shocking existential question, “Have you ever thought about dying?”

To resolve this mess for her supposedly perfect life, she gets in her pink Corvette, straps on, and hops along to a track filled with strumming acoustic guitars and tight harmonies. “These questions have multiple answers, and they’re turning me in a crooked direction,” she sings with a smile before sticking her manicured pointer in the air.

The song Barbie chose on her way to the real world was ‘Closer to Fine’ by Indigo Girls.

Georgian folk duo Indigo Girls, who have released 15 studio albums since 1987, featured “Closer to Fine” as the opening track on their 1989 self-titled LP. Emily Sulliers wrote the song after she and her fellow singer and guitarist Amy Ray graduated from Emory University in Atlanta and performed regularly at a local bar called Little Five Points. It became a staple of the Girls’ live shows, spread thanks to college radio shows and the opening slot of a tour with another Georgia band, REM.

It’s a song about exploration, Sulliers said by phone earlier this month. “I’ve searched here, I’ve searched there, and if you just take it easy and try to get a little knowledge and wisdom from different sources, you’ll be closer to being okay.”

“Closer to Fine,” with its four-chord verse, octave-hopping chorus, and slightly arcane lyrics, has been a staple of dorm room sing-alongs, karaoke, and car trips for years, and is the Indigo Girls’ most distinctive song. Their first major-label album, Indigo Girls, went double platinum and won a Grammy Award.

“It has a very easy melody and a very easy chorus, and the chorus repeats,” Sulliers said. “When you come to the chorus of a song you’re obsessed with and you can sing it to your heart’s content, I think it’s really a road trip song, both structurally and melodically. I think that’s why you see this song in that kind of scene.”

According to Ray, “Closer to Fine” accounts for 80 percent of the band’s licenses, but the duo usually get little say in how their music is used. Commercials are not allowed, but it has been used successfully on soundtracks and screens in movies such as “Philadelphia” and TV shows such as “The Office” and “Transparent”. In 1995, the two starred as Whoopi Goldberg’s house band in the movie Boys on the Side.

“I think it was really important at the time to reach more people,” Ray said in a phone interview. “For an artist, those things are very valuable.”

The Indigo Girls have similar hopes for Barbie, which has already become a global phenomenon thanks to strong marketing and cross-generational brand recognition. A cover of “Closer to Fine” by Brandy and Catherine Carlisle is included on the extended version of the film’s soundtrack.

Brandi Carlyle said in an interview, “I always felt like that song really represented them in that era.” “It was like they were intellectuals more than they were lesbians. They were offering a life beyond what young people know. And it’s the song of a very young person,” she added. “It’s about exploring more than you believe.”

Still, Mr. Sulliers said he was nervous because his manager’s first call had little content. She recalled, “I didn’t know who was directing it or anything, so I thought, ‘Oh, is this about Barbie?’ You better check if this is kosher,” she recalled. “But in the end, it was in Mrs. Greta’s hands, and something truly amazing happened. It was a complete surprise for both me and Amy.”

Ray said it was a gift. “It’s really nice that they use it.”

“Closer to Fine” appears three times in the film, appears in the official trailer, and is organically recirculated in pop culture. In March, a video was released of comedian Tig Notaro singing the song on a party bus with crew members including Glennon Doyle, Abby Wambach and Sarah Paulson. exploded online. The band’s latest album, Long Look, is out in 2020, and they’re on a tour (usually ending with this song) that lands in Ireland and the UK next month.

“You wouldn’t expect a folk lesbian duo to be in this hot pink Barbie movie,” said Notaro, who became a fan after seeing the “Closer to Fine” video on MTV’s alternative rock show 120 Minutes. “It’s kind of selfish and personal, but it’s like, ‘Oh, we’ve been into something for years.’

“When I hear songs like that, it just fills my heart with joy and hope,” she added.

The Indigo Girls are also the subject of Alexandria Bambach’s documentary It’s Only Life After All. Premiered at Sundance in January. The film serves as a reminder of how the openly gay, religious Southerners Thalias and Ray endured scrutiny and prejudice during their early years in the limelight with Closer to Fine.

“For a long time, we always felt like we were getting the brunt of lesbian jokes like the least common denominator,” Sulliers says in the documentary. Ray also echoed such sentiments in her film, saying that she “seemed most despised to be a female gay singer-songwriter.”

Critics would say that even if they did, they would be too serious or overly pretentious. The duo were used to comical effect on “Saturday Night Live” and “South Park.” Even Ellen DeGeneres adopted them as punch lines after her character appeared on the national television sitcom Ellen.

“That era was really critical of women, queer women, women who weren’t living the way the patriarchy wanted them,” Bambach said. “I think it’s a very important time for us right now to ridicule and laugh off and just look back at the things we said were okay.”

Brandi Carlisle said the ‘Barbie doll’ moment was especially sweet after seeing the duo get many shots over the years. “The real injustice of how the Indigo Girls have been treated over the last few decades is that they’ve been used as an acceptable dog whistle for lesbian parodies, and I’ve always felt uneasy about that,” she said. “And to see something like this happen to them on this scale and see them and their iconic kind of life-affirming songs reach new ears is probably one of the coolest things I’ve seen in years.”

Singer-songwriter Katie Pruitt, 29, discovered the Indigo Girls in high school, but embraced them even more in college. Their music, she said, gave her the confidence to write personal and descriptive lyrics because of her experiences as a gay woman.

“I think that expression in culture is the biggest and most important thing for people to fully accept themselves,” she said. “I need different examples of who I am allowed to be. The answer is anyone. You are allowed to be anyone.”

Pruitt called “Closer to Fine” the “north star” of songwriting. “I can’t believe this series, which I grew up associated with extreme heteronormativity, is making a comeback in 2023,” she said. “I love that they’re now rebranding as something incredibly inclusive.”

Bambach, who discovered the Indigo Girls during a counselor-led singalong at a youth summer camp, said she saw “Barbie” on her first weekend in Atlanta and cried out in joy and recognition when “Closer to Fine” hit the screen.

“It’s great to think that this wonderful director has something in this song that’s culturally relevant in this day and age,” Sulliers said. But most of all, she appreciates that time has allowed listeners to step back and appreciate the band’s music as just music.

“We are finally able to be ourselves,” Sulliers said. “I think once we’ve been together long enough, it’s been like, ‘Oh, it’s just Amy and Emily.’

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