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.

11 thoughts on “On Listening to Ani Difranco”

  1. I was just sitting here thinking I wanted to listen to some Ani Difranco, and then I found this.

    Yes, exactly yes, and that is how I felt on hearing her and that is how I feel now.

    Also that it didn’t HAVE to be a guy in the song; also that it was perfectly okay to be an actual *woman*, not just an unempowered caricature of femininity or a guy with boobs. (Heh, got carried away channeling my inner 19-year-old there for a second.)

    Great post, it really resonates for me.

  2. (“Er, how you felt then is how I felt then; how you feel now is how I feel now,” she clarifies – wishing she could edit her comment.)

  3. Oh, Laura, YES.
    Every tool is a weapon if you hold it right.
    Smile pretty and watch your back.
    Buildings and bridges are made to bend in the wind, to withstand the world that’s what it take

    And so many more. She is the soundtrack of my self-confidence, and my faith in my own imperfection.

  4. I very much fit the demographics you list in the first paragraph and I completely agree. For the record “Untouchable” is the BEST song about unrequited love I know and it touched on and helped me heal that very specific pain, at that time and place. (I’ve got my own friends, I’ve got my own face, I’ve got my own mind, f*ck this time and place…)

  5. Marianne, yes, indeed — in typical heterosexual fashion I forgot to mention that another wonderful thing about Ani’s songs is that they have always been about all sorts of configurations of relationships, which I appreciate, even if I sometimes forget to mention it, and even though it’s not really applicable to me.

    Jenica, I love “she is the soundtrack of my self-confidence.”

    Kaijsa, sadly, no — I have to run a book discussion group that afternoon, so there’s no way I’d make it down in time. Phooey.

    Tamara, I have a mix from my very depressed junior year of college: one side is called I Want My Old Face, and the other one is called Fuck This Time and Place. (People say, “wow, were you not very happy when you made this?” Uh, yeah. I was not happy.) I’ll have to take another listen to “Untouchable Face.”

  6. Fun fact- I used Ani lyrics in my women’s studies undergraduate thesis as supporting/illustrative quotes (paper was mostly about struggling/coming to terms with personal and societal constructs of gender identity). I’d love to know the playlist of that aptly titled CASSETTE mix. (We’re so old ;))

  7. As you know, Laura, you can find a fair few Ani lyrics on my blog. You can also find a fair few of them in my graduate sociology and philosophy papers. She just has a way of saying what needs to be said.

    I came to Ani (Dilate tour) as a 40-year-old white male, just divorced, in college full-time, just “retired” from the Army and trying to figure out this world while trying to come back to life and beat the severe chronic depression & suicidal tendencies the Army had inflicted on me.

    Ani quite literally may have saved my life. I am so so very happy for all the things she has done for millions of women across the years. But I also full well know that you do NOT need to be a woman to greatly benefit from the lessons/example she provides.

    Except for the bootlegs (have only one) I have everything she has put out. I haven’t been as intrigued by much of the newer stuff–don’t care for the arrangements but do love the point of view.

    I have taken my daughter to see her and recently had the honor of taking my fiance to see Ani for her 1st time.

    Thank you for this post, even if it doesn’t “exactly” apply to me. 😉

  8. And Mark, thank you for your comments, which I am only just now seeing, as WordPress for some reason no longer sees fit to email me when someone comments on my blog. Anyway. I love that Ani applies to men, too — I just wanted to write about a particular way that she applied to me, in a way that was particularly female.

  9. Yes, yes and also yes. Her music was the soundtrack to my life for so many years. I’ve seen her live countless times and while I don’t listen to her much anymore, whenever I hear her music it still touches me in a way nothing else does. My Ani fun fact: I once participated in a workshop in which one of the exercises involved walking across a balance beam WAY high up off the ground (there was a net but it was still really scary) belting a song that was meaningful to you. My song? Untouchable Face.

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