In Greta Gerwig’s Barbieland, where every day is the best day ever, pop stars like Lizzo, Dua Lipa, and Charli XCX deliver a bouncy soundtrack as the living dolls go about their cheerful, carefree lives. That is, until Margot Robbie’s “stereotypical” Barbie pointed to a record scratcher with a rare and shocking existential query: “Have you ever thought about death?”
To resolve the turmoil of her perfect life, she hops in her pink Corvette and belts along a track full of plucked acoustic guitars and close harmonies. “There’s more than one answer to these questions, and it draws me a crooked line,” she sings with a smile, before thrusting a slashed pointer into the air.
Barbie’s favorite song on her way to the real world is “Closer to Fine” by the Indigo Girls.
The Indigo Girls, a folk duo from Georgia who have released 15 studio albums since 1987, “Closer to Fine” appeared as the opening track on their 1989 self-titled LP. Emily Saliers wrote the song after she and fellow singer and guitarist, Amy Ray, graduated from Emory University in Atlanta and were playing regularly at a local bar called the Little Five Points. He became a staple of the girls’ live show that caught on thanks to college radio play and an opening slot on tour with another Georgia band, R.E.M.
It’s a song about searching, Saliers said on the phone this month: “I looked here and looked there, and if I just try to take it easy and get a little bit of knowledge and wisdom from different sources, I’ll be much closer to OK.”
“Closer to Fine,” with its four-chord verses, octave-jumping chorus and slightly murky lyrics, has been a staple of bedroom sing-alongs, karaoke trips and car rides for years, and is the most recognizable Indigo Girls tune. “Indigo Girls,” their first album for a major label, went double platinum and won a Grammy.
“It’s a very easy melody and a really easy chorus, and the chorus just keeps repeating,” said Saliers. “When you get to the chorus of a song that you love and you can just sing it at the top of your lungs, I think structurally and melodically, it’s really a road trip song and I think that’s why you see it in those kinds of scenes.”
Ray said that “Closer to Fine” is 80 percent of the band’s license, but that the duo are generally told very little about how their music is used. They don’t allow commercials, but they’ve successfully scored voiceovers and on-screen spots in movies like “Philadelphia” and TV shows including “The Office” and “Transparent.” In 1995, the duo starred as Whoopi Goldberg’s house band in “Boys on the Side.”
“I think it was really important at the time for us to reach more people,” Ray said in a phone interview. “These kinds of things are invaluable to an artist.”
Indigo girls have a similar hope for Barbie, already a global phenomenon with marketing power and brand recognition across generations. A cover of “Closer to Fine” by Brandi and Catherine Carlile appears on the extended version of the film’s soundtrack.
“I always felt like the song really defined who they were in that era,” Brandi Carlile said in an interview. That, even more than the lesbians, were intellectuals. They were offering a life beyond the life known to young men. It’s a very young song, she added.
However, given the lack of context on an initial call from their manager, Saliers said she was nervous. “I didn’t know who was directing it or anything, and I was like, ‘Oh, this is about Barbie?'” We’d better check to make sure this is kosher.” “But as it turns out, it’s up to Greta and this amazing thing is what happened. It was a complete surprise to Amy and me.”
Ray called it a gift: “It’s so cool that they’re using it.”
“Closer to Fine” is repeated three times in the film and appears in the official trailer for the film, but it has been recirculated in popular culture organically as well. In March, a video surfaced of comedian Tig Notaro singing it on a party bus alongside a cast including Glennon Doyle, Abby Wambach, and Sarah Paulson. exploded across the Internet. The band’s latest album, “Long Look,” arrived in 2020, and they’re on a tour (often ending in tune) touching Ireland and Britain next month.
“You can’t imagine a gay folk duo in this Barbie movie,” said Notaro, who has been a fan since seeing the video for “Closer to Fine” on MTV’s alternative rock show “120 Minutes.” Kind of selfish and personal, I feel like, ‘Yeah, we’ve been on to something all these years,’ you know?
She added, “When I hear a song like this, it feels like my chest is opening with joy and hope.”
The Indigo Girls were also the subject of the documentary It’s Only Life After All, directed by Alexandria Bambach, which premiered at Sundance in January. The film serves as a reminder of how Saliers and Ray, both from religious and Southern religious backgrounds, endured the scrutiny and prejudice as Closer to Beautiful set the light early on.
“I always felt like we had the brunt of lesbian jokes at some kind of lowest common denominator,” Saliers says in the documentary. Ray echoed those sentiments in the film, saying, “It seems the most demeaning thing you could be about being a gay singer-songwriter.”
Critics will refer to them as too serious or overly arrogant, if they cover them at all. The duo has been used to comic effect on “Saturday Night Live” and “South Park”; Even Ellen DeGeneres hired them as a step-mom after her character appeared on national television on her own sitcom, “Ellen.”
“That time period was really just very critical of women — of queer women, women who weren’t presenting the way the patriarchy wanted,” Bambach said. “I think it’s a really awkward time for us to look back on, you know, just the things that we made fun of or made fun of or said were OK.”
A very sweet “Barbie” moment, Brandi Carlile said after watching the duo take many snaps over the years. “The real injustice of the way Indigo girls have been treated over the past few decades is that they’ve been used as this kind of dog whistling acceptable to a sarcastic lesbian kind of way, and I always felt very destabilized by that,” she said. “And so seeing something like this happen to them on such a scale and watching them and this iconic kind of life-affirming song make its way to new ears is probably one of the coolest things I’ve seen in years.”
Singer-songwriter Katie Pruitt, 29, found the Indigo Girls in high school but embraced them in college, when she says their music gave her the confidence to write descriptive and personal lyrics from her experiences as a gay woman.
“Representation in culture is the biggest thing and the most important thing I think about is for people to fully embrace themselves,” she said. “You need all these different examples of who you’re allowed to be, and the answer is anyone — you’re allowed to be anyone.”
Pruitt has called Closer to Fine the “Northern Star” of his songwriting. “It’s just incredible that there will be a resurgence in 2023” in “a franchise where I grew up associated with extreme heterochromia,” she said. “I love how they’re now rebranding it as something incredibly comprehensive.”
Bambach, who discovered the Indigo Girls during a solo sing-along led by counselors at a youth summer camp, watched “Barbie” on its opening weekend in Atlanta and said there were shrieks of joy and appreciation when “Closer to Fine” played on screen.
“It gives us great joy to think that there was something this wonderful director saw in the song that was culturally relevant in this day and time,” said Saliers. Above all, however, she appreciates that time has allowed listeners to step back and appreciate the band’s music as just that.
“We’re finally allowed to be just us,” Saliers said. “I think we stayed long enough and he’s like, ‘Oh, it’s just Amy and Emily.'” We no longer take the brunt of the joke and thrive in certain ways regarding that relevance, which is gratifying. It’s strange, you know, to watch culture change and move — and it’s really changed for us.”