Most of us grow up without much understanding of how the game of life really works. We tend to accept various myths handed down to us by parents, educators and other authorities and then get pissed off when we learn that they were full of shit and there we are, up the proverbial creek without a paddle. We then blame those “experts” for our inability to separate fact from fiction.
We also choose what we perceive, and our selective perception leads us to ignore data that does not fit with our image of how the world should work. We ignore obvious warning signs and plunge ahead armed with the naïve belief that things will all work out in the end.
Musicians seem to be more susceptible to naïve worldviews than most, despite the plethora of songs written by established musicians alerting wannabe stars to the dangers of the music business. “So You Wanna Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star,” “Have a Cigar,” “For the Roses,” “EMI,” the entire Lola album . . . the list stretches on and on. They sign contracts without reading them. They trust management to handle all that accounting stuff. Not knowing dick about the economics of the music business, they are stunned to learn that a whole lot of shadowy figures have made away with a good chunk of their dough. “Robert owes half to Grenville/Who in turn gave half to Larry/Who adored my instrumentals/And so he gave half to a foreign publisher,” explained Ray Davies. His concerns were dismissed as entitled rock star bitching, but at the end of the decade, Pink Floyd almost went belly up because management had invested most of their money in venture capital schemes that didn’t pan out.
You would have thought that The Dark Side of the Moon alone would have set up those guys for life—the equivalent of a big lottery win. Sadly, the narrative of rock music is littered with management misdealings, most tragically in the case of Pete Ham of Badfinger. The statistics speak for themselves: of the billions earned in the music industry, musicians only pocket twelve percent.
However, it’s not all about the money. Many musicians have artistic yearnings and, as captured in the time-tested cliché “temperamental artist,” they want control over their music. They don’t want the suits to interfere with the creative process. Some artists sign with indie labels; others hawk their songs on places like Bandcamp. Though some indie releases manage to vault the many obstacles to success, the majority fall victim to the equation defined by Michael Crossley of French Letters (a now-defunct indie band): independent release = “completely independent of distribution, promotion and attention.” The challenges facing the indie musician can’t be understated: the big three record companies control 88.5% of the market.
One of the rare indie success stories is Ani DiFranco. She managed to avoid the suits and retain independence by starting her own record company at the age of nineteen. In a retrospective interview with The Guardian last year, she explained her rationale: “If only white men are the delivery system, the translators, the sellers, the definers of the expressions of these diverse human experiences, then something is lost.”
Her record company (Righteous Babe Records) was truly a start-up; the original releases were cassette tapes she sold out of the trunk of her car and at merch tables. She built her reputation by targeting the college market, hoping that word-of-mouth and the support of women’s groups would eventually work wonders. After the comparative success of Out of Range, she signed a distribution deal that ensured that her sixth studio album, Not a Pretty Girl, could be purchased in both indie record shops and the big chains.
Befitting a conservative-budget affair, Not a Pretty Girl features a total of two musicians: Ani on vocals, guitar and bass, and Andy Stochansky on drums and percussion. Ani was criticized by Fred Goodman of Rolling Stone for not going “big” on some of the tracks (“It would be a shame if someone as breathtakingly talented as she is allows dogma to prevent her from giving her songs what they demand”), but Fred completely ignored the truth that sensitive subject matter is often best presented in an intimate environment. If Ani had gone “big,” the songs Fred mentions would have sounded more anthemic and hence, more dogmatic. As it is, Ani provides sufficient power through her innovative guitar stylings, alternate tunings and vocal layering without weakening the evocative power of the lyrics.
As reflected in the title, a good chunk of the album forms a rejection of the “sugar and spice and everything nice” paradigm historically attached to women, with a particular emphasis on the cultural definition of “nice-looking.” When Ani’s at her best, she presents the inherent disadvantages of womanhood in conversations with an invisible partner or with herself instead of political abstractions. Her tone encompasses many moods—sometimes biting, sometimes sweet, but nearly always tempered with a sense of vulnerability. Listening to Ani DiFranco often feels like she’s right there in the room with you, having one of those unexpectedly deep conversations that develop over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. The effect is intentional and has been an integral part of her music since she launched her career. “The songs came so unedited that they connected me with other beings like myself, even when there were only a few people in the room,” she recalls. “I did it human-to-human. Those moments were so healing that I’ve stayed in search of them ever since.” (The Guardian)
The feedback loop that opens “Worthy” reflects the feedback loop described in the lyrics: the head game connected to uncertain self-esteem. Ani nails it when she connects doubts about our worthiness with the urge to push the other person away; “I’m not good enough for you” really means “I’m afraid to get too close.” Ah, humanity.
you think you’re not worthy
i’d have to say i agree
i’m not worthy of you
you’re not worthy of me
which of us is deserving
look at the human race
the whole planet at arm’s length
and we don’t deserve this place
Based on the songs that follow, “We don’t deserve this place” is meant ironically, as in “What a dump!” In verse two, she slips back into internal dialogue, owning up to the façade she’d like to present to her partner and her inability to pull it off:
what good is a poker face
when you’ve got an open hand
i was supposed to be cool about this
yeah i remember cool was the plan
Though she claims that the world is too good for her because she’s “such a naughty girl,” that admission proves to be the way out of the couple’s dilemma: “But when we’re together/we’re too good for this world.” Keeping each other at arm’s length by hiding behind the “I’m not worthy of you” game leads nowhere. The music has a nice laid-back flow with a simple chord structure (A-G with major 7th variations in the verse intervals) that gives Ani a great opportunity to fill the wordless spaces with melodic and soulful scat. The lyrics to “Worthy” are a fine example of poetic economy, but I just love it when Ani leaves words behind and just riffs with her gorgeous, expressive voice.
Ani rejects the opportunity to allow the wry humor and appealing music of “Worthy” to set the tone for the album, instead opting for a 180º with a spoken-word poem called “Tiptoe.”
Then she proceeds to do anything but tiptoe around the subject of abortion:
tiptoeing through the used condoms
strewn on the piers
off the west side highway
the skyline of jersey
walking towards the water
with a fetus holding court in my gut
my body hijacked
my tits swollen and sore . . .
i could step off the end of this pier but
i’ve got shit to do
and i’ve an appointment on tuesday
to shed uninvited blood and tissue
i’ll miss you i say
to the river to the water
to the son or daughter
i thought better of . . .
It takes a lot of guts to talk honestly about abortion (or even admit you’ve had one), especially in the United States where (unlike in most of the civilized world), abortion is still controversial. In her fascinating autobiography No Walls and the Recurring Dream, Ani wrote honestly and thoughtfully about her two abortions as well as the experience of becoming the mother of two children. I think my regular readers know where I stand on the issue; for those dropping by for a visit, I believe in unrestricted reproductive freedom and a woman’s absolute right to make her own choices regarding her body. I’ve never had an abortion, but if you want to call me a “baby killer” for holding those views, go fuck yourself and your patriarchy.
I’d rather focus on the brilliance of the poem. Ani has to tiptoe through “used condoms strewn on the piers off the west side highway,” reminding us that the men who want to control women’s bodies have the right to kill millions of potential babies in their pursuit of baby-free pussy. The visuals that arise from those words also beg the classic question, “Would you want a kid to grow up in a world as ugly and as hypocritical as this one?” Her resistance to the “uninvited blood and tissue” should tell anyone with a brain that as much as she resents the intrusion, she is more likely to resent eighteen years of child-rearing even more, adding one more fucked-up kid to a society already full of fucked-up kids. There is a tinge of regret for what might have been, but Ani “thought better” and accepted the fact that she simply wasn’t ready for motherhood at that point in her life. The river, the symbol of life, fertility and perpetual change, reminds her that the flow of her life will change, providing another opportunity for motherhood when she’s ready to accept the responsibility.
Though the next song bears the title, “Cradle and All,” it has nothing to do with reproductive controversy; it is a painting of a restless, anxious woman longing for the relief of the baby sleeping peacefully in the cradle. The tension she feels comes from a combination of an unsatisfactory relationship, the endless cacophony of New York City (“the city that never shuts up”) and a longing to return home to Buffalo, a place suffering from Rust Belt decline but hey, it’s home . . . it’s family:
and i moved there from buffalo
but that’s nothing
the Trico plant moved to mexico
left my uncle standing out in the cold
said here’s your last paycheck
have fun growing old
Ani’s fingers fly over and beyond the fretboard, integrating what for many guitar players would be “mistakes” or “happy accidents of sound” into a cohesive and compelling guitar performance.
“Shy” earned Ani a Grammy nomination for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance. I think the Grammy people stuck Ani in the rock category because they didn’t know what to do with her, so her loss to Fiona Apple was hardly . . . criminal. As with many an Ani DiFranco song, “Shy” defies genre categorization, and of the five performances nominated, “Shy” was the least rocking of the bunch. You also have to remember that the Grammy people gave Alanis Morissette the award twice and Sheryl Crow four times, so what the fuck do they know?
“Shy” should have received the award for Best Example of Concrete Imagery in Song, but alas, no such category exists. Ani doesn’t establish her mental state by saying, “I’m neurotic, vulnerable, lonely and a goddamned mess,” but by painting a scene that communicates the meaning with far more impact, demonstrating how an alien environment intensifies psychological fragility:
the heat is so great
it plays tricks with the eye
it turns the road to water
and then from water to sky
and there’s a crack in the concrete floor
and it starts at the sink
there’s a bathroom in a gas station
and i’ve locked myself in it to think
and back in the city
the sun bakes the trash on the curb
the men are pissing in doorways
and the rats are running in herds
i’ve got a dream with your face in it
that scares me awake
i put too much on my table
and now i got too much at stake
She then goes into push-pull mode, “lost in-between,” mulling through a range of choices—flirting, hide-and-seek, “veiled invitations”—that all come down to fear of intimacy. In the chorus, she finally works through the internal noise to describe what she really wants:
and you’ll stop me, won’t you
if you’ve heard this one before
the one where i surprise you
by showing up at your front door
saying ‘let’s not ask what’s next,
or how, or why’
i am leaving in the morning
so let’s not be shy
Though she goes on to imagine intimacy under “the muscular motel light” where “the sheets are twisted and damp,” you get the sense that “you’ll stop me won’t you” means more than a request to prevent repetition of an old joke or story. If her “shyness” fails her, she hopes that the guy will give her an out. Ani captures the strained psychological state described in the lyrics by not overdoing it, restraining her vocal to a limited melodic range and avoiding excess emotion. Andy Stochansky follows her lead beautifully, always seeming on the verge of breaking out into bash mode but staying right on the edge throughout the song.
Andy takes a break on “Sorry,” as this is an intensely personal message from Ani to an ex better handled through voice and acoustic guitar. The essence of the song involves regret (“i’m sorry that after all these years/i’ve left you feeling unrequited and alone, brought you to tears”) and partial acceptance of responsibility for the hurting, tempered by the need to manifest self (“and i don’t know what it is about me/that i just can’t keep still”). It’s “nothing personal,” but it sure feels personal to the other party. Ani could have said, “I’m not responsible for your dreams about our beautiful future together,” but she has enough empathy to appreciate that under different circumstances the positions could have been reversed. The feel of the song is appropriately mournful, a mood established by Ani’s sensitive and varied guitar pattern. The repetition of the bend on the second fret of the sixth string (tuned to low D) is mourning actualized. “Sorry” is a beautiful, if agonizing, piece of music.
“Light of Some Kind” continues the theme of relational imbalance, expressed with greater agitation. Much of that agitation comes from the series of clipped, partially muted guitar picking that falls somewhere between the sound of a telegraph and electronic hiccups. Ani delivers most of the song in clipped phrases as if she’s out of breath and flustered by the situation she finds herself in, adding more significance to the opening line, “I wish I didn’t have this nervous laugh.” What she’s nervous about is being honest—and she’s pissed about being nervous:
’cause every time i try to hold my tongue
it slips like a fish from a line
they say if you want to play
you should learn how to play dumb
i guess i can’t bring myself to waste your time
’cause we both know what i’ve been doing
i’ve been intentionally bad at lying
you’re the only boy i ever let see through me
and i hope you believe me when i say i’m trying
and i hope i never improve my game
yeah i’d rather have these things weighing on my mind
and at the end of this tunnel of guilt and shame
there must be a light of some kind
there must be a light of some kind
The “tunnel of guilt and shame” seems to come from having to admit her bisexuality (“she came up to me with the sweetest face/and she was holding a light of some kind”) to her boyfriend. At first, she seems to be in denial of the impact on their relationship (“and I still think of you as my boyfriend”); shortly thereafter the guilt she feels encourages her to suggest he do the same “And maybe you should follow my example/and go meet yourself a really nice girl”). That is a very awkward piece of communication, and I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have landed well with a straight guy, who probably found the joke belittling. Well, don’t say she didn’t warn you—earlier in the song Ani admitted, “’cause every time i try to hold my tongue/it slips like a fish from a line.” As all of my female bisexual partners have initially felt guilt about their desire for a woman, the song rings true for me (though I only experienced guilt after openly admitting it and hearing my teenage friends call me “sick”).
The guilt lasted as long as my next girl-to-girl fuck.
“Not a Pretty Girl” rings so true for me that I can hear the bell cracking. As one who has been classified in certain quarters as a “pretty girl,” I can completely relate to Ani DiFranco’s refusal to accept that tag. According to custom, pretty girls are expected to be nice, projecting pleasantry from their useless brains located in their empty heads. I have shocked hundreds of people of both genders by displaying behavior unbecoming of a pretty girl. I fuck girls. I’m kinky. I swear like a sailor. I smoke. I have a brain and expect to use it. And when I played baseball, I had no qualms about taking out the second baseman to prevent the double play or resorting to a little chin music if a batter got too close to the plate.
The reaction to the disconnect between appearance and substance differs depending on gender. When women are confronted with the disconnect between my appearance and my true nature, they often seem confused, as if I make them unsure about who the hell they are. Men have been consistently disappointed to learn that I am intelligent and assertive because they don’t generally don’t feel comfortable with women who display those traits (ask Hillary). Men who think I’m hot want to save me from my sins, hoping that I’ll grow up someday and take my place in their trophy cabinet. I remember my mother telling me, “A man will gladly hold the door open for a pretty girl, but it’s usually the wrong door—the door that leads to dependence.”
Ani begins the song by rejecting the “damsel in distress” archetype and the notion that women are like kittens—sexual playthings who need to be rescued because they’re dumb enough to keep getting stuck in the tree. Where it really gets interesting is in the second verse, where Ani takes aim at the “angry woman” trope of the ’90s:
i am not an angry girl
but it seems like i’ve got everyone fooled
every time i say something they find hard to hear
they chalk it up to my anger
and never to their own fear
Many a protester against racism could sing those last three lines with conviction, over and over again. The music is ironically pretty, full of clean arpeggiated strums flowing nicely in 6/8 time. The simmering anger is expressed in Ani’s voice, and when she claims, “I have earned by disillusionment/I have been working all of my life,” her anger is the anger of those women who have found their voices squelched and their talents belittled by the workplace patriarchy.
My least favorite track is definitely “The Millions You Never Made,” largely because of the dissonant manic sarcasm of the last verse, but in part because I don’t think Ani achieved enough aesthetic distance to write about her battle for artistic independence in a way that the average person could relate to. This is one song that would have benefitted from a tongue-in-cheek third-person perspective. The following song, “Hour Follows Hour,” eschews the “big message” in favor of a vision of humanity as flawed but trying its best to make sense of the gotcha inherent in cause-and-effect: the truth that any “cause” initiated by a human being may not have its intended effect, so we need to forgive self and other for unpleasant surprises. It’s a gorgeous piece, soft, reflective and dominated by gentle, reassuring guitar.
As noted above, Ani DiFranco is a lousy fit for any genre you care to mention and she takes great pride in her individualism. That said, it’s not a “fuck you,” defensive individualism but a more inclusive orientation that respects another’s unique personality as well. She explores this theme in the deceptively sweet, partially tongue-in-cheek and cleverly written “32 Flavors.” The opening verse seems to be a response to a verbal abuser who has called her a dyke, a cunt, a godless feminist, an arrogant artiste or something along those lines. I love the way she refuses to turn the other cheek but instead chooses to disarm the intruder:
squint your eyes and look closer
i’m not between you and your ambition
i am a poster girl with no poster
i am thirty-two flavors and then some
and i’m beyond your peripheral vision
so you might want to turn your head
cause someday you’re going to get hungry
and eat most of the words you just said
She is not one cause, she is many causes; she is not one type, she is many types—so many that typification becomes meaningless. As she wrote in “Light of Some Kind,” “there’s a crowd of people harbored in every person,” so rather than attributing this phenomenon to some kind of personality disorder, it’s best to recognize that we all have our moods and that trying to define a person as “just one thing” is both silly and hurtful. The use of Baskin-Robbins’ 31 Flavors branding was a masterstroke; I estimate that at least half of the population in the United States would express shock and dismay if BR came out with a thirty-second flavor. Millions would be shouting “My brain hurts” in time with Michael Palin! The 32 flavors (and then some) may be beyond comprehension for many, but everyone understands the pop culture reference, making the meaning a bit easier to absorb.
In the second verse, Ani revisits the pretty girl/not-a-pretty-girl theme with a truism that reminds me of the weird experience of having people hate you for your genes:
and god help you if you are an ugly girl
course too pretty is also your doom
cause everyone harbors a secret hatred
for the prettiest girl in the room
It was bad enough that I was considered a stuck-up conceited bitch because I was pretty; what made it worse was a girl telling me, “I hate it when you smile.” I started feeling guilty about being pretty, but after thinking about it, I was just flat-out pissed because I HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH IT. My parents fucked one night and that’s what came out! Ani intimates that it’s only going to get worse once you pick yourself off the canvas:
and god help you if you are a phoenix
and you dare to rise up from the ash
a thousand eyes will smolder with jealousy
while you are just flying past
“32 Flavors” isn’t all about defiance or preparing women for the worst. Ani sings about doing right by her parents and the kindness that she lavishes on strangers—kindness not often returned but instead meant with inexplicable rejection:
just the kindness i’ve lavished on strangers
is more than i can explain
still there’s many who’ve turned out their porch lights
just so i would think they were not home
and hid in the dark of their windows
till i’d passed and left them alone
Ani sings in an almost demure voice, contradicting the notion that power and passion equate to loud and aggressive. The disarming performance is further enhanced by melodic vocalizations between the verses, intensifying both the sweetness and the melancholy. The power of the song lies in the contrast between Ani’s soft voice and the power of her imagery; “32 Flavors” almost demands we reflect on the sheer unnecessity of mistreating and demeaning others.
Ani’s fingerpicking on this song displays her amazing dexterity and incredible sense of touch, the notes falling like gentle rain over wildflowers. The official blurb of the music business patriarchy could only find room for two women on their 100 Best Guitarists List (Bonnie Raitt and Joni Mitchell, down in the fourth quartile); I would argue that Ani DiFranco should have been on that list even if Not a Pretty Girl was the only record she ever made. Fuck those guys at Rolling Stone.
“Asking Too Much” is a fascinating monologue delivered over a detuned, dissonant guitar background and a loping sway that call up images of dark alleyways and mysterious figures looming in the shadows. Ani uses this template to express both her specs for an ideal partner and her frustration in making herself understood. I love the way she soft-growls the second line in this couplet: “I want somebody who has a tortured soul/some of the time.” Tortured souls can indeed be worrisome! When she launches into the extended last verse, I just like to sit back and enjoy the barrage of words tumbling out of her mouth, all stabs in the dark that eventually lead her to a definition of what she wants: “in other words i want someone/who’s not afraid of themself.” “Do you think I am asking too much?” she queries, to which I respond, “Hell, no!” “Asking Too Much” is quickly followed by one of the shorter pieces on the album, “This Bouquet,” a pretty little number about songwriting and its expressive limitations. I find it interesting that someone so nimble with words would also have the humility to admit the shortcomings of linguistic communication.
The last “big song” on the album is “Crime for a Crime,” an attack on the process of injustice that ends with the death penalty. Ani believes (as do I) that the death penalty is really “trading a crime for a crime” to give the fearful masses a false sense of security. Ani goes first-person here, playing the role of a condemned prisoner to give the message more immediacy:
the big day has come
the bell is sounding
i run my hands through my hair one last time
outside the prison walls
the town is gathering
people are trading crime for crime
everyone needs to see the prisoner
they need to make it even easier
they see me as a symbol, and not a human being
that way they can kill me
say it’s not murder, it’s a metaphor
we are killing off our own failure
and starting clean
Unfortunately, the United States has done virtually nothing to improve its “justice system,” though the worldwide demonstrations against police brutality in the States may signal an awakening in that regard. I tend to be on the gloomy side of predictions when it comes to my former homeland because the layers of fear and denial have been around for centuries and may take centuries to remove. Remember, Europe had to destroy itself twice before getting over the war fetish, and Americans haven’t had anything close to that sort of upheaval since the Civil War. As they do with the Dream Speech, people may nod their heads in agreement with Ani DiFranco’s indictment of American “justice,” but are unlikely to do anything about the travesties she describes:
now we’ve got all these complicated machines
so no one person ever has to have blood on their hands
we’ve got complex organizations
and if everyone just does their job
no one person has to understand
you might be the wrong color
you might be too poor
justice isn’t something just anyone can afford
you might not pull the trigger
you might be out in the car
and you might get a lethal injection
’cause we take a metaphor that far
“Not a Pretty Girl” ends with “Coming Up,” where Ani makes her guitar sound almost like a celeste while Andy Stochansky adds an Asian flavor through sticks and cymbals. This quirky background serves as a curiously tense overlay of Ani’s indictment of the inequalities in the American economic system, a massive anti-democratic structure built by “our father who art in a penthouse.” As the rich, white god “swivels to gaze down at the city” filled with graffiti and opportunity for exploitation, we find Ani somewhere near the bottom of the ladder:
i in my darkened threshold
am pawing through my pockets
the receipts, the bus schedules
the matchbook phone numbers
the urgent napkin poems
all of which laundering has rendered
pulpy and strange
While Father is up there above it all, “the ice clinking in his glass,” he sends her “little pieces of paper” (money) to ensure survival and not much else. Father has chosen to distance himself from the reality of the people who live on the periphery, but Ani sees in both the graffiti and her own sense of humiliation that Father is in more danger than his cocoon would lead him to believe:
but i love this city, this state
this country is too large
and whoever’s in charge up there
had better take the elevator down
and put more than change in our cup
or else we
These last two songs certify that Ani DiFranco is not only a feminist but a songwriter concerned with all forms of social injustice; a person who feels tremendous empathy for all the disadvantaged (which pretty much includes everyone who isn’t a one-percenter and even a few of those folks). While I’m having a great time immersing myself in women’s music of the ’90s, I feel deep frustration in knowing that the powerful poetry and compelling music I’m writing about will be marked with an asterisk: *woman-created. The asterisk describes how we demean women artists of all stripes with the often unspoken judgment, “She’s pretty good—for a woman.” I want to abolish that demeaning distinction . . . and in doing my research for this series, I came across a ray of hope in that regard.
I found it while checking out a live performance of “32 Flavors” on YouTube that I would love to post here if it weren’t for their stupid content-sharing rules. I will admit that Ani’s performance brought me to tears, but what hit me in the gut was a comment entered by a gent named Andy Wolf, who is now one of my heroes:
There has really never been an artist quite like her. Lyrically she is a great American poet in the stratosphere of Kerouac, Ginsberg and Dylan. As a vocalist she is among the angels. She has an underlying monastic chant that floats and flutters as if a dove finding wing. Her melodies are rich and layered. She makes me think of all the guitar gods as pawns to a queen. Her style is her identity and her commitment the purity of her identity; her muse has the whimsy of the minstrel and the courage of the troubadour. But no matter what I write it is all meaningless and she says it all so much better with reluctant pride: insecurity in this really good fucking piece of music.