by 99 Seats
"I'm recording our history on the bedroom wall / And when we leave, the landlord will come and paint over it all..." - Ani DiFranco
"Of all my enthusiasms over the years, the one I am the most mortified about is my (it turns out not) undying love for Phish from Freshman year of High School until roughly Senior year of college. And here I want to already insert qualifications. How starting in Sophomore year at Vassar I had stopped liking them, or anyway had my suspicions that they weren’t actually worth the love I had poured into (over?) them and was largely forcing myself to like them. How you probably have some other band or artist (for most of my friends, its Ani Difranco) in your past who is equally embarrassing (and save it, Ani fans, it is equally embarrassing)."
I'll be honest; when I read that, I had to choke back my automatic defense response. Someone said something bad about Ani and all of a sudden, my late teenage years were back with a vengenance. They're never really that far away, I suppose. That shouldn't be much of a surprise to any regular readers. But, this time, before I wrote anything in response, I took a deep breath and took it in. And found...I kind of agreed. Ani DiFranco is kind of embarrassing. It was actually something I'd already accepted, a while back.
If someone asks me for my favorite singer or songwriter, Ani doesn't even make the list. I own fifteen of her albums. FIFTEEN. Since, for a long while, she was putting out a record a year, that represents a decade of running out and getting her new record. I've seen her live at least four times. I'm not much of a concertgoer, so that's a lot. Springsteen is one of my favorite artists ever and I've only seen him once. And yet...when I'm having a party or something and someone is looking at my music for something to play, I pray that they'll just gloss over the Ani DiFranco section. I've been friends with Isaac for five years now, we communicate daily about a wide variety of subjects, often about music and I bet I've never mentioned it to him. It's my dirty little secret.
A mutual friend of Isaac and mine emailed us both today, though, asking a pretty simple question: why? Why is Ani so embarrassing? She is a very good songwriter, a proud, blatantly political feminist, she taped her fingers with electrical tape instead of using a pick, she started her own record label and completely circumvented the music industry establishment. She was openly bisexual, and not in a titillating, male-centric way, but at the same time, she refused to be hemmed in any way and wasn't afraid of standing up to fans and followers who wanted her to be or behave in a certain way. For me, she was the perfect intersection of the music I loved as I barrelled into my 20s: the folk of my hippie-ish youth and the punk that would propel me into adulthood. She was my age and so fucking cool. And now I'm utterly embarrassed by her. Why? What's so embarrassing?
In a way, really, I'm embarrassed of me. I hear Ani's music and a little window opens and there I am: 20 years old, the last bits of a nice, comfortable suburban life stuck to my cheeks, wrapping up my liberal arts degree in a college town of bars and pizza shops, saddled with a doomed crush on my friendly neighborhood feminist. Armed with half a survey course in feminism and years of listening to the Indigo Girls, I thought I'd figured this whole sexism thing out. Ani was the soundtrack to that. Hell, it was like she was singing my journal entries. New York City is dirty but SO cool! Those big glass high-rises ARE full of assholes! Anti-abortion protestors ARE the worst! The coffee IS just water dressed in brown! Any tool IS a weapon if you hold it right! (Actually, I still love that quote; I have a concert t-shirt that says that on the back. I never wear it.)
I don't mean to belittle Ani's politics, or the politics of any of her fans. I believe in the equality of men and women and that long-term sexism and misogyny have done horrible damage to our society and our world. It's just that it's so earnest and so forthright and, in some ways, simplified and smoothed out, so lacking in nuance. The '90s wasn't really a time of nuance, though. There was a great resurgence in political songwriting that was welcome and exciting...in 1992. Listening to old Ani now is kind of like reading editorials in a college newspaper from 25 years ago. You kind of want to sit her down and say, "Chill, okay? You're doing too much."
There's that reading series where you pull out your journal from your middle-school years and read it in public and feel shame. Ani is like that for me. Nothing really against her. I mean, she was practically my age. But there is an undeniable immaturity to her early work, to the music I loved. And an undeniable immaturity in the way I loved it. And her. Ani herself, all white-girl-dreadlocked, ripped jeans, nose-ringed, she herself was like that cool girl from high school or college that you just want to impress. You want her to think you're as cool as she is. She's from the City (always with the capital letters, no matter what city it actually is) and she knows how life really is, man. She knows the cool places to go, that awesome spot in the East Village or the Lower East Side where her ex is the bouncer...and another ex is the bartender. You're never really going to ever feel cool enough for her, but, God, you are going to try. And I know I tried. But, eventually, you move to the city and get a job in one of those big, glass buildings and realize they're not full of assholes. Next you hear of her, she's moved to a yurt or something. And that's cool. But that's not where you were going. Maybe she was really hardcore and you weren't. Maybe it is just a pose and then next time you run into her, she'll have a couple of kids and live in a gated community. Either way, it really wasn't meant to be.
Ani and I weren't really meant to be. Not for life. I wasn't meant for Pearl Jam or Dag (Does anyone remember them at all? Anyone?) or The X-Files or Dana Carvey or Natural Born Killers for life, either. I don't think I stopped talking about Forrest Gump for a month after I saw it. Seriously. Forrest Gump. Now I'd rather spend a lazy Sunday afternoon watching Ghost Rider than Forrest Gump. (That is an actual choice that I made. I am not proud.) Obviously, Ani is better than Forrest Gump. But she's something that I outgrew in a way. I think a lot of people outgrew her. That's not a bad thing. It is, in some ways, a sad thing. But that's growing up, right?
I'll tell you a little secret, though: I have three Ani albums on my MP3 player right now. And there are a couple of tracks from those albums that, when they come up on shuffle, I don't skip them, I sing along (I know all the words by heart) and some of them, I play again. Old crushes die hard.