Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Big Girls Understand

Pursuing the girl-identified lowdown on Ani DiFranco, I bought coffee for four Stuyvesant seniors, who cleared one thing up quick. That March Roseland concert with all the boy-girl pairings? It was an aberration. The guys they knew there had been dragged by their female friends, and the Portchester show just two nights later was the familiar femmefest--no halters-and-Spandex, back to spaghetti-strap tanktops and big jeans. Amanda had recognized nearly every girl on line. The faithful were still going Ani that extra mile.

Nevertheless, even these loyal fans have to wonder how long that will last. DiFranco has exploded about as big as a DIY artist can. Living by the credo "If you want to challenge the system, don't go to bed with it," she's filling Roseland and the Capitol the same week and clearing $4.25 per album, about twice the normal superstar rate. True, her new live double-CD (not tape-available, the panel tsked), Living in Clip, charted at 59 the same week Alanis wannabe Meredith Brooks, for example, debuted at 25, and even allowing for all the action a bootstraps label like DiFranco's self-owned Righteous Babe slips under SoundScan's net, she could probably earn more with a major. But really, who needs it? At 26, she's already richer than she dreamed possible, and if she's not exactly accountable to no one--not with employees and two backup musicians and a manager--she's absolutely her own boss. In fact, she's like nothing the pop world has ever seen. Why should she give that up?

My panel soon convinced me that DiFranco won this unprecedented independence by telling tens of thousands of teenaged girls exactly what they wanted to hear--as individuals first, then quickly as members of a community that functioned both as their "safe place" and as DiFranco's most effective promotional tool. Not laid-back enough for folk or slack enough for punk, these were bright, moderately genteel kids who didn't think pretty meant no ugliness or agape meant no anger (or no eros either); most of them were actively left-liberal or rad, usually by birth. Although the timing may be a coincidence, note that they gathered around DiFranco in the wake of Nirvanamania, at a time when "alternative" rock wasn't just aggressively male, but all of a sudden a staple of commerce. Socially progressive and emotionally eclectic, her brassy charisma intensified by the giddy insecurity beneath it and put across by the toughness beneath that, DiFranco had struggled to a place that her fans found a credible alternative-to-alternative goal.

Ani's appeal was in the words, not the music, Sarah and Sophie and Orli and Amanda each insisted--musically, she could have been lots of female folksingers. I demurred, and won concessions, but listening back to the albums she single-handedly released in 1990 and 1991, Ani DiFranco and Not So Soft, I agree that her rhythmic bite wasn't always so pronounced--although it's certainly there album-one-cut-one on "Both Hands," an observantly reported nothing-happened breakup song that remains an Ani touchstone. The defining charm of those first two records is indeed in the lyrics--not their wit or invention or metaphorical pyrotechnics so much as their skillfully turned-out nakedness, their articulate reflections on a fully engaged young life. And of course, it's in the words as sung. The sweetness and power flashed by DiFranco's strong voice can always accommodate anger, vulnerability, silliness. Few female folksingers--few singers of any sort--can snarl or giggle or dish or sidetalk to such varied musical or intimate dramatic effect.

Any folkie, especially with a feminist side, can enjoy DiFranco's explorations of feeling, expressions of autonomy, and indictments of injustice. But the questing not-quite-grrrls who actively identify with her songs identify even more acutely than others do with Alanis's, or Selena's. "You feel like she's talking to you," Sarah said. "Girls feel that if only they could just meet then they'd be best friends." But for the panel this was an old relationship, and they needed more. "How long can you like one person?" Sarah asked sensibly, and so she was trying other "`chick music,'" especially Dar Williams, who "has just become a secret code." Amanda was into jungle and trip-hop, Orli "folk, classical, jazz," and Sophie folk and punk, specifically Team Dresch. But all of them knew younger schoolmates going through earlier stages with Ani. And at least in multieverything Manhattan, where this Buffalo-gal-with-nosering came of age, these feelings were intensified by her utterly out-front bisexuality. "People want to be Ani," Orli said. "No, people want to fuck Ani," Sophie amended.

Except perhaps for that last, however, music lovers who don't happen to be feminist folkies, much less teenage girls, might wonder what's in in this for them. Or they might just want to know why 1996's Dilate, Ani's seventh album, has generated 200,000 of Righteous Babe's 750,000 total sales. Is this the natural growth of an unforeseen core market for feminist postadolescent bisexual protest-confessional? Or has DiFranco generated an intrinsic aesthetic that transcends identity-mongering? But this is a false dichotomy. Identity is content for everybody, not just those within its confines/embrace, and pop has always commodified the titillating touch of strange. Just like the Klezmatics and Lemmy Kilmister, DiFranco opens up a secret subcultural life--in her case, one in which the old folk and punk idealisms enjoy genuine fusion.

As it happens, in fact, my DiFranco connection wasn't a girl, but an over-40 male computer genius of vast musical understanding. Yet despite his valued say-so--not to mention "Letter to a John" and "The Diner" and the well-earned "Face Up and Sing," in which she wishes somebody would entertain her for a change--I resisted 1994's Out of Range. And relistening, I know why 1995's Not a Pretty Girl proceeded to hit me so quick. On Out of Range DiFranco gets distracted by piano, accordion, even horns from the sound she's been edging toward since her first forays with drummer Andy Stochansky on Imperfectly in 1992. On Not a Pretty Girl--which intersperses nine Stochansky tracks where she overdubs the bass with five solo ones, including a spoken-word abortion tale in which she declines suicide because she "got shit to do"--she nails it. And on Dilate, she takes it home.

Like just a few recent folkies--Beck of course, fellow upstater Ed Hamell, maybe Dan Bern after she gets done producing him--DiFranco has always been beat-happy. From the beginning you can catch her speed-strumming just for the rush, but in general her guitar figures and her sense of rhythm are both much quirkier; older folkies would have diagnosed them as symptoms of some awful nervous disorder. In the spare and agile Stochansky, who isn't averse to powering up but more characteristically states and embellishes a single eccentric line with brushes or mallets or lightly wielded sticks, she may have found the best folk-rock drummer who's ever lived; assuming she doesn't want to marry the guy, she should at least negotiate a no-trade clause. On Living in Clip, where the two are joined by the supplest of several bassists, onetime Gang of Four stalwart Sara Lee, DiFranco proves herself not just miraculously arch and sisterly and sexy and effervescent, but a bandleader who has wiggled free of deadening acoustic-with-backup commonplaces. On record and at the exhilarating if demographically atypical show I saw, the lithe economy of her little trio has a distinctive, almost jazzy flexibility, except that the riff-heavy conception is perfectly amenable to rocking out, on acoustic guitar if necessary.

As with Lemmy Kilmister, though, the sound would be empty without the words. In fact, the one reason Living in Clip isn't the perfect introduction is that it dispenses with crib sheets. But the lyrics are loud and clear anyway. This is linguistic craft as a means to character--DiFranco's character. Pointing out that "When Doves Cry" (a formerly ritual show-closer that kicked out the jams at Roseland) is DiFranco's only cover, my otherwise sophisticated panel insisted on autobiographical verisimilitude: all right, maybe "Letter to a John" wasn't true, they didn't think she'd ever lap-danced, but if it came out that, for example, Ani-the-person wasn't really bisexual, it would be like Milli Vanilli or something. And they're right to care. Aesthetes are free to believe she's merely constructed this headstrong, mercurial, sensual, edgy, alert, pissed off, affectionate, waggish, empowered, needy, indomitable, fierce, leftwing, hyperemotional, supercompetent persona. But self-expression goes into it too, and you have to wonder whether she can keep it up.

Ani DiFranco began her career as a feisty everygirl--a young Lower East Side underdog braving the world of men. DIY or not, she's an underdog no longer, and she's not so young either, two familiar contradictions certain to render her a more distant role model and object of desire. Since this inevitable development spells trouble for any maturing star, there's no knowing what it might mean for a woman who's like nothing the pop world has ever seen. Will she transform herself from surrogate best friend into tart grand-aunt? Drop confessional irony for role-playing fictionalization? Repersonalize the political? Or will she merely repeat herself for a burgeoning but ever less discerning cult of adoring teenagers? Grant her this much--she'll do it her way.

Village Voice, June 10, 1997