A folksinger is a voice of and for the people, the implication being that not all people have the insight, energy, or freedom to speak or sing for themselves. A folksinger is special only insofar as she is blessed with all that insight, energy, and freedom, in spades, and willing to devote her life to giving voice. A folksinger doesn’t need a fancy institutional education or the approval of any gatekeepers. A folksinger doesn’t have to be connected or privileged or attractive or aspirational or anointed in any way. A folksinger needs neither permission nor anything so mythical or subjective as innate “talent.” A folksinger doesn’t even need a “good” voice. A folksinger barely even needs an official audience, let alone a manager, promoter, tour bus, or sound engineer (though all those things probably come in handy). All a folksinger needs are guts, heart, soul, and the dedication to work her ass off, indefinitely.
And, oh: a lack of vanity, which is arguably the rarest ingredient of all.
Cut to your garden-variety sensitive/suicidal teenaged freak coming of age in the 1990s amidst a swirl of mass-marketed female voices: Natalie Merchant, Erykah Badu, Alanis Morissette, Me’Shell Ngdeocello, Jewel, Sarah McLaughlin, Tracy Chapman, Liz Phair, Lauryn Hill (none of whom, with the exception of Badu and Ngdeocello, have continued to make widely embraced or respected—or any—work). I adored them all indiscriminately. My cultural discernment in its earliest evolutionary stages was rather… loose, music being the ultimate refuge, though I’m glad I never went to Lilith Fair.
The teacher appears when the student is ready: enter someone’s mix tape, and there was Ani’s captivating lullaby “Both Hands,” and her gentle instructional “Firedoor,” and her ferocious insistence to “Anticipate,” and the rallying cry of “Names and Dates and Times,” and the insouciant “Blood in the Boardroom,” and then the hard realism of “Willing to Fight.” DiFranco, barely out of her own teens, stomped into my consciousness and left her singular boot prints all over the place. She sang of love and friendship and easy lies and hard truths and adventure and self-reliance and sex and romance and struggle. I needed her, bad.
How much of mainstream music (or art, or writing, for that matter), past and present, amounts to: Like me! Love me! Agree with me! Fuck me! Pay me! Imitate me! Worship me! Obey me! Follow me! Fuck me some more! Adore me! Pay me some more! I’m rich! Did I mention how rich I am? Sooooo rich! Check out my outfit! Like me!
Ani was different. Ani embodied the idea that you could resist what was proscribed for you in any given context, and you could have unpopular or idiosyncratic or wildly unheard-of perspectives, and you could share them. And dance and growl and stomp and bounce and shout and giggle all the while. The process of figuring shit out could be fun. And hey! While you’re at it, refuse categorization, refuse definition, refuse to play by anyone else’s rules. Refuse complicity in your own cultural degradation. And even though you’ll probably be mocked, sometimes threatened, mostly ignored, and occasionally punished, no one can actually stop or silence you, so long as you draw the breath of life. Overthrowing existing power structures doesn’t have to be a drag. Revolution can be a fucking party.
Ani was the first truly unafraid woman I ever saw or heard. Not a trace of timidity. No hesitation or self-negation. No prim, apologetic requests for permission. No self-serious protesting-too-much. Hey, her songs said, lend me your ears. I am worthy of your attention for this passing moment. I am hard to ignore, but I won’t waste your time.
A manifesto is a public declaration of principles, policies, or intentions, especially of a political nature. Try this one on for size: Ani DiFranco is the greatest living folksinger of the post-Dylan era, and the only reason most people don’t give much of a crap is because she is a woman.
That guitar in her hands, so fast and fluent and percussive, like an extra limb! It sounded, I realized when I began to write stories and essays, exactly like the kind of stop-time typing or scribbling I did when I didn’t have to pause to ponder what I really thought and felt, or whether it was “acceptable” to think and feel what I really thought and felt, or whether othersmight react poorly of what I really thought and felt. Freedom, in other words.
Fearlessness. Authority. Expertise. Don’t waste your cash on creative seminars with ego-disordered internet personalities; just pay very close attention to the work of artists who function as mediums, and who, as such, don’t seek your adulation or approval. See if you can disconnect your own ego, with its obnoxious tsk-tsk-ing, its political maneuvering, its fear mongering and mirror-checking and jockeying, long enough to make something authentic enough to be worth your own time, let alone anyone else’s.
Ani was alternately manic, intimate, delicate, gorgeous, furious. Her voice veered from whisper to growl to twang to spoken word and back again, sometimes in the span of a single verse. She played her instrument like it (and she) was on fire. Some of my friends hated her, thought her voice “annoying.” I tried and tried to explain that they were missing the point, but nobody enjoys being lectured about why they’re wrong about music (or art or politics or writing), so I found new friends.
I stood there at I-don’t-know-how-many shows in my imitative steel-heeled boots, with my imitative waist-length hair extensions courtesy of twelve hours in an illegal storefront in Waltham, Mass. A comrade in the balcony once took a photo of me standing right up against the stage, at Ani’s feet. You can’t see my face, but I’m sure it was tear-streaked. I screamed myself silly at those shows. Memorized every lyric, every beat, every in-joke, every variation in phrasing. Those were the Living in Clip years, with Andy Stochansky on drums and Sara Lee on bass. There was joy and resistance and an energy I can’t adequately describe except to say that it was spiritual, it made the hell of surviving puberty seem completely fucking worth it, I was finally cured of pretending I liked the taste of other people’s shit, and I no longer wanted to kill myself.
She began playing guitar at 9, having made an unlikely friend in the Buffalo musician/promoter/folk hero Michael Meldrum, some 30 years her senior. Meldrum gifted the funny guitar-toting child a complete Beatles songbook and mentored her for the rest of his life.
She was legally emancipated at 15 (“born into a family built like an avalanche”), dropped out of high school, and toured relentlessly, living on the road. She studied poetry at The New School, occasionally sleeping at Port Authority. Soon enough industry scouts came knocking, but she was wary. For a long while she survived by selling cassette tapes on the road. She refused to sell t-shirts for many years. At 19, with the help of her sometimes-boyfriend Scot Fisher, she formed Righteous Babe Records, on which she put out her first record and the 21 studio albums (two of which are collaborations with storyteller Utah Phillips), four live albums (excluding dozens of bootlegs), two compilation albums, and three extended plays (so far!) that followed.
And she remained in full control of her own work, which is what has become the dominant narrative of DiFranco: giggly petite weirdo dyke freak from Buffalo with the guitar and the fucked-up hair who started her own record label.. The independent label, the total control: this is the story with which DiFranco’s notoriety tends to dead-end: not just some freak dyke whatever-the-hell with a guitar, mind you, but an entrepreneurial freak dyke whatever with a guitar. Color mainstream culture impressed.
“No sooner had the media finally embraced me than I was having trouble with the way they embraced me,” DiFranco jokes in her 2019 memoir, No Walls and the Recurring Dream.
In her epic 1998 open letter to Ms. Magazine, Ani had had enough of being Girl-With-Her-Own-Record-Label. The magazine had included DiFranco in its list of “21 Feminists for the 21st Century” but its explication of her importance focused solely on her business acumen, particularly the fact that she made “more money per album sold than Hootie and the Blowfish.” Even the supposed feminist media mothership couldn’t or wouldn’t frame a folk/punk hero’s accomplishments as anything other than a capitalist triumph.
DiFranco’s blistering, beautiful open letter burned that bullshit to the ground: “All of my achievements are artistic, as are all of my failures,” she wrote to Ms. “I’ll bust ass for 60 people, or 6,000, watch me.”
Spin Magazine offered her some free ad space early on, because they dug what she was doing, but the ad she submitted read, simply, “EAT PUSSY NOT COWS,” and Spin declined to run it. When invited, some years later, to appear on Letterman, she declared her intention to sing “Subdivision,” a brutally insightful song about the racism inherent in twentieth century American urban planning. The Letterman folks politely requested “something a little more upbeat,” and DiFranco refused, was disinvited, and never invited back.
We live in a culture obsessed with labels, fame, marketing, numbers, and money. We volunteer for mass behavior modification; we evolve our own tools for counting and enforcing and brainwashing. We speak now, not only without irony, but with admiration, of who has the most “followers.” Can the true spirit of punk ever withstand the rigors and vagaries of international fame? Can singularity of voice and vision ever survive the “success” of canonization within popular culture? The early self-annihilation of some of our purest—Holliday, Joplin, Cobain, Winehouse, etc. ad nauseum—suggest not. The ones who live long and prosper within the industry? They tend to play by the rules, though they may make perfunctory aesthetic gestures toward rebellion.
Perhaps the only way for an artist to survive as such is to fight off (or be denied!) mainstream success and recognition altogether, to insist upon doing things the hard way, the lonely way, the uphill way. In other words: avoid getting insanely rich and insanely famous. (Cue “Joyful Girl.”) “One thing’s for sure,” Ani writes in No Walls: “fame ain’t gonna make a people person of you if you don’t dig people already.”
She calls bullshit absolutely everywhere and is absolutely freaking right about absolutely freaking everything. She is resolutely uncategorizable and unmarketable, never sticking to any particular aesthetic long enough to be commodified as its representative. Shaved head, extensions, dreads, blue hair styled with glue, nose ring, chest tatt… her “look” is never the point.
And yet, and yet: Rolling Stone’s coverage of No Walls and the Recurring Dream, a profile/interview in the year of our Lord 2019, opens with the following query: “Will Ani DiFranco wear a dress?”
The people who most loudly broadcast socially progressive hashtaggery, who are most proud of their pseudo-feminist-slogan t-shirts and pink hats at protest marches, who are most insistent that their children also wave protest signs and wear slogan t-shirts, who were the most shocked and outraged and sort of spiritually disabled by the ascendancy of the 45th President of The United States, and who refuse even the most basic responsibility for understanding their own reproductive biology… are almost invariably the very same people who, back in college, used to roll their eyes at DiFranco, joke about hairy-legged man-haters, ditch their friends the nanosecond a dude came sniffing around, and say shit like “I’m not a feminist or anything, but I am pro-choice” or “I’m not a feminist or anything, but rape isn’t cool.” I remember you, folks. I was there, taking notes.
“Isn’t she one of those angry dykes with a guitar?” I still occasionally hear someone wonder. Live long enough and you start to see the most fascinating reversals. Aging is both a profound privilege and a deeply disorienting burden.
A few years ago, The Hairpin ran a witty piece by two self-identified “millennial” “lesbians” subtitled “An Inquiry into the Non-Legacy of Ani DiFranco.” A wildly ageist misfire, with extra points for profound ignorance on the subjects of maternal politics and identity, perimenopause, and (projected) sexual orientation. The gist was that DiFranco is just, like, old and, too, like, presumptively heterosexually monogamous to matter. Also: she’s a mom now, and who could possiblywant to hear someone’s mom grappling with her humanity? Gross!
We all love to pretend that when we finally do grasp large-scale injustice and perversity, we are simply emerging fully formed into an enlightenment that is our birthright. Obviously we are awake to racism, to sexism, to the destruction, for profit, of the earth and all its inhabitants. Obviously we are enraged at the systemic oppressions and power abuses that characterize every human society in history. We are so eager to erase our own complicities and blindness. We are forgetful of our own historic failures to call out injustice until a tidal wave of popular opinion carries us effortlessly along on its swell, when we are glad to pretend we emerged fully formed into the progressive stances that should have been innate all along.
But progressive movements do not spring, fully formed, from the minds and bodies of some magically evolved collective consciousness. Lineage and struggle, from the ground up, is the story of any progressive movement, any positive human movement whatsoever.
I’m not trying to convince you to accept Ani DiFranco as your personal savior; Jews are not allowed to proselytize, anyway, and there’s nothing to be said about Ani the folksinger, Ani the renegade, Ani the music industry outlier, Ani the activist, Ani the performer, or Ani the lyricist that will convince you, if you’ve already dismissed her, to reassess.
But to any haters who’ve somehow read thus far: You’re missing out on a shit-ton of fun, and you’re probably carrying around a massive shitload of unexamined internalized misogyny, too.
There have been outliers and rebels and true folk punks speaking to us for ages, telling us how it is, begging us to listen, to hear, to look, to see. That it often takes us so long to listen is what’s amazing. Folk music is elemental political activism, progress is a process, and the ethos of any truly progressive movement or consciousness must always privilege process over product.
Even the best of us can be blind, but Ani’s been clear-eyed for as long as I can remember. Feminism, civil and human rights, #metoo, climate change, gun control, reproductive justice, globalization, mass media brainwashing, racism, the politics of suburbia, queer identity, name it: Ani has a searing lyric about it from before most of you were born. It’s probably uncool and anti-intellectual to say that I learned everything I know about every kind of social justice from this “little folksinger,” but there you have it. Long live DiFranco. The kicker being that she doesn’t want to be a public face of folk wisdom or punk business models or anything of the sort. She wants to find the funny absurd unjust tragic inane insanities of life and love and she wants to play us a couple songs.
Around her brass band era, after Little Plastic Castle, I took a break from Ani super-fandom, though I was never wholly indifferent. I kept abreast. I caught her live whenever possible. But we both had a lot of shit to figure out, me and Ani, and it was important we go our separate ways for a while.
Then there I was, feeling dazed and unsupported on the other side of childbirth, and there she was with Red Letter Year, also on the other side of childbirth, and she sounded as exultant and proud and scared as I felt, and softer, and more vulnerable, her energies redirected in new and radical ways. I was trying to learn how to not fuck up marriage and motherhood, and there was this one refrain on one of the extremely earnest love songs—the downright uncomfortably earnest love songs—on Allergic to Water, that shook me: It took me a long… time… to… find… love.We need these voices like we need air, food, water, touch; they sustain us through lives beset with injustice, violence, condescension, silence, theft, and lies.
She doesn’t attack her guitar the way she used to; doesn’t growl and stutter and stomp the way she used to. Remember what an animal she was onstage with that guitar? Hilarious, all-in. “Gonna play you another one from the bad old days,” she said onstage at a show recently. “Ah, yes, the bad old days.” She laughed that deep-belly open-jawed laugh of hers. “Isn’t it nice not to be running around all psycho anymore because of this?” She gestured somewhat violently in the direction of her pelvis.
She’s evolved. She’s gotten gentler. It’s so moving, because it’s a precious and rare model of a way to age. (Cue “If Yr Not”: if you’re not getting happier as you get older… you’re fucking up.”)
These days she plays like someone who has come a very long way on foot.
You can’t keep a good woman down, as the old (meaningless) saying goes, though lord knows there have been untold successful attempts to keep a great many good women down. Maybe what that saying really means is that true power is greater than any one individual, and that while many are indeed crushed—spiritually and politically and corporeally speaking—we can always take solace in the knowledge that some radical voices will nevertheless break through, blaze into being, and find sufficient airspace into which they can sing, talk, exhort, shout, rage, whisper, hum, counter, protest.
There is another way, these voices coherently assure us. Come along. We need these voices like we need air, food, water, touch; they sustain us through lives beset with injustice, violence, condescension, silence, theft, and lies. These voices don’t tend to have a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand voices chanting their names, hollering assent, but the trade-off is that these voices remain free, see? And freedom is worth the long road.
“There’s no me without you,” Ani said at another recent show. “And there’s no you without me. So we need each other. We actually need each other or none of this is real.”
Don’t get me wrong: I liked my share of corporate pop hits when I was a child, but then my frontal lobe fully fucking developed, and though I’m still glad to rock out to some bullshit at a karaoke bar or on a long car ride, and though I also enjoy the occasional slickly produced and packaged nuggets of rhythmic/melodic processed sugar as much as the next gal, let’s never confuse or conflate the work of algorithmically-approved, factory-produced, planned-obsolescent Musician-Barbie-Widgets with the specter of a joyous, dirty, smelly, complex, confusingly authentic living organism carrying on from a place of instinct, in the rain and sun and ice and snow, come what may. Once in a while it’s good to cut out the middleman. Music belongs to everybody: folk, punk, soul, rap, name it. You can get it all bottled up in smooth single-use plastic, but better to find your way directly to the source. Ask around until you locate a spring, and haul your own bucket.
Human Blues: A Novel by Elisa Albert is available via Avid Reader Press.