On Listening to Ani Difranco

I’m not sure that this post will make very much sense if you don’t, or didn’t, listen to Ani Difranco in the late 1990s or very early 2000s, or if you weren’t in college or shortly out of college at that time, or at least around that age, or if you aren’t female, or if you aren’t, in other words, somewhat like me. But maybe not. I will write it anyway.

The dorm I lived in my first few years of college had a number of what were called triples, inhabited almost exclusively by freshmen — one long room divided into two small rooms by a large wardrobe; one small room, and one larger common room. The three small rooms were bedrooms, although two of them had windows that opened into the hallway. The common room was unfurnished. I heard rumors of people who had living room sets in their common rooms, although I was not friends with any of them. I also heard that the inhabitants of one particular triple routinely “borrowed” furniture from the Rose Parlor, which was this fancy large room with ornate Victorian furniture and a baby grand piano where they served tea every afternoon and champagne to graduating seniors after spring convocation.

Our common room had no such amenities. It had a spare mattress, which we got from our student fellow (my college liked to rename everything — student fellows were what other people would call RAs, although they were assigned pretty much just to freshmen). Eventually it also had an Archie Bunker chair, brought by the father of one of my roommates, and a blue wool rug that had belonged to my mother when she was in college, which she mailed to me. My trunk sat by the window as a sort of table for my coffee pot, and tucked in one corner were two plastic crates that held my boombox on top of them and our combined music collections underneath. It was through that slightly tinny but functional boombox (a sixteenth birthday present from my mother) that I first heard Ani Difranco.

A friend of one of my roommates had loaned her a CD of Out of Range and a cassette of Imperfectly. We had them on constant repeat until the friend wanted them back, and then we made dubs of them and played those on constant repeat. I still have mine — I believe it’s in my car, which still has a tape deck. The next summer we all saw her play at the Newport Folk Festival, and we all got, or dubbed from someone who got, Not a Pretty Girl when it came out, and later Dilate and Living in Clip and Little Plastic Castle. And after that album, I must admit, my interest in her newer music waned. I don’t listen to her old music as much any more, but when I do, it is so good and so poignant, and so much the more so for having been the sound track of my first dorm room, and later my first apartment, and of the sit-in, and of so many other moments.

And sure, every young generation thinks they are different, and thinks they invented sex, and thinks all the other things you have to think before you move on to thinking about how juvenile you were when you thought those things. But they matter, and this is why Ani mattered — and still matters — to me.

I lucked out in many ways. I was born in 1975. I am in various ways a miracle of modern medicine. I got to wear pants (jeans,even!) to school, and I grew up with Free to Be. . . You and Me in a progressive college town. When I was in high school, I saw C. Everett Koop speak and I performed in an educational improv drama group that dealt with teen issues. And what I learned from all that, and from Take Back the Night and the Rape Victim Advocacy Program and the Domestic Violence Intervention Program and the Women’s Resource and Action Center was that it was okay to say no. And that is a good and important lesson, one I feel grateful for to this day.

But Ani — Ani taught me that it was also okay to say yes. Ani sang love triangle songs, and tortured artist songs, and saying no songs, and songs about things that happen when you try to say no and no one listens, and those are all good and important songs. But she also sang

the door opens, the room winces
the housekeeper comes in without a warning
i squint at the muscular motel light
and say, hey good morning
as she jumps, her keys jingle
and she leaves as quickly as she came in
i roll over and taste the pillow with my grin

and she sang

we’re in a room without a door
and i am sure without a doubt
they’re gonna wanna know
how we got in here
and they’re gonna wanna know
how we plan to get out
we better have a good explanation
for all the fun that we had
‘cuz they are coming for us, babe
and they are going to be mad
yeah they’re going to be mad at us

and she sang

‘cuz i don’t care if they eat me alive
i’ve got better things to do than survive
i’ve got a memory of your warm skin in my hand
and i’ve got a vision of blue sky and dry land

and she sang

and maybe you can keep me
from ever being happy
but you’re not going to stop me
from having fun

[lyrics from danah boyd’s excellent collection]

If you are a woman in a 19th century novel, I was telling my book discussion group the other day, if you have sex out of wedlock, you get pregnant, do not pass go, do not collect $200. Sometimes you also die, like Tess, or you have to suffer the twin humiliations of wearing a scarlet A and having hundreds of terrible papers written about you.

In the 20th century, that started to change, although it has never gone away entirely. And Ani acknowledges that. If you have sex in an Ani song, you might get pregnant, you might get hurt, the guy might dump you, even later that same night, you might have to have an abortion. And she’s perfectly clear that you can say no. But what Ani made clear was that when you said yes, it was you doing it, and you still were a you — not a plot device, not that blonde who appears in the preview but doesn’t get any credits, not a symbol or an object lesson.

Ani is the person who made me think it might be okay to grow up.