The Bollocks! Summer of Badass Women: Ani DiFranco

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.


The Worst Songs I Have Ever Heard #8: “Achy-Breaky Heart”

Gather ’round the campfire, children, and I’ll tell you a right proper tale of terror before I send you off to bed.

The year was 1992. President George Bush (no, children, the clown’s father. I know) had told us all, “Read my lips: no new taxes.” But what he meant was, “Read my lips: I just realized that cutting spending and raising taxes, though politically unpopular, is probably not a bad way to reduce the deficit my predecessor ran up in his protracted pecker contest with the Russians.” Bush would go on to lose his bid for re-election to a chubby-chasing Rhodes Scholar who would go on to be impeached for lying about a blowjob.

What’s that? No, the Rhodes Scholar didn’t torture anyone. No, he didn’t lie to get us involved in any wars. He just… I know, but listen: it’s just the blowjob thing. He lied about it and some guys thought he shouldn’t be president anymore. I know that’s fucked up. Watch your mouth.

But the story I have to tell you, children, it’s not about anything so mundane as politics. It is my intention to chill your bones with the 100% true story of Billy Ray Cyrus and his “Achy Breaky Heart.”

Back in the early ’90s, Billy Ray was just another hick from Flatwoods, Kentucky, hoping to ride his astonishing mullet to any kind of fame and fortune he could find. He went to Los Angeles, where they called him “too country.” So he and his mullet hitchhiked back to Nashville, where they called him “too rock ‘n’ roll.” They were just fucking with him in Nashville, but the line succeeded in its goal: trying to keep Billy Ray Cyrus  from becoming a household name. Rejected by two of the biggest cities in music (in their own estimation. By my reckoning, the early 1990s belonged to Olympia, Washington), our be-mulleted southpaw had only one option left:

Billy Ray Cyrus went down to the crossroads.

Most musicians know that you go to the crossroads to make a deal with the devil in exchange for mad skills. Billy Ray didn’t know that; he was just lost, trying to find a 7-Eleven where he could purchase a 64-ounce NASCAR mug. Maybe he was looking for a Circle K. In any event, the Devil was most certainly there and he most certainly approached Billy Ray Cyrus.

Looking over Billy Ray, Satan could not help but remark, “60 years ago, I met Robert Johnson. You, sir, are no Robert Johnson.”

Billy Ray was confused. “Who’s Robert Johnson?”

It was all the Devil could do to keep from disemboweling Billy Ray right then and there. Swallowing a hatred that could ruin nations, Lucifer asked, “What is it you seek, traveler?”

Billy Ray didn’t hesitate. “I was lookin’ for a 7-Eleven where I could git one of them big ol’ NASCAR soda cups.” He paused. “Or am I thinkin’ of Circle K?”

Satan realized he was going to have to speak very slowly to this one. “Is that all you want, Billy Ray? For your whole life?”

Billy Ray was amazed. “Hey! You know my name, man! You must know where I can git one of them cups.”

“Forget the fucking NASCAR mug!” exclaimed Satan. “You’re trying my patience. Do you wish to be famous, Billy Ray Cyrus? Do you want to wade neck-deep in the carnal embrace of a sea of middle-aged white women with the worst possible taste in hairstyles? I can make that happen for you.”

Billy Ray thought long and hard. “Shoot, mister,” he said. “I’m not sure what a carnival embrace is. Is that like when you kiss yer sweetheart on the Ferris Wheel?”

“Sure. Yes,” said Satan. He made a note to tell God at their next lunch date that people like Billy Ray Cyrus are enough to turn angels into atheists.

By some miracle, it finally dawned on Billy Ray. “Wait,” he said. “You mean you can make me famous?”

“I can,” replied the Lord of All Evil. “It is within my power to make even you rich and famous beyond your wildest dreams and far – far – beyond the bounds of human decency. What say you?”

“What do I have to do?” asked Billy Ray, running a hand through the roadkill that he called a haircut.

“I have a man in the music industry,” replied Satan. “His name is Don Von Tress. He has written a song just for you. It will make women – mostly the aforementioned white women – love you and men fear you. It will give you everything you desire.”

“Gosh,” said Billy Ray. “That’s awfully kind of you. What’s in it fer you, anyway?”

Satan smiled deviously. “Well, I will get your soul when you die…”

Billy Ray interrupted him. “Wait… are you an angel?”

The Devil has no need for honesty. “I sure am,” he said as kindly as he could.

“So this song…it’s gonna save my soul?”

“Why not?” asked Satan. “Angels can do anything, can’t they?”

“Yeah!” shouted Billy Ray. “I better go find this Don Bon Jovi guy and learn that there song. I can’t wait to get some of those carnival embraces.”

Billy Ray dashed off to fame and fortune, his mullet billowing behind him in the wind. The Devil looked up and shook his head. And he quipped unto the Lord, “You sure don’t make ’em like you used to. Intelligent Design, my ass.”

And so Billy Ray Cyrus met Don Von Tress and recorded “Achy Breaky Heart,” a song so awful that entire continents were rent in twain by the force of the line-dancing craze that it inspired —

What’s line dancing, you ask? It’s a crazy form of mating ritual that was popular among white trash in the early 1990s. Now stop interrupting and get Dad another beer.

Where was I?

Yeah. So shit got real bad after “Achy Breaky Heart” dropped. War broke out in Bosnia. Isaac Asimov died within a month of the song’s release. But that’s nothing. More than 200 people died in Guadalajara, Mexico, when their sewers exploded (No, children, I am not making this up). The “official” cause of the explosion was a fuel leak into the sewers, but the truth is that the sheer volcanic force of “Achy Breaky Heart” rained shit and death upon unsuspecting foreigners.

Clearly, something had to be done. And I guess this story comes back to politics after all. In order to stop the devastation wrought by “Achy Breaky Heart,” President Bill Clinton took his own trip down to the crossroads shortly after his election in November of 1992.

“Bill!” shouted the Devil. “How’s it hangin’?”

The President-elect replied, “Satan, we gotta talk. We’ve been friends now for a long time, right?”

Satan nodded. “Ever since you lied your way out of Hell in the tenth grade, Billy. I gotta admire that kind of chutzpah.”

“Yeah, okay,” said Bill Clinton. “But you’ve gone too far this time, Satan. I know you’re behind this ‘Achy Breaky’ thing. What were you thinking?”

Satan shook his head. “Bill, I thought I could control it. I had no idea… I think the song is actually more evil than I am. Ever since it came out, I’ve felt… empty.”

Clinton gave his old friend a conciliatory pat on the shoulder. “Can we stop it?”

Lucifer pondered this. “Maybe. Listen: I’ve got a deal in the works with Newt Gingrich. Are you willing to take a beating in the midterms?”

Clinton, ever the shrewd politico, figured he could afford some losses in the ’94 Congressional elections. “Sure,” he said.

Satan said, “Okay. Gingrich is gonna be Speaker of the House and he and his guys are gonna try to ruin all the fun for everyone.”

Clinton’s ears perked up at this. “I still get the blowjobs, right?”

“Sure,” said Satan. “But you might have to face impeachment for it.”

“Fine,” said William Jefferson Clinton. “Anything. Just make this fucking ‘Achy Breaky’ song go away.”

And so Satan, in perhaps the one good deed of his entire life, set about helping the people forget about Billy Ray Cyrus and his stupid achy breaky bullshit. Sure enough, the Democrats got walloped in the midterms and Bill Clinton got his blowjobs. He wasn’t successfully impeached and – more importantly – his willingness to be caught in an extremely uncomfortable lie saved us all from “Achy Breaky Heart.”

By that time, however, Billy Ray Cyrus had become slightly savvy about show business. As soon as the world forgot about him, he began plotting his diabolical return. The first step in his plan? Sell his daughter as a slave to the good people at Walt Disney Entertainment. That tale of terror will have to wait for another time though.

Now off to bed with you. And pay no attention to the sounds you hear coming from Mommy and Daddy’s tent.

Rocktoberfest Acht

So yeah, my friends and I, in a bout of total unoriginality, started this annual party called Rocktoberfest back in 2002. Rocktoberfest is a celebration of beer and friendship and meat and rocking until you break yourself. If that sounds childish and/or unimportant to you, maybe you should attend Rocktoberfest before you go judging things you don’t understand. Or maybe you’re humorless California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, who doesn’t seem to like anything at all, especially if it has ever a) been in a union or b) been poor. But I digress.

This year was the 8th annual Rocktoberfest (Rocktoberfest Acht in German. So Achtoberfest, as my pal Jom pointed out while quite drunk) and we held it at my friend Badier’s mostly former house in Menlo Park, which is dangerously close to Stanford University. Having a massive party in a house that is mostly empty is definitely the way to go. Less shit to break.

I’d like to think that everyone who attends  our Rocktoberfest recognizes that, like Hold Steady albums and good beers, the most recent one is always the best one ever. This year was no exception.

Somewhere in the haze of music, drunk, and smoke, I realized why Rocktoberfest feels like a holiday to those who attend it and, as a sort of bonus realization, why rock ‘n’ roll is not a terrible substitute for a religion (when it doesn’t suck, of course). Let’s deal with the last thing first: at its best, rock ‘n’ roll creates community. When you go to see your favorite band, you share in the pure joy of music with a roomful of strangers. The audience and the band are all plugged in to something much bigger than the sum of its parts. The potential exists in that moment to meet new people and make new friends. You don’t have to do that, of course, but you totally can. And maybe you should. Rocktoberfest is a celebration of an ever-expanding community that started with five guys in a house. Those five guys didn’t always get along by any means, but Rocktoberfest creates a unique present in which the past is mostly obliterated while people sing along to songs like “This Fire” by Franz Ferdinand (modified by us so that the chorus is now, “This beer is out of control/ I’m gonna drink this beer/ drink this beer”) and “Holy Diver” by Dio (we poured one out for Ronnie James Dio this year). Sure, it’s silly. But what’s wrong with being silly?

What happened at Rocktoberfest this year was what I  imagine happened around Joe Strummer’s famous campfires at Glastonbury. Old friends met new friends, some of us had wives to bring, others had kids to leave at home. But for several hours of a Saturday, everyone was cool with everyone. For my part, I was deliriously happy. You can do this anytime you want, and you should. Gather your friends and some drinks and some great music, and celebrate your personal community. Rocktoberfest Acht was a reminder of why I love music and – more important – why I literally love a majority of the people I know. It’s not prayer and it won’t save you from much besides boredom, but it could provide you with one helluva a great night.

So, in the great words of Mr. Craig Finn, “Let this be my annual reminder/ that we can all be something bigger.” Go forward, kids, be awesome to each other, and rock the fuck on.

A Fairly Unfiltered Reaction to Beach House’s Teen Dream

First off: it’s 2010, and that means wedding planning is gonna fuck with my posting schedule a bit. So be it. For some reason, people are still dropping by, even when I haven’t posted in a while. Thanks.

Anyway, I wanna talk to you about the new Beach House record, Teen Dream. The Pitchfork review of this album uses phrases like “shadowy dream-pop”, “dark and blurry resonance,” and “Mazzy Star” in the first paragraph alone. After reading the Pitchfork (or P4K, as those pretentious twats abbreviate it. I feel like it’s been a while since I’ve abused a parenthesis, so I’m just gonna vent here for a minute. I don’t know who is to blame for changing “you’re” into “Ur”, “your” into “yr” or thinking abbreviations like P4K are acceptable, but I want them found and I want them killed. Our country is already hemorrhaging intelligence at a horrifying rate [check this shit out if you don’t believe me. Kirk Cameron actually talks about convincing people God exists by bypassing the intellect. This is probably the same way you convince people to eat shit.] and this needless pruning of already short words is not helping things at all. I don’t know if people who do it think it’s cute or convenient or what, but knock it the fuck off. If you’re texting a message to somebody and you can’t afford an extra three letters, just fucking call them. Whew. That’s some good parenthetical abuse right there) review, I was all set to hate Teen Dream. It’s called Teen Dream, for fuck’s sake.

I sought this album out to despise it. Not just because I’m an asshole (but I’ll cop to that), but because I learned a little lesson a year or so ago about a really shitty “band” from San Diego called Wavves. Pitchfork ejaculated a spoogey river of praise onto Wavves’ album, Wavvves (I still refuse to see what they did there), and, based on their review, I decided to check that album out. And it was dog shit. No. Dog shit still sounds better to me than Wavves. Now, to be fair, there are bands that I like that get pretty good marks from the Pitchforkers, but there are certain Pitchfork reviews, like the one for Beach House’s latest, that signal to me that this is overblown praise for a complete turd of a band. The word “droning” shows up in the Pitchfork review for Teen Dream and that’s a big red flag. The whole review conjures up analogy after analogy to light and darkness – also a huge red flag. The review also praises the use of a cheap drum machine, which is not encouraging. And the review contains this sentence: “Hearing her voice in such a spare setting reinforces just how rich, earthy, and, dare I say it, soulful it really is.” Yes, Pitchfork Managing Editor Mark Richardson, you dare say it. So just fucking say it, you giant pussy. If something is soulful, you can say it’s soulful. Saying Jeff Buckley is soulful only makes sense. Saying Wavves is soulful means you probably have a brain tumor.

But enough (at last!) about everything to do (even tangentially – it’s great to be back here, making parentheses my bitch) with Teen Dream but the music. Because this album is mostly fucking gorgeous. Victoria Legrand is a soulful (seriously, Mark Richardson, why is there a problem with saying that?) vocalist, her voice fits the instrumentation like a glove and, if that’s a cheap drum machine they’re using, good on them. Sounds great to my ears. Given how much I expected to loathe Teen Dream, I have to say it strikes me as nothing short of stunning. I’m listening to it right now on headphones and I am not infrequently getting chills.

So I think I’ve learned something here today. No, I haven’t learned to give Pitchfork the benefit of the doubt – I’m still right about them 9 times out of 10 (although, to be fair, they point me to a lot of good music. I read their site, wading through their mostly pretentious prose [cue someone saying this about me in 5, 4, and so on] to decide whether or not I will like the band they are reviewing) and they still give high praise to stuff a brain-damaged monkey could do with his ballsack, a laptop, and a MIDI-ready Stratocaster that so far from in tune that you have to measure the distance in megaparsecs. What I’ve learned is that I like to be surprised. The one time out of ten that I’m wrong about something Pitchfork likes is a moment of serenity for me. In this fucked up world, the fact that even Pitchfork and I can agree on something gives me a shred of hope (an admittedly small one) for humanity.

There’s another lesson here, one that is very important to remember, especially when Pitchfork or Bollocks! is bagging on something near and dear to your heart (although, come on, that never happens here): the music is what matters. It doesn’t matter what I think of an album if it moves you and it doesn’t matter that Pitchfork was blind to the beauty of My Morning Jacket’s Evil Urges because I sure as fuck understood that album for the hulking slab of awesome that it was. I’m telling you what I think of an album in a given moment – in this moment, I really dig this Beach House album. I’m not getting paid for it (the Pitchfork guys are, but I don’t begrudge them that. They’ve achieved the American Dream: getting paid to masturbate) and I am comfortable with my complete lack of influence (which is what it is, at least until 400 motherfuckers come here to vehemently agree with me about something). There’s some reason you read music reviews and that’s for you to sort out. I write music reviews because, well, I love music and I don’t sleep much.

But seriously, Pitchfork was – dare I say it? – correct about Teen Dream. And while I am pretty happy when we agree on stuff, I’m still perplexed at how much I hate how they praise albums. They take their shit waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay more seriously than I take mine. Of course, “criticism” is their job and what I do here is more Free-Floating Hostility, to borrow a phrase from George Carlin (if I’m funny, ever, it’s because of George Carlin or Kurt Vonnegut. Either by lessons learned or jokes blatantly stolen). You can decide which you prefer and adjust your reading habits accordingly. But do yourself a favor and at least listen to Teen Dream. I’ve listened to it like four times while writing this (I took a lengthy detour on the Way of the Master website, where I took their quiz to see if I’m a good person. You can guess, by their criteria anyway, how that went) and it is still fucking gorgeous.