This Wasn't Supposed to be About the Indigo Girls
Jordan Alexander Stein
This wasn’t supposed to be about the Indigo Girls.
I wanted to write an essay on melancholy and Joni Mitchell, because I wanted to be able to say that one of the things that lives inside melancholy is anger, and Joni knows that, and if the Indigo Girls do, they know it much less. But anger, like knowledge, isn’t always a choice. And sometimes, as the Indigo Girls do happen to know, choice is overrated.
So what I’m compelled to talk about instead is “The Language or the Kiss,” the third track on the Indigo Girls’ 1994 album, Swamp Ophelia, the first of two songs nestled between the album’s two biggest singles, “Least Complicated” and “Power of Two.” All three are credited to Emily Sailors, widely known as the songwriter behind the band’s sweeter but also more emo tracks. Unlike the lovey loveliness of those two singles, however, “The Language or the Kiss” tells an overwrought tale of the ways that professional success does damage to one’s personal life. This is the conceit of the road song—think, Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty” or Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue”—where the realities of life on tour foil the promises of life at home. The conceit is familiar enough to border on pop music cliché, yet “The Language or the Kiss” forces the argument and keeps circling around to the more ironic likelihood that life on the road is a choice. The song’s speaker is choosing her art, the titular “language,” over her long-distance lover’s kisses. She does so deliberately and yet uncertainly. From the first verse:
I’m made mute by the virtue of decision
And I choose most of your life goes on without me
Oh the fear I've known
That I might reap the praise of strangers
And end up on my own
All I’ve sown was a song
But maybe I was wrong
And it goes on from there, cascading into a refined account of how well “you” know and love the speaker, at the same time that it twists these reflections through self-conscious metaphors about language: to overhear laughter like a language I once spoke with ease, to be told if I had my way I'd be bored, to read the Greek upon the stars/the alphabet of feeling. The language is a calling, and that call keeps coming: the sound of the voice these years later/is still the same.
The song’s choice, in other words, is equal parts desperate and impossible. Maybe it didn’t have to be this way—road songs can have other valences, after all, some of which can be downright exuberant. They can land us on an up-tempo highway to hell, or headed, guitar-forward, to our sweet home, Alabama. But even if it didn’t have to be this way, “The Language or the Kiss” reminds us, in elongated notes and slow interludes, that here we nonetheless are, on a road that doesn’t take us all the places we need to go. This is a road song about being stuck.
What the song is not at all is queer. Though the lesbian identities of both Indigo Girls were well known by 1994, and though more explicitly homoerotic songs do appear in their repertoire, “The Language or the Kiss” has no bearing on these queer details. The song’s dilemma is almost tedious in its universality. I’d actually push the point and say that of all this band’s songs, few are less likely to speak to the queer search for community and identity that so many of us olds spent the nineties scrounging around for.
And yet, the thing this song reaches for did speak to youthful me in one of my not-specifically-queer registers. The song’s idea of sacrifice, of the loneliness of a creative life, these things felt real to me, felt like a doom that was as likely as anything to stalk me through life. My creative inclinations poured into historical research and writing, and so at the tender age of 21 I threw myself on destiny’s dullest sword and enrolled in a PhD program, where I squandered my twenties and much of my ability to know joy. Grad school presented me with more problems than my sexuality ever did. I could walk into a queer bar and find my fellows, maybe even go home with some, but I learned the hard way that in order to make that happen I had to talk as little as possible about my dissertation. Meanwhile, I could walk into a grad student bar and still feel intellectually misrecognized and existentially misunderstood. If I wanted someone to read the Greek upon the stars with me, it was irrelevant to my cause that I’d actually studied Greek.
But life has a way of going on, and as years went by and I found a queer world to thrive in, I also found ways to live in the creative part of myself that in my youth had only been tolerated there. I got my degree and found a job and stopped listening to the Indigo Girls. I grew up and got my queer heart broken and learned some things about myself. And then, one day, I went to a cabaret show at a small theater in New York, starring the inimitable Justin Sayre. It was a lovely evening that ended in general astonishment when the encore number turned out to be an even-more-ballady rendition of “The Language or the Kiss.” No one in my party had ever heard the song before, and the mood of the audience suggested my party was not alone. But, reader, twenty-some years later, I still knew every single word.
The strange thing was, I didn’t feel it anymore.
Whatever the song made me anticipate about life and its sacrifices wasn’t there to be had in the same ways. “The Language or the Kiss” wasn’t a dilemma that could caption what had come to pass, at least not with the same accuracy or depth of feeling as it once had captioned what might have. The result was an odd sensation: I could no longer locate myself in the story and the emotions of this song that once had seemed foundational to who I was going to be. I hasten to add, though, that it’s not exactly like I wished I could––I didn’t want to feel more sad, or desperate, or impossible; I didn’t wish my work had gotten in the way of my life. But the fact that it hadn’t didn’t seem like growth, either. It had all the blunt edges of an ordinary fact. It didn’t, frankly, seem like much.
And so I wished I could write about Joni, to be able to tell you about the anger of love and loss, of needing too much and getting too little, of giving more than you have to someone who doesn’t want it. Instead, I’m stuck telling you not about the anger that lives inside melancholy, but the strangeness that does. The story I have to tell is about refinding some part of the past I’d been carrying with me only to discover I maybe hadn’t been carrying it at all.
For me “The Language or the Kiss” precipitates that curious, counter-Proustian movement by which a song doesn’t take you back but, in spite of itself, and maybe in spite of yourself, breaks down by the side of the road and leaves you there. The thing that had been a part of you in some sure way still is, but without precisely meaning to or realizing how, that part of you lives in a different place, on a smaller shelf, tucked further away and more out of reach. Yes, I still knew all the words, but what actually mattered was that I hadn’t sung them in years. I’d sown quite a bit more than a song, and yet I was, it turns out, most definitely wrong.