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The Righteous Babe and the Reckoning
Jess Wynne explores the radical singer writer Ani Difranco

Ani Difranco: singer, songwriter, success story, faces her critics
with her latest offering, the double
CD Reckoning/Revelling.

And no I don't prefer obscurity/ but I'm an idealistic girl/ and I wouldn't work for you/ no matter what you paid/ and I may not be able to change the whole fucking world/ but I can be the million that you never made. ('The Million that You Never Made', Not a Pretty Girl, 1994).

In 1990, aged twenty, a folk singer from Buffalo, New York, raised the sum of $50 and became the CEO of her own record company. Fiercely independent and disparaging of the homogenous nature of mainstream music, she refused contract after contract. Instead she produced her own eponymous debut - a record compiled of songs written between the ages of fourteen and nineteen, clearly displaying her precocious talent. Then off she set, driving from town to town performing everywhere from colleges to coffee houses, selling copies of her album from the trunk of her car. The overwhelming opinion was that she was on the road to obscurity.

Eleven years of touring and hard work later her label, Righteous Babe Records, now employs all of nine people and Difranco has performed with the likes of Dylan, Springsteen, Prince and even the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. She is also the highest selling independent artist in America. Not surprisingly she has made people sit up and notice her. All of a sudden Time Magazine is discussing her in the context of one of the most powerful women in the music industry. The idea of Difranco as an entrepreneur is impressing to some. Prince (or as he was so titled at the time, Squiggle, the Artist know formally as) commented, 'I love Ani Difranco, she's making four dollars a record and the superstars are making two dollars, so who's got the better deal?' Others it seems, shroud their jealously by building Difranco up as some sort of strategist, who has skilfully manipulated the alternative counter culture to make money. She is accused of hypocrisy for taking a lion's share of royalties whilst projecting an image of integrity.

Oh well tummy aches all round from critics living on a diet of sour grapes. And Difranco is clearly uncomfortable when being described in terms of financial aptitude. She has worked hard and reaped the awards yet still resides in her home town of Buffalo. She is the only musician to have been named Buffalo's citizen of the year for her contributions to restoring the city - buying up condemned buildings and so forth. She is also a frequent performer at benefit gigs and active politically in the attempt to publicise the Green party. So she certainly hasn't become a millionairess diva prone to tantrums and increasingly bizarre requests to rival the likes of Mariah Carey. However, for all her worthiness it is slightly disturbing to find rumours circulating on the web which suggest her once loyal fan base is deserting her.

People talk/ 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 someone takes a picture/ is my new statement to all of women kind. ('Little Plastic Castle')

It is ironic that Difranco has avoided the compromises and restrictions of signing to a major label but has instead found herself confined by her own fans. She has found it hard to shrug off a stereotype which is in the main contributed by what she describes as the 'hardcore you-go-girl contingent'. In Spin Magazine she gave vent to her frustration regarding this issue:

'All my life I've been the angry, man-hating, puppy-eating, hairy, homely, feminist bitch!'

Certainly reviews of her work, whilst admitting admiration for her song writing skills, are also notable for smug witticisms about earnest feminist types. In an age of cynicism she is portrayed as more self-righteous babe than righteous babe. Nevertheless she has accumulated sales of over two and a half million so reductive perceptions have not stopped her from widening her audience. So why are some of her fans crying sellout?

Funnily enough her music is rarely mentioned in the argument. What appears to be the catalyst is her marriage to her sound engineer Andrew (and that's Andrew not Andrea) Gilchrist three years ago. Oh and the fact that she has grown her hair and occasionally wears a dress.

However, her latest album does hint at why her hardcore fans might be disillusioned. Disillusionment is perhaps key to this bleak double album. Her work is often difficult to hear, confrontational and intimate but it always managed to inspire, to suggest answers to the personal and political questions it asks. In Time Magazine Difranco asserts that 'in the past, music has been a way that I've had to empower myself'. Reckoning, however, is concerned with 'how you show yourself at your weakness'. This is not what we have come to expect of Difranco.

But then defying expectations is what she does best - each new recording documents her current musical experimentation and her perceptions of a changing world both external and internal. This album is perhaps one of her most personal; it deals with the difficulties of marriage, feelings of entrapment and anxiety. Reckoning is the more introspective and pensive affair. The songs are mostly comprised of just Difranco and her guitar and therefore have more in common with her earlier work than those on Revelling. However they are subdued, disarmingly so, as it takes a few listens before you realise how emotionally charged they are. However, it is difficult not to yearn for the ferocious energy that fuels most of her previous work. Songs that stand out include 'So What', a jazzy little song about a failed relationship and 'Grey' which describes her dependence on her lover - but I'm wired this way/and your wired to me/ and what can I do/but wallow in you unintentionally - and the knowledge that happiness does not necessarily stem from love. 'Revelling' and 'In here' both allude to the idea that marital life is less than blissful:

you were on cloud nine all the time/ while I was levelling/ I was wringing my hands and you were revelling/but then why shouldn't you?/it was such a beautiful thing to do.('Revelling').

What redeems these songs from appearing overly angsty is the affection they display: rather than using accusations as fuel they seem an attempt to understand and work through problems as they arise. Not all the songs reflect personal themes. Old enemies such as capitalism and multinationals receive their annual Ani bashing. However, 'Your Next Bold Move' suggests a loss of faith in the power of people to change things for the better. It also alludes to the ease in which you can be swept up by the dominant culture - and the multinationals have monopolised the oxygen/ so it is as easy as breathing/ to participate. 'Subdivision' takes on race issues rooting them, as always with Difranco's work, in personal experience which adds resonance to the song. Her lyrics are poetical and often employ rather overworked metaphors (which is the case with 'School Night' and 'Fierce and Flawless') but usually it is her ability to speak plainly which is most effective. This is the case with the wordy 'Subdivision', it gains its power from its simplest verse:

'I remember the first time I saw someone/ lying on the cold street/ I thought: I can't just walk past here/ this can't just be true/ but I learned by example/ to just keep moving my feet/ it's amazing the things we all learn to do'

The second CD, Revelling is more upbeat and experimental. It is Difranco's attempt to fuse folk and jazz. For the most part she succeeds all though sometimes it seems that some music should have been left on the editing room floor. This is perhaps one of the problems of producing music independently; it is not always easy to realise what is worthwhile and what is self-indulgent. Working with her band produces richly textured songs which are certainly funky but seem to lack her usual emotional power. Generally the lyrics seem overly veiled in metaphor, as if she is not ready for the content of the songs to be aired in the public domain. The best piece is 'Garden of Simple' - a fairly typical Difranco song in its narrative style and its memorable opening - Some crazy fucker carved a sculpture out of butter

This is definitely one of those albums that grows on you. It is the most polished and mature work to date but I fear some will be put of by its sheer length. Her writing does not seem as sharp - this may be what has upset her fans - it seems blurred, less sure of itself. As 'Glasshouse' notes on a previous album, life just keeps getting harder/and it keeps getting harder to hide; perhaps it is this that is at the heart of the album's cloudiness. Nevertheless Difranco's humour is ever-present as is her ability to dissect American culture as she does on 'Kazoointoit' - but our culture is just a roughneck/teenage jerk/with a bottle of pills/and a bottle of booze/and a full round of ammunition/and nothing to lose.

Be warned this album is not suitable for the MTV generation who may incur serious brain injuries by overstretching their attention spans. For every one else: even when the incredibly prolific Difranco does not create her best she's still one of the most gifted songwriters of her generation.

© Jess Wynne 2001

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