I was gonna have moonbeam write about Ani DiFranco for our Summer of Badass Women, but then I decided that I would just do it myself because there is no way DiFranco would appear in our Summer of Badass Women if I myself did not think she was a complete badass.
Since first hearing of DiFranco in college (I know, probably everyone first heard of her in college), I’m sad to report that I’ve heard a lot of negative shit about her. The label she’s frequently saddled with (one that has also been unfairly hurled at Kathleen Hanna and pretty much any other prominent woman who has had the audacity to point out that patriarchy is bullshit) is “man-hater.” Of course, DiFranco isn’t a man-hater and I bet I’m not the only man who thinks so – her partner and sometime producer, Mike Napolitano (with whom DiFranco has a daughter), would probably not use the word “man-hater” to describe her. And, as I’ve mentioned before, there are lot of men who deserve to be hated. Like Pol Pot. I mean, fuck that guy, right?
So if Ani DiFranco shouldn’t be classified according to the defensive accusations of guys who probably just needed more hugs when they were little, how should we think of her? In other words, what makes her such a badass?
For starters, she is a nearly psychotic (in a good way) acoustic guitar player. There are three guitarists from whom I would like to take lessons: I’d like Tad Kubler to teach me how to solo like a fucking barbarian, I’d like Mike Doughty to teach me how to play rhythm with that chugging, thumping style he’s got, and I’d like Ani DiFranco to teach me how to thrash the living shit out of an acoustic guitar and produce the joyful noises she’s put to record in the last twenty-odd years. Rather than plaintively plucking and softly strumming out her songs, DiFranco frequently beats her strings like a drum, or pulls and snaps them like a lion ripping a gazelle’s tendons in its jaws (“Swan Dive” and “Evolve” are pretty great examples of this).
Secondly, Ani DiFranco is – no joke – so independent that Pitchfork doesn’t even review her records. I should like to point out, however, that Bollocks! totally fucking does. DiFranco (Ani, to many of her fans. This is the same thing that annoys me about some of Dave Matthews’ fans simply call him “Dave,” but you can’t stop these people from doing these things and it’s really not worth the time it takes to get worked up over it anymore) started her own record label in 1989 (Righteous Records, which became Righteous Babe Records in 1994) and has released every one of her albums – not to mention albums by lots of other independent artists – on that label. And while a lot of people praise DiFranco’s business model for its financial benefits, she stressed in an open letter to Ms. magazine that being a mega-successful business person was never her aim when she started her own label. And furthermore: “We have the ability and the opportunity to recognize women not just for the financial successes of their work but for the work itself. We have the facility to judge each other by entirely different criteria than those imposed upon us by the superstructure of society. We have a view that reaches beyond profit margins into poetry, and a vocabulary to articulate the difference.”
So I applaud DiFranco for not putting too much emphasis on making her first million but, having said that, I am always – always – happy when artists I love can make a living making music. But it’s far more important to me that DiFranco found a way to distribute her music to her fans without having to attach herself to some fuck-awful major label; you know, like EMI. The major label system is a dinosaur… or, better yet, it’s some kind of ancient, simple creature swimming in the primordial soup and scoffing as its neighbors grow, change, and head for the land, sea, and sky. I don’t have a name for the creature in that analogy because it didn’t fucking survive.
Where was I?
Oh yeah: There’s no point in being a folk singer if the folks never get to hear your stuff and DiFranco made her own way to bring the music to the people. Righteous Babe records represents the epitome of the DIY ethic that is a hallmark of the punk movement. It’s telling, then, that DiFranco associates “folk” with a certain spirit, much the same way that I think of “punk.” In the book Rock Troubadours (goofy name, I know), she’s quoted thusly regarding folk: “It’s an attitude, it’s an awareness of one’s heritage, and it’s a community. It’s subcorporate music that gives voice to different communities and their struggle against authority.” And when she’s not giving voice to those different communities through her songs, DiFranco supports innumerable progressive causes and has devoted herself and her label to the unenviable task of revitalizing her home town, Buffalo, New York.
Which is cool, you know, but what about the music? DiFranco’s detractors (and she has many) would have you believe that she’s some kind of one-dimensional harpy, shrieking unfounded accusations directly at every penis within a thousand miles of wherever her music is being played. Which is obviously bullshit. DiFranco’s feminism isn’t all the shouting kind (Bikini Kill’s was, and dog bless ’em for it); no, she’s more likely to hit you with a vivid story of a woman trying to carve her own path in a nation that is predominantly run by rich, white men. “Letter to a John” is a brilliant example of this – it’s a beautiful song wherein the narrator is a stripper who imagines taking the money she gets from giving dudes lap dances and getting the hell out of town. “I don’t think that I’m better than you/ but I don’t think that I’m worse,” she tells her current customer, summing up basically the entire ethos of feminism (and humanism and democracy, at least in theory) in two lines.
But to portray Ani DiFranco as some shrill, humorless activist is to do a hack-shit job of describing her large and varied catalogue of tunes. There are beautiful pop melodies in her songs (“Both Hands” and “As Is” come to mind) and some of them are wonderfully earnest (and only slightly cheesy) love songs like “Way Tight” from 2008’s Red Letter Year, which is – sadly – DiFranco’s most recent studio album (although fans itching for a dose of new Ani music can whet their appetites by checking out the new Twilight Singers album, where they’ll hear DiFranco on “Blackbird and the Fox”). My favorite DiFranco love song is still “Falling Is Like This,” largely because it captures the reckless feeling of falling in love (“one minute there was road beneath us/ and the next just sky”) while challenging the ways in which we typically describe a sensation that transcends our feeble words.
The cheap sum-up ending of this profile would be to say that Ani DiFranco is like the Woody Guthrie of the Riot Grrrl generation, but it’s more accurate to say that she has made it possible for women her daughter’s age to become the Ani DiFranco of their generation. She’s made herself an icon for independence, not just in music performance and distribution, but in actual thought and deed. And, like all true badasses, Ani DiFranco never intended to be an icon (I suspect she might not appreciate the suggestion that she is an icon, but I also very strongly suspect she doesn’t even know Bollocks! exists); she simply applied a relentless work ethic to a passion for her art, which his something we can all do, even if we’re not indie folk stars.