Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

Southern Misfits: Politics, Religion and Identity in the Music of Indigo Girls

Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

Southern Misfits: Politics, Religion and Identity in the Music of Indigo Girls

Article excerpt

The songs of Indigo Girls Amy Ray and Emily Saliers express southern identities that resist convention. The music, even when it is clearly personal rather than political, presents a complex world - full of all its dilemmas and conflicting emotions - and asks the listeners to explore those dilemmas and emotions in themselves. Their explicitly political music is also designed to get the listener to see different ways of being in the world that would lead to an ethic of love over violence. The music of Indigo Girls is a kind of personalized political activism aimed to transform the world one listener at a time.

Because Ray and Saliers both explicitly identify as Southern in their lyrics, musical styles, writings and interviews, this analysis of their music will draw its structure from work on southern identity. A brief explanation of this framework will show how the music of Indigo Girls is more than just a long play list of individual songs, but is a coherent expression of their identities as "misfit" Southerners.

The study of southern identity, like southern identity itself, has a complex, "contradictory and contested," history.1 The once "exceptional" South which was constructed as a white man's world has been re-examined to include African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans and women in the story of southern history and culture.2 Southern identity has long been the subject of study by historians such as C. Vann Woodward, W. J. Cash and James C. Cobb, among many others.3 Additionally, sociologists such as John Shelton Reed and Larry Griffin have cogently addressed the question of modern southern identity. Griffin, building on the work of Reed (1983), recently examined the demographics of southern identity and analyzed its complex "social psychology."4 Using the University of North Carolina's Southern Focus Polls (SFP), Griffin has shown that Reed's theories of southern culture are empirically supported. These theories identify two major shapers of southern identity: the collective definition of the region and the social psychology of regional identification.

Griffin notes that the use of a region as a reference point for self-identification is a choice, even for those who have lived in a region all their lives.5 The interesting questions then are: who chooses to identify as Southern, and what factors influence that choice? Evidence shows that each year fewer and fewer people who live in the South actually identify as Southerners, though the vast majority continue to do so.6 Additionally, while those most likely to identify as Southerners are Protestants, political conservatives, and those who are southern-born and have lived in the region for a long period of time, there are only small racial and gender differences in southern identity. That is, those who identify as Southern are not just white, Protestant, conservative men. African Americans, women, Hispanics, Native and Asian Americans, religious minorities, and other "outsiders," also commonly accept or assimilate a southern identity. Southern identity has thus been transformed by the diversity of those who claim it.7

The question that follows is why these individuals choose a southern identity. Building on Reed's speculations on the social psychology of white Southerners, Griffin uses the SFP to help identify what major factors influence the decision to choose southern identity. He found that while longevity in the region is always a major factor, others of significance include the belief that the South is superior to other places (that is, lifestyle, climate), and/or whether the individual embraces the South's positive qualities and downplays its negative ones, sees the South as distinctive, reflects on its meaning, and identifies and fits with others in the region.8

Griffin's social psychology of southern identity provides an interesting framework for analyzing Indigo Girls' work as musicians, songwriters and activists. …

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