In the “People” section of the April 26, 1989 issue of the Atlanta Constitution newspaper, the headline read, “It’s Full Speed Ahead for Local Indigo Girls.” The article below explained that the folk-rock duo of Amy Ray and Emily Saliers was on tour with REM, had an album that had gone gold, was about to appear on the David Letterman Show, and had plans to tour with both Bob Dylan and Neil Young. Furthermore, their first single “Closer to Fine” was scheduled to “be shipped to commercial radio stations nationally in late May.” That was thirty years ago today.
Other mentions in the Constitution from that summer shared that the Indigo Girls album had moved up to #74 on the Billboard charts by July, and in late August was at #55. As 1990 began, The Indigo Girls were Grammy-nominated, in the Best New Artist and Best Contemporary Folk Album categories. They won the award in the latter.
Though it never reached the top-ten on the Billboard charts, that album’s first single “Closer to Fine” may be one of the most influential songs from Generation X. Alongside “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Teen Angst,” and “Alive,” “Closer to Fine” grabs at something that a lot of us felt as we foraged through our teenage years at a time when the cheesy ’80s were shifting gears into the fin de siecle angst of the ’90s. Music reviewer Tom Moon, writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer in March 1989, put it well:
The fact that it’s 1989 rather than 1970 becomes obvious in the sing-song opening track, “Closer to Fine.” Rather than talking in absolutes, or in the universal terms that dogged much ’60s message-music, the duo simply relates the product of its experience in the innocent language of a ringing, ethnic-sounding folk melody: “There’s more than one answer to these questions pointing me in a crooked line / The less I seek my source for some definitive, the closer I am to fine.”
That same month, the Los Angeles Times described the song as a “wry, warm-spirited celebration of life and its mysteries.” The Austin American-Statesman called it a “philosophically uplifting tune” and remarked, “It features the strongest lyrics on an album that has a lot more to say than most records coming out on major labels today.”
Though I wasn’t exactly a late-’80s folkie, I did and still do like acoustic music, and this song resonated with me, too. It preceded “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which was the opening track on 1991’s Nevermind, and might have been our generation’s anthem had Cobain’s quirky poetics and dissonant sound not caught on like it did. What was particularly appealing were these lyrics about seeking answers from adults, even the supposedly wise ones, and finding none there that satisfied the zeitgeist of an era defined not by Civil Rights protests and Vietnam but by the fall of the Berlin Wall, skyrocketing divorce rates, and “free” credit cards we could apply for on the sidewalk of the college campus. It was a time before cellphones or the internet, when drinking and reading were still source material for teenage searchers. Speaking for myself, I read both Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil and Albert Camus’ The Stranger in 1988 and ’89 – I was in the ninth grade – and my half-baked brain then cooked up a bittersweet mental soup with those existential ideas, my Southern upbringing, and the rock-music imagery that cast an iridescent lacquer over everything we did. By 1989, our infatuation with the angry decadence of Appetite for Destruction had worn off, and the Sunset Strip had become less interesting to those who never planned on wearing skin-tight leather pants. I may not have been a folkie, but seeing the Indigo Girls standing on the railroad tracks and in back alleys in torn jeans and leather jackets, singing about their zigzaggy personal journey— it lit up my cerebral cortex.
For some of us in the Deep South, the Indigo Girls’ success was another fleck of gold-leaf on a countercultural badge of honor that our homeland never seemed to get to wear. The state of Georgia had produced REM and Widespread Panic earlier in the ’80s, and by the time “Closer to Fine” became a hit, both groups were touring nationally. Document and Green, in 1987 and ’88, had pushed REM all the way into the MTV-fueled limelight, and Space Wrangler came out in ’88, too. Moreover, The Black Crowes were right on the Indigo Girls’ heels, with Shake Your Money Maker in 1990. But the Indigo Girls were unique within this Deep Southern mini-barrage of alternative bands: not only were they female among a passel of raggedy, long-haired boys who built new sounds from their own eclectic record collection, the Indigo Girls were . . . lesbians. In today’s culture, that may sound passe to the point of who-cares, but in the South, in the era of The Christian Coalition and The 700 Club, it was a big deal— and to those of us who saw little appeal in mainstream attitudes, who were looking for a more inclusive way of living our lives, we were intrigued.
After the hubbub over their self-titled album died down, and listening audiences moved on to the next big thing — Jane’s Addiction’s Ritual de lo Habitual and Uncle Tupelo’s No Depression came out the next year, in 1990 — The Indigo Girls continued and put out a string of good albums. My personal favorite of their subsequent albums is 1997’s Shaming the Sun, in particular the songs “Shame on You” and “Get Out the Map.” All in all, “Closer to Fine” has aged well, appearing not only the radio from time to time, but also in commencement speeches and academic papers as us Gen-Xers get older and proceed to become the people who didn’t satisfy us when we were young.