In Greta Gerwig’s Barbieland, where every day is the best day ever, pop stars like Lizzo, Dua Lipa and Charli XCX provide a bouncy soundtrack as the live-action dolls go about their cheery, blissful lives. That is, until Margot Robbie’s “stereotypical” Barbie cues a record scratch with a rare and shocking existential query: “Do you guys ever think about dying?”
To resolve this disruption to her otherwise perfect life, she hops in her pink Corvette and belts along to a track filled with strummed acoustic guitars and close harmonies. “There’s more than one answer to these questions, pointing me in a crooked line,” she sings with a smile, before thrusting a manicured pointer in the air.
Barbie’s song of choice on her way to the Real World is the Indigo Girls’ “Closer to Fine.”
The Indigo Girls, a folk duo from Georgia who have released 15 studio albums since 1987, featured “Closer to Fine” as the opening track on their self-titled 1989 LP. Emily Saliers wrote the song after she and her fellow singer and guitarist, Amy Ray, graduated from Emory University in Atlanta and were regularly playing a local bar called Little Five Points. It became a staple of the Girls’ live show that spread thanks to college radio play and an opening slot on tour with another Georgia band, R.E.M.
It’s a song about seeking, Saliers said by phone this month: “I searched here and I searched there, and if I just try to take it easy and get a little bit of knowledge and wisdom from different sources, then I’m going to be closer to fine.”
“Closer to Fine,” with its four-chord verses, octave-jumping chorus and slightly inscrutable lyrics, has been a staple of dorm room singalongs, karaoke excursions and car rides for years, and it is the Indigo Girls’ most identifiable tune. “Indigo Girls,” their first album for a major label, went double platinum and won a Grammy.
“It’s got a very easy melody and really easy chorus, and the chorus repeats,” Saliers said. “When you get to a chorus of a song that you’re into and you can just sing it at the top of your lungs, I think just structurally, melodically, it’s really a road trip song and I think that’s why you see it in those kinds of scenes.”
Ray said “Closer to Fine” represents 80 percent of the band’s licensing, but the duo are generally told very little about how their music will be used. They don’t allow commercials, but have had successful soundtrack and onscreen placements in films like “Philadelphia” and TV shows including “The Office” and “Transparent.” In 1995, the duo starred as Whoopi Goldberg’s house band in the movie “Boys on the Side.”
“I think it was really important at that time for us to reach more people,” Ray said in a phone interview. “Those kinds of things are just invaluable for an artist.”
The Indigo Girls have a similar hope for “Barbie,” already a global phenomenon with powerhouse marketing and intergenerational brand recognition. A “Closer to Fine” cover by Brandi and Catherine Carlile appears on the expanded edition of the movie’s soundtrack.
“I always felt that song was really defining of who they were in that era,” Brandi Carlile said in an interview. “That, even more than lesbians, what they were was intellectuals. They were offering up a life beyond the life that young people knew. And it’s a very young person’s song,” she added. “It’s about seeking out more than you thought you believed.”
Still, given little context in 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 better check to make sure this is kosher,’” she recalled. “But as it turned out, it’s in the hands of Greta and it’s just this amazing thing that happened. It was a complete surprise to me and Amy.”
Ray called it a gift: “It’s just absolutely wonderful that they’re using it.”
“Closer to Fine” recurs in the film three times and appears in its official trailer, but it’s been recirculating in pop culture organically, too. In March, a video of the comedian Tig Notaro singing it on a party bus alongside a crew that included Glennon Doyle, Abby Wambach and Sarah Paulson blew up online. The band’s latest album, “Long Look,” arrived in 2020, and they have been on a tour (typically closing with the tune) that touches down in Ireland and Britain next month.
“You don’t imagine a folk lesbian duo to be in this hot-pink Barbie movie,” said Notaro, who has been a fan since seeing the “Closer to Fine” video on MTV’s alternative rock show “120 Minutes.” “Kind of just selfishly and personally, I feel like, ‘Yeah, we were onto something all these years,’ you know? It’s validating. Obviously it’s been a huge hit forever, but this is so next level.”
“When I hear a song like that,” she added, “it feels like just my chest bursts open with joy and hope.”
The Indigo Girls are also the subject of a 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 openly queer and from religious Southern backgrounds, endured scrutiny and prejudice as “Closer to Fine” put them in an early spotlight.
“For the longest time I always felt we were the brunt of lesbian jokes in kind of a lowest common denominator,” Saliers says in the documentary. Ray echoed those sentiments in the film, saying, “It seemed like the most derogatory thing you could be is a female gay singer-songwriter.”
Critics would refer to them as too earnest or overly pretentious, if they covered them at all. The duo were used to comic effect on “Saturday Night Live” and “South Park”; even Ellen DeGeneres employed them as a punchline after her character came out on national television on her sitcom “Ellen.”
“That time period that really was just so critical of women — of queer women, of women that didn’t present the way that a patriarchal system wanted them to,” Bambach said. “I think it’s a really critical time for us to be looking back at, you know, just things that we scoffed or laughed off or said were OK.”
Brandi Carlile said after watching the duo take so many shots over the years, the “Barbie” moment is extra sweet. “The real injustice of how the Indigo Girls have been treated throughout these last few decades is that they’ve been used as kind of this dog whistling acceptable way to sort of parody lesbians, and I always felt destabilized by it,” she said. “And so seeing something like this happen for them on this scale and watching them and that iconic kind of life-affirming song make its way to new ears is probably one of the coolest things I’ve seen in years.”
The singer-songwriter Katie Pruitt, 29, found the Indigo Girls in high school but further embraced them in college, when she said their music gave her the confidence to write personal and descriptive lyrics from her experiences as a gay woman.
“Representation in culture is the biggest, the single most important thing I think 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 anybody — you’re allowed to be anybody.”
Pruitt called “Closer to Fine” the “northern star” of songwriting. “It’s incredible that it’s having a resurgence in 2023” in “a franchise that I grew up associating with extreme heteronormativity,” she said. “I love how now they’re rebranding it as something incredibly inclusive.”
Bambach, who discovered the Indigo Girls during singalongs led by counselors at youth summer camp, saw “Barbie” on opening weekend in Atlanta and said there were screams of joy and recognition when “Closer to Fine” played onscreen.
“It’s very gratifying to think that there’s something that this very fine director saw in the song that had cultural relevance in this day and time,” Saliers said. But above all, she appreciates that time has allowed listeners to step back and appreciate the band’s music as simply music.
“We’re finally allowed to just be us,” Saliers said. “I guess we’ve stuck around long enough and it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s just Amy and Emily.’ We no longer are the brunt of a joke and we’re flourishing in certain ways in terms of this relevancy, which is gratifying. It’s strange, you know, to watch culture change and move — and it really has changed for us.”