If you came into the “Barbie” film cold, expecting that if any song was going to get the most play, it might be Aqua’s “Barbie World,” you had a surprise coming. Turns out Barbie is a huge Indigo Girls fan — or, at least like a million women and some men before her, she likes to belt along with the 1989 folk-rock smash “Closer to Fine” in the car. The song pops up three times over the course of the blockbuster film, guaranteeing that there is going to be a huge resurgence in the real world of people singing about going “to see the doctor of philosophy,” even if they’re actually on their way to the beach.
Emily Saliers, who is half of Indigo Girls along with Amy Ray (and who wrote “Closer to Fine”), got on the phone with Variety from her vacation spot to talk about a licensing sync of anyone’s dreams. (“If you haven’t been to Iceland, I highly recommend it,” she said. “It’s mind-blowingly beautiful here, like nothing I’ve ever seen. Talking about ‘Barbie’ and getting to be in Iceland at the same time — no complaints.”)
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You’re on vacation. Have you even had a chance to see the movie?
I just saw the movie. I just turned 60 two days ago, and we took a vacation and so we were in the Faroe Islands and we snagged three individual tickets that weren’t even seated together. There were Dutch subtitles. It was surreal. I loved the movie. I can just tell you it was a cultural trip to be watching it premiere in that movie theater, and I haven’t saved a movie ticket stub since I was maybe 6 years old, but I’m saving this one.
When a licensing request like that comes in, do you ask a lot of questions before signing off?
We always ask questions, and when this first came down the pipeline for us and it was “Barbie,” I said, what? I never had a Barbie, so I don’t know — what’s this all about? My first thought was, oh, gotta make sure this is kosher, and then we found out it was a Greta Gerwig film, so that immediately put us at ease about that knowing it would be subversive in many ways, and also really well handled. And when the trailer came out, our listening audience lost their minds. As a fan of both Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, to see and hear them singing a song I wrote was just mind-blowing. It was a surprise that fell out of the sky, like a gift from heaven, for sure.
Did you know it would be in the movie three times?
No. Even if it had just been the trailer, it would’ve been thrilling. Then to watch and love the movie, and to have it featured so prominently as if it were part of what the movie was exploring, was just the biggest honor, but I didn’t know it until I saw it.
They must have asked quite a while ago, because the characters are singing along with it in the movie, so it’s not something that was just dropped in after filming, or could have been replaced.
They asked a while ago, but it wasn’t last year or anything; it was the past few months. So I don’t know whether maybe they just assumed, “Yeah, this is gonna be a no-brainer for them. They’re gonna really wanna do this.” And of course we did. And then when we found out that Greta hand-picked the song herself, everything was just like, oh, this is a tremendous gift to us. It just feels good to be part of this whole thing, and to be part of a choice that Greta would make purposefully is very validating and exciting and honoring.
Barbie gets more enlightened over the course of the movie, but it was interesting that even before becoming that enlightened, “Closer to Fine” has somehow penetrated Barbieland from the real world, breaking the metaphysical barrier between worlds. If you choose to think about it that much.
If Greta felt like this is a song that could have been in the reality of the Barbie world before it hit the real world, then that’s a lot. And then of course, Barbie and Ken and all of them are questioning: Who am I? What is my place in life? All the questions, and of course that song is all about asking questions. So, um, It’s wonderful that it, it had its place throughout the movie in the different contexts, like the real world Barbie land and, and it actually fit into what some of the movie was trying to explore.
You’ve said that the song is not about beating yourself up about not knowing the answers, or not feeling the need to quest for a single answer. This is a movie about an existential quest, and even though she’s singing it kind of in a carefree way at the beginning, it reflects the concept of the movie as a sort of coming of age story, or coming of mindfulness story. There’s the quest that begins with “does anybody think about dying,” and it sets that up to have a deep song popping up so early in the movie and then recurring.
Sounds like you’ve given a lot of thought, as have I, but that’s exactly right. If it has just been used as a singalong, I know it is a road-trip singalong song to people, at least of our era, who take it along with them, just because of what they tell me and tell Amy. But the fact that it was used as more than just the singalong song and that it does really touch on all the existential stuff that’s going on with Barbie and Ken and the whole reality — I don’t even know how to describe how that makes me feel for us to be part of that, in the deft hands of a director like Greta Gerwig.
And not to have it be too heavy, you know. Like, we always historically have just been dumped on for being too sincere or too serious or whatever. So I love that a song that asks a lot of existential questions, as you’ve said, gets placed in a film that’s asking serious questions. But it’s just so fun, so funny, so vibrant, so full of life — there’s nothing that’s a bummer about it. It’s just got an identifiable melody and a chorus that you can really hook into, so, structurally as a song, it’s something that you just can sing at the top of your lungs if you want to, even as you’re singing lyrics that you may not realize are pondering those things.
What did you think of the Brandi Carlile and Catherine Carlile cover version on the deluxe digital soundtrack? She’s of course one of your biggest fans.
Well, that was really came out of nowhere too. At first, you’re gonna either assume or ask, is this song gonna be on the soundtrack? And by all accounts it wasn’t gonna be on the soundtrack. Just a very short time ago, like in the past two weeks, Brandi reached out to us and said that they’d asked her to do a cover of it. It’s a beautiful rendition. I love that she did it with her wife, Catherine. And, you know, we’ve been on the path with Brandi for many years now, and she’s very gracious with the way that she says our music has inspired her. So it’s kind of like coming full circle.
But at first we were like, well, shouldn’t we do the soundtrack? But the people who put the soundtrack together wanted different artists covering original versions of songs. And it makes sense that Brandi is the one who ended up doing it, and in her hands of course it came out beautifully. We just gave her carte blanche and said, “Sing it with whomever you like. Take any approach you like.”
Do you have any favorite use that it’s had as a sync before?
It’s been used in various things through the years and some of them are things that I haven’t even seen myself. But of course we read what the script was gonna be. Every time you get a license opportunity, it’s really thrilling, and Amy and I have always honestly wished that we’d had more licensing. We don’t do commercials with our music. But we’ve always felt that we have plenty of songs in our catalog that would work well in different contexts. When that Kate Bush song came out in “Stranger Things,” it was like, I can’t believe they chose this song, and now this incredible generation of new listeners is listening. So I can’t say that I had like an experience with an earlier licensing where it was as strong and resonant as “Barbie” is. But every time, it’s exciting and thrilling because somebody’s created something, even if it’s a TV show like “The Office,” which is a very well-respected series where somebody’s making a choice to include one of our songs in a well done piece of work or art. I hope that people who see the movie get interested in the song and get their interests piqued, and then they check it out and hopefully from that point then they’ll check out the rest of the catalog and find some music that they can hook into.
There is a documentary coming out about Indigo Girls, which is excellent — we reviewed it on the festival circuit — and maybe this is almost like an accidental trailer for the doc, something which will be seen by trillions of people and maybe at least subliminally register with them when that comes out.
You’re talking about “It’s Only Life After All,” which Alexandria Bombach did such a beautiful job on. Going to Sundance and being in Tribeca, that was thrilling, and then to have Barbie on the heels of that, or in the midst of it, it’s kinda like, wow, I guess if you stick around long enough, something like this can happen to you. It does feel like a dream come true.
Any idea when the doc will come out?
They’re working on that. It’s a terrible time in the industry with all the layoffs, with budget cuts and things like that. The movie was stalled for a couple years during COVID as Alexandria continued to edit, but so they’re still working on getting a release where it can be viewed on streaming platforms. That’s what they’re working on currently, so there’s no release date for that, but it will have a theatrical release, too. I just know that Alexandria and her team are working, you know, tirelessly to get it placed so that people can see it.
Back to “Barbie” — did you have any thoughts about the film’s approach to intersectional feminism… being able to be subversive and have some heavy messaging and alsosell product at the same time? Judging from your response to the movoie, you might be a fan of sort of working within the system to get messages across.
I am a fan of that, living in the world that we live in today. I know that there will be all kinds of opinions about that. But for me, when you have a far-reaching opportunity to discuss feminism and to discuss questions, like when Barbie says, “I don’t want to be what’s created. I want to be a creator”… And even Ken says, “When I found out that the patriarchy wasn’t about horses, I kind of got bored with it”… To see a movie that’s really kind of a romp in many ways, but then is also subversive and makes you think — it certainly made me think, my wife and my friend and I. We left the theater discussing what was brought up about feminism and about the roles women been subjective to. But also then you have the creator of the doll — I loved it that Greta included her in the film at the end. It’s a thought-provoking movie and the intersectionality worked for me.
It has a subversive nature, but I mean, it’s very hard to understand why the right has had such an adverse reaction, calling it, like, uber-woke. I thought it’s a movie that everybody could watch and talk about and think about. … It wasn’t like everything was tied up in a bow at the end. There are still loose ends about those questions about how women are supposed to look and what their role is and what it means to be subjugated to oppression from patriarchy and all those really heavy and true things. I thought Greta did a very excellent job of walking a very fine line and including commercialism — because in the end, you can’t deny the fact that the huge capitalist mechanism is at work there. And if you accept the fact that that’s where we are and we have to ask the important questions within the context of all that, then I don’t think you’re gonna wrestle with the movie. But there’s no way you can have the complexity of this world and gender roles and then tie it all up and go, ah, now it all makes sense. It just doesn’t work like that. The most important thing is that it’s thought-provoking and questions are being asked.
Well, if it causes grown men to create videos where they’re burning Barbie dolls, then it’s probably doing something right.
Amen to that.
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