With Stardom just a compromise away, Ani DiFranco chides her fans,
goofs off on the media and wishes major labels would get the bleep off
her answering machine. Jonathan Van Meter uncovers the essential
brattiness of folks great white hope.
Tonight in Knoxville, Ani DiFranco is onstage at the Tennessee
Theater doing one of the two things she does best: talking. She is
talking to her audience, her fans, and oh, what fanatics they are.
Pierced, tattooed, obsessed, sexually ambiguous, passionate, young,
noisy, bossy, possessive, and demanding, DiFranco's hair id dyed
magenta, her T-shirt is orange, her skintight latex pants are electric lime
green. She has never performed here before, and whenever she plays a
new town - what her her manager calls "breaking in a new market" - it
feels a little bit like she's gone back in time a couple of years, when her
audiences were mostly women. New markets always bring out the
original, hardcore fans: the dykes.
In a few minutes she will start doing the other thing she does best:
making music. She will sing a song that she's just recently written. A
song that goes, in part, like this: [from little plastic castle]
From the shape of your shaved head
I recognize your silhouette
As you walked out of the sun, and sat down
And the sight of your sleepy smile
Eclipsed all [the] other people
As they paused to sneer at the two girls
From out of town
The Dykes in the audience will love this song. They will feel validated
by it, and why not? It's classic Ani DiFranco. Who else writes songs
about sleepy, smiling bald headed girls in a coffee shop, in a small
town, getting hostile glances from the locals?
The dykes will feel that this song is about them. What's not clear,
though, is if they will follow the song to it's slightly irritated
conclusion, and realize that it is, quite literally, a song about them
About my image
Like I come in two dimensions
Like lipstick, is a sign of my declining mind
Like what I happen to be wearing
The day that someone takes a picture
Is my statement for all womankind ...
But I'm getting ahead of myself. She hasn't sung this song yet. She's
still talking. "It's a girl vibe! It's like, a pitch thing!" She does an
imitation of the roar of a mixed-gender crowd of a girl crowd.
Then she singles out a guy in the front row. "You are a brave man.
There is, like one fucking sensitive beautiful, brave man in the
audience" Someone shouts out, "Men are pigs!!" and DiFranco brings
the proceedings to a grinding halt.
"One thing I hate...m" she says, quietly seething. The room falls
silent. Her voice rises an octave and into the tone, if not the syntax, of
a grade-school teacher admonishing her pupils. "You know, it's really
nice to be, like, in the groove of a girl vibe, because there's a feeling of
strength, but I so want there to be feeling of inclusion. There's a lot of
sad shit that goes down in my songs, that goes down in my world and
my life, bit I never think of it as an us vs. them situation.
The energy has been sucked up right out of the room. A few songs
latter, she talks some more. "I was is New York at a traumatic photo
shoot. They kind of go from mildly traumatic to absolutely
devastating. It always starts with a dress"
She imitates a gay male stylist "Oh, you would look exquisite in this!"
I put it on, and it's see through. And I'm like, "Uhmm ... uhm ..." She
fiddles with her guitar, pauses for effect. "It was Jugs magazine, so I
don't know why I was fighting it"
The audience roars with laughter and finally, the bond, the connection,
the love, returns.
The next day, in a rock club in Birmingham, Alabama, DiFranco is
hanging out in her dressing room with candles burning all around her,
all the lights soft, waiting for showtime. It occurs to me that in addition
to the pressure from the image-making machinery to wear see-through
gowns, Ani DiFranco is getting the exact opposite pressure from the
other end of the spectrum: the dyke fans and the gender-identity
political freaks who feel betrayed is she isn't wearing pants - like
lipstick is a sign of her declining mind.
When I share this thought she lets loose with frustration and
defensiveness. "like I'm supposed to have hammered out this niche for
myself now. I'm the stompy-booted, sort of butchy, Go-girl folkstress,
and I'm supposed to just roll with that like I'm a caricature of myself..
People try to turn me into my fans, I was thinking that again last night
when that chick yelled out, 'men are pigs' I was thinking 'YOU are
why they stereotype me' All my life I've been the angry man hating,
puppy eating hairy, homely, feminist bitch!"
She runs out of steam, trails off, and looks down, as if slightly
embarrassed by the spew of her frustration. "So I guess ... yeah, I
cannot be caricature. But a lot of my fans do want it simple, they want
it easy. And when I insist on my own stupid personality quirks it can
be offensive to them."
Outside, fans are gathering, perhaps a couple hundred, waiting to be let
in. DiFranco goes to surprisingly great lengths to avoid contact with
her fans. She wants to go for a walk before taking the stage tonight, so
she does her best to cover up all visible quirks by wearing a plain
brown pair of Dickies and a baggy blue sweet shirt. She jerks the hood
up over and heads out the stage door. A clean getaway.
Not since Bob Dylan plugged in his electric guitar have a group of fans
been so freaked by an artists evolution. Since 1990 (when, at the ago
of 20, she released her first album, Ani DiFranco, on her own label,
Righteous Babe Records), the tiny, 5'3" DiFranco has been at the
center of a cult of personality that has slowly grown to epic
proportions. She has, quite simply, created a monster.
After several homespun, self-produced releases, filled with overly
political, often funny, sometimes brilliant, and distinctly old-school
feminist songs, DiFranco reached her own apotheosis with the 1995
release Not a Pretty Girl (which sold 112,000 copies). The title track
reads like a mission statement for young feminists everywhere. One
fan I encountered - a member of a white girl gang from Oregon - told
me that "32 flavors," another track, was their team fight song, And
then . . .
Ani DiFranco met a guy, fell in love, grew her hair out, and became a
pretty girl. She even started wearing dresses and lipstick occasionally.
Every song on her next album, Dilate, explored the contours of this
new relationship: love, love/hate, hate. The album garnered her best
reviews to date (it entered the Billboard charts at No. 89 and sold over
174,000 copies), and suddenly DiFranco didn't belong just to the dykes
and the feminists and longer.
RIGHTEOUS BABE, AN INDIE SUCCESS STORY:
Ani DiFranco's label rises up form the grass roots.
This was the headline on the cover of Billboard, April 12, 1997. After
seven years of being her own boss and touring ceaselessly around the
country, after seven years of building a rabidly loyal fan base through
playing small bars, coffeehouses, colleges campuses, and folk festivals,
after seven years if the best grass roots word of mouth wince Bruce
Springstein player the stone pony, Ani DiFranco suddenly popped up
on the radar screen of popular culture.
But it wasn't so much that her music finally caught fire with a larger
audience, or that her potent, confessional lyrics had at once connected
to the mainstream. It was that she was making more money per unit
that Hootie & the Blowfish. And the story had legs. Both the Wall
Street Journal and Time magazine weighed in on the subject. DiFranco
found herself in the surreal position of sitting behind a desk on the
financial news network being asked to prattle on about profit margins.
Forbes magazine even got the Artist Formerly know as Prince - the
major label slave himself, and perhaps the only person alive who
cranks out more music than DiFranco - on the blower for a comment.
"I love Ani DiFranco," he said "She's making four dollars a record and
the superstars are only making two dollars, so who's got the better
The music and alternative press have been lavishing praise on
DiFranco's music for a few years now, but since her last two releases
have cracked the billboard charts - this years double live album
Living in Clip debuted at no 59 - the focus has shifted. "Now
suddenly, I'm a brilliant strategist" she says "where I used to be this
stupid girl with too 'tude for her own good, who's is cutting off her
nose to spite her face and the music industry. And everybody would
say "You're selling thousands of albums, and we can help you. Don't
you want people to hear your music?" And it was like "She does an
imitation of Charlie Browns teacher "Wah-Wah-wah-wah"
One of those people was Danny Goldberg, president and CEO of
Mercury Records. He once bragged to a reporter that Righteous Babe
Records never returned his calls. When I talk to him about DiFranco ,
he is quick to put me in ,y place when I suggest that what she is doing,
from a business standpoint, is unique.
"I don't think she's reinventing the wheel," he says, a bit
defensively, "Fugazi did the same thing, Bad Religion did it for years.
It's part of her PR shtick that she has her own label and she makes
more per unit on it, and feels more in control of it. I find that less
interesting. A lot of people have indie labels. There are very few
artists like Ani DiFranco. If she wasn't a good artist and she had her
own label, who'd give a shit?"
It's ironic that Goldberg, the man credited with transforming Nirvana
form a local Seattle band into a worldwide phenomenon, would miss
the larger significance of DiFranco's fierce independence. If we are to
believe the mythology of Kurt Cobain's suicide - drug addiction and
depression not withstanding - part of what pushed him to the edge was
that he was embarrassed to be a rock star, At a time when
independence is worn as a mask (witness this years Oscars), and when
otherwise smart talented people sell their art down the river on a daily
basis, DiFranco seems to stand alone, it takes a mighty will to resist the
constant call of corporations when they come along with cash, limos,
and the promise to make you a star. Hardly anyone ever says no. Ani
DiFranco has been saying no to every single major label, week in and
week out, for a couple of years now. "They don't have anything I
want" she says.
I ask DiFranco about the call of the music industry, "Why conquer the
world?" she shoots back "I was thinking about that band today, on of
those new, white blooded, 12-year-old bands. Hanson? NO, not them.
Radish. Some young young boy. Here you have a kid that can maybe
hold a tune, can write verse-chord-verse, talented. That's the death of
him. Give him 10 years. Leave him alone."
The idea of pacing yourself and developing at a realistic rate as an artist
seems to be lost as a virtue in our culture. The seizing of fame and
money - not connecting with and building a true and natural audience
- has become the goal for many artists today. DiFranco is an example
of how to be truly, unpretentiously independent and successful.
"The idea of being a rock star is adolescent fantasy" she says. "And the
idea of being a working musician is a fucking job. It's work. And it
takes a lot of real decisive calculation in terms of holding yourself
back. Consciously holding yourself back. Not just me but Scott
fisher, my manager, who runs the records company. When we get an
offer to do a TV spot, we actually say no. We do crazy shit"
And her fans don't miss a trick. When DiFranco allowed an MTV
crew to film her onstage during a performance in 1995, a fan yelled
"MTV Sucks! What are they doing here?" Tabitha Soren wrote about
the experience afterwards. "I have never come into contact with such
protective - to the point of possessive - fans as DiFranco's. I realize
that an awkward position I put her in."
This may be the first time in history that a journalist publicly
apologized for merely existing. DiFranco even brings out the protective
and possessive in the media.
Having played a guitar onstage in bars since the ago of nine could have
turned Ani DiFranco into the Shirley Temple of folk music, but instead
she became it's Jodie Foster. She was born September 23, 1970, In
Buffalo, New York, to Elizabeth and Dante DiFranco. Both parents
graduated from MIT. Dad became a research engineer, Mom an
architect. Elizabeth was one of only a few women in her class, and
rode a motorcycle as a young woman.
DiFranco has said that life at home with her parents and older brother
was "like one scary scene after another" Her parents separated when
she was 11 "My mother moved out and I went with her" says
DiFranco. "So it was just me and my mother in a little apartment, and
my mother kind of freaked out and became a housecleaner. It was like
she demoted herself."
When Ani was 15, her mother moved to Connecticut; Ani chose to stay
behind in Buffalo and fend for herself, eventually getting her own
apartment and living unofficially as an emancipated minor while she
finished high school. Today, again, she shares a house with her
mother, but it's Ani's house, a big old thing with a front porch and a
pretty little lawn in downtown Buffalo that she bought a couple of
years ago and renovated herself. Her mother is among the nine people
who work for righteous babe records.
Her parents humored her and bought her a little kids guitar when she
was nine. Michael Meldru was working at the guitar store "He was
kind of a Buffalo Personality, folk singer, barfly, small-time promoter,
poet, degenerate, songwriter guy" says DiFranco. "We just hit it off.
I'm nine, he's 30. I was a precocious kid, and maybe one of the few
people who would listen to him, and he was my friend and mentor"
Meldrum once told Ms. Magazine "I saw a little girl with pigtails down
to her knees, and braces. Big Smile, open eyes, a lot of wonder ... she
had a great voice, a big voice coming out of this very little person ..."
He took her out to a bar on her 11th birthday, she got served.
It's no surprise that DiFranco - like so many people of her generation -
is the product of a broken home. She has been playing the adult for so
long, and redefining the meaning of family in her life, that one can't
help but sense her world-weariness. The difference, though, is that
DiFranco is not cynical. She seems to truly love and depend on her
"family" around her - the crew, the band, the label folks.
One day, riding on the tour bus, DiFranco is reading aloud a glowing
review of Living in Clip to Andy Stochansky, her longtime drummer,
and Jason Mercer, her new bass player (replacing Sara Lee, formerly
of Gang of Four) She mocks the reviews verbosity, while clearly
enjoying the fact that it is overwhelmingly positive. "As the foil for
most of DiFranco's onstage jokes and musings" she reads
"[Stochansky] plays a valuable role by affirming that this singular
performer's art isn't just a girl thing" She looks up at Stochansky and
says "Because you have a cock, it adds a while new dimension.
There's a boy on stage. We can all rest assured."
DiFranco is not an angry person, so comments like these aren't
unnerving. She has an essential brattiness that's the key to her appeal.
When she says "Fuck You" It's with a big toothy smile splashed across
It doesn't take me long to spot the boyfriends: Andrew Gilchrist (aka
the goat boy, because of his strangely appealing, caprina visage) is also
DiFranco's sound engineer. I see that they both wear the same ring.
One of the first things I notice in the Buffalo house is a framed picture
of Gilchrist, just inside the door.
For years, many people assumed DiFranco was a lesbian. When I ask
her how she defines her sexuality, she says that she doesn't. "I'm
attracted to different things that may or may not have to do with
gender. The person that I'm in love with now - the goat boy - the
thing that makes our relationship so perfect is that it's so dubiously
gendered. We take turns. It's supposed to be 'Oh, big righteous babe
falling in love for a man. Boo hiss taboo betrayal' And it's like 'You
should see him! He's more of a girl than I am" we fell in love, and it
was very tortured because we hurt other people that we were with, and
that's the album Dilate, I'm not playing any of those songs now.
I hate forcing labels on people who avoid them, but or the sake of
conversation, DiFranco seems to be, in practice, a male-oriented
bisexual. When I ask her if she's ever been afraid of men, she blurts
out "They're scary! Yeah!" And then backpedals "But it's the way
we're socialized .... I mean, like, people are just scary fucking
monsters!" She laughs uproariously. "I was really young and in the bar
scene and men were very carnivorous. So men terrified me But now in
my life it's the women what are really carnivorous, and really the most
manipulative. It's bizarre. Like I'm standing onstage playing and I
look down and some woman will wag her tongue at me. Or someone
will scream at me 'Play this! Play that! Talk! Sing!' Imagine if it were
men behaving that way. A few nights ago, some women was yelling
'Sing! Sing!' I looked right at her and said. 'Why don't you just have a
child and boss IT around1"
At the show in Birmingham, Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls turns up on
her motorcycle. She and DiFranco are good friends. "We both have
this part of our brain that makes us think that everybody should and
will be nice and friendly and forthcoming" says DiFranco "And then
we're completely disillusioned. We have all these grand plans. One of
them is the Rolling Thunder Pussy Revue. There's all these women's
festivals going on this summer, and we don't think they're as
adventurous as they could be. Lilth Fair - right away, by the name, you
know they aren't pushing the envelope hard enough. "
After the show, DiFranco and Way hand out in the dressing room, and
at one point, start talking about their tattoo's, specifically one way just
got on her chest. She has an appointment in a few days in New York
with Joan Jett's tattoo artist, a woman, to have it fixed. "The guy talked
me into pitting it on my chest and I was going to put in on my back."
Says ray. "I think he was just trying to talk me into taking my shirt off.
I was, like, ' I've been raped by the tattoo man!" They both laugh.
"I got a tattoo from a guy that wax kind of weird" says DiFranco. "This
thing on the back of my neck is basically a prison tattoo: a couple of
squiggly lines, so simple you could do it with a paring knife. And it
was crocked and asymmetrical. And he was not very friendly"
"Did you feel funny afterwards?" asks Ray
"Yup" says DiFranco, "I felt very angry."
"Did you feel violated?"
"Oh totally," says DiFranco. "I was like, 18, isn't that weird?"
"That's when I decided I would only go to women" says DiFranco. "But then
the women who did this, I HATED!"
I can't help but notice that Ani DiFranco seems to be experiencing
some kind of ideological shift where gender I concerned. Part of what
has made feminism appealing once again is that you don't have to hate
men to feel truly empowered. Perhaps she's finding, it's too easy and
reactionary to always say that girls are better.
She calls herself the folksinger. As does everyone else in the stage,
tight crew that compromises the DiFranco family traveling circus. As
in "Where's The Folksinger?" That she calls herself the folksinger is of
note because DiFranco is called so many things, self-made,
independent, feminist, bisexual, folk, punk, singer/songwriter, guitar
player, hero, role model, phenomenon.
When I first encountered DiFranco in Knoxville, I told her I had just
been stopped by a cop for no apparent reason and that he felt it
necessary to search my rental for "drugs or guns or anything illegal"
She related a story form her early touring days, when she was traveling
alone with her guitar through Texas one sweltering summer day -
topless. A cop pulled her over, found her half naked with a box of
cash and cassettes in the trunk, and demanded to know what she was
doing and where she was going. She pleaded with the officer "I'm a
Birmingham to Tampa, 600 miles. The band and crew, 11 in all, are
hoped-up tonight as the bus takes off at 1 AM "Bus Surfing!" shouts
DiFranco. Blinking X-mas lights are turned on, and a joint is passed
around. Somebody's making blender drinks with fruit and vodka.
System 7 is pumping form the sound system, and suddenly the bus has
been transformed into a rolling disco. All 11 people crowd into the
front lounge and dance like mad, whooping and hollering and trying to
stand up as the huge bus lumbers around curves and corners. DiFranco,
complaining that she can't dance to this particular choice, changes the
music to James Brown. After an hour of bumping and grinding, people
fall out and sit down, one by one.
DiFranco scooches next to me on a banquette. James Brown is still
playing. We are very stoned. "Dig the lyrics to this song" she says
"Stand up Baby, let me see where you're coming form" Obviously a
cry for social action. And then he says "get involved! Get involved!"
He keeps repeating it. Again a cry for social action" At this point we
are practically sitting on top o one another, her face just inches away.
"He's also an environmentalist, " she says half serious "There's that
song 'what do we need? Solar power!" people think he's saying soul
power. But he's actually saying solar power Again a political message
There are a couple of things about the folksinger that push the
boundaries of folk music. One is that she is deeply funky. On this tour
she has been opening with a very tribe called quest-ish version of a
poem she wrote called "IQ" [myIQ actually] She pulls off a kind of
1990-East-Coast-hip-hop, diggity-diggity rhyme style with amazing
success for a white girl form Buffalo. She is also a great dancer. In her
ever present KISS boots - silver plated clunkers that add a few inches -
she jerks and swivels her body, with an innate rhythm to rival any
current r&b artist.
The other thing about the folksinger that surprises me is that she is so
funny. Her performances veer into such over-the-top giddiness as to
give one the impression that she is half stand up comic. The rhythm of
her between song spiels is more Roseanne than Joan Baez.
Back on the Bus, after the surfing, I say 'rock and roll is rarely funny"
"yeah right, she says, "All my life I've always felt like the most un-cool
person. Because it's not cool to be happy, it's not cool to be funny.
For me, it's just not cool to be boring. I can't take it. So I'd rather
hang out with the class clowns than the cool guys"
The Tampa Bay performing Arts Center, 6 PM. The DiFranco family
Circus has pulled into town, only to discover that they are surrounded
by surreality. In the Holiday Inn next door, where we are staying, a
Narcotics Anonymous convention is in full swing - everywhere you
look there are ex-drug addicts, everyone of them looking like ten miles
of rough trail. In the complex where DiFranco will perform, a Catholic
high school prom is unfolding.
Outside on the loading dock of the convention center, DiFranco, whose
hair is now bleached blonde, pulls me aside. "I was thinking about
something that you said last night, that you didn't expect my show
would be funny. I've always had this basic understanding of what folk
music is, that is has to do with economics, that it is sub-corporate
music. Folk music is not on the radio, folk music does not make
money, folk music is more community based, politically oriented, of
the people. Rock music is more of a commodity.
"But you made me realize that another major distinction between rock
n roll and folk music is humor. What references in rock n roll do you
have for humor? Rock n Roll takes itself so seriously; folk music never
does. Because it's not cool to be funny, It's corny. My new little
manifesto is that folksingers take everything very seriously except for
themselves. They talk about social issues, political issues, , their
country, their society, their lives, their time, their place. But in this
whole rock n roll milieu, you take nothing seriously, save yourself. It's
so self-serious and tortured and grandiose"
This is, of course, an oversimplification, but she has a point. Suddenly,
Stochansky, who plays DiFranco's straight man on stage, gets dragged
into the conversation.
"He didn't say anything for, like, a year" says DiFranco. "I just kept
turning around and verbally abusing him, and eventually he just started
talking. Except he's always get the audience sympathy. They'd all
turn to Andy and go, "awwwwwwww" fucking perfect job in the
universe. Walk out, hit things with sticks, get sympathy from all the
The day before, in Alabama, Stochansky and I had gone for a walk
before the show and found a grassy lawn on which to hang out. He is
what a friend of mine called a "SNAG" a sensitive new age guy. He
and DiFranco have been playing together for six years, and the bond is
deep. "She always felt like family" h said, and then recalled the day
DiFranco met his father, a Ukrainian immigrant. "You are a dirty girl"
he said. To which she replied "And someday, I'm going to be a dirty
When Stochansky, who is from Toronto, first started playing with
DiFranco, it was just the two of them onstage, and he was often one of
the only men in the room. He told me about the moment things shifted.
"At X-mas, a couple of years ago, in Vancouver. One night , it just
happened. I came back to the dressing room and said 'Ani, you're not
going to believe this, but there are guys out there. Not only that, but
there are probably more straight people than gay people. ' I went from
playing a primarily female gay audience, to suddenly having all these
guys cheer me on. I immediately felt like "No! I don't want to be in
tune with you!"