File Under Righteous Babe

Lori Leibovich reviews Ani DiFranco's album "Dilate"

Published June 3, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

Just for the record, Ani DiFranco was doing the Angry Young Woman Rocker thing way before it was cool. So why haven't you heard of her? Why haven't you turned on MTV to see her angelic, nose-ringed face, her crown of thick blond braids or her shapely hips rotating to her folk-punk beat? You haven't heard of her because DiFranco doesn't do things the major label/splashy MTV way. See, she's a Righteous Babe.

Righteous Babeness means you pick up a guitar at age nine and start your own independent record label -- named Righteous Babe, of course -- at 18 so you never have to work for The Man, so that you are never forced to compromise your artistic or political self one iota.You start out playing campus coffeehouses and dank bars. You build a name for yourself in the queer community. And suddenly people from outside of Northampton and Santa Cruz are listening, and they're not all lesbians. Then one day, Rolling Stone, Spin and MTV News start to profile you. (You make a great profile: bisexual, politically outspoken and funny.) Then your albums start to crack the college charts. You are listed on critics best -of lists. You sell out the Beacon in New York City and get a rave review in the New York Times. But where is a Do -It -Yourself, post- feminist hard-core/folkie who won't sign with a major label to go?

Wherever she chooses, which is the point. DiFranco is saying the same kinds of things as "angry" video goddesses like Alanis and Courtney. Only she's saying it louder, and more dangerously. When she screams the F-word it is a call to arms. She is a one-woman political dynamo who still believes in the power of the community to spark revolution. "There isn't much I have to say/That I wouldn't rather just shut up and do," she sings on the just-released "Dilate," her eighth album in six years.

DiFranco's sound could be described as folk you can dance to, or maybe punk for the poetry crowd. Her albums are stocked with autobiographical songs that tell a layered, reflective, and yes, angry story. DiFranco explores the psycho-political universe of the hip female psyche in a way that screams real: "I am not a pretty girl, that is not what I do, " she sang on her last album, "Not A Pretty Girl." "I aint no damsel in distress and I don't need to be rescued." Don't get her wrong, she has a soft side too. Delicately placed between the raucous estrogen-infused anthems lie many shades of gray. She can be vulnerable, unsure and sorry. On her album,"Imperfectly," she sings, "I'm no heroine/At least not the last time I checked/I'm too easy to roll over/I'm too easy to wreck/I sing what I wish I could say."

DiFranco coughs out lyrics in spasms and spurts, sometimes revealing rationality and unadulterated rage in the course of the same song. She is a storyteller extraordinare, with a conversational, poetic air recalling Joni Mitchell and a voice that can resemble both a Suzanne Vega-like whisper and a Sinead O'Connor-like curdling cry.

And she plays a mean guitar. This is the woman who, before shows, anchors elongated acrylic fingernails with electrical tape to bolster her strumming capabilities. One glimpse of her on stage, twisting her small torso beneath the body of her acoustic (which she wields more like an axe than a chain saw), and it is clear that DiFranco's relationship with her instrument, at least, works.

On "Dilate," DiFranco puts the political on hold to concentrate on the personal. At a recent show in San Francisco, DiFranco introduced a series of songs as her "melodramatic- tortured-ditties." "Dilate," which is considerably more polished than her other albums, delves deep into amorous destruction."Don't treat me like something that happened to you," she sings on "Adam and Eve." But she never sounds desperate -- just pissed. "Untouchable Face," which DiFranco has been playing live for years, begins in a soft whisper, then poetic musings slowly turn into a sarcastic, incisive send-off to an almost-ex who has found someone new: "Too bad you had to have a better half/She's not really my type/But I think you two are forever/And I hate to say it/But you're perfect together/So fuck you/And your untouchable face/ Fuck you/For existing in the first place."

The beauty of the song is not only its universality--who hasn't told a lover to fuck off ? -- but the way in which the word "fuck" rolls off DiFranco's' tongue with a poisonous, hissing sound, like a snake's timbre before it bites. She molds the F-word into a sexy, slimy threat.

The title track of "Dilate" reflects DiFranco's emotional and physical exhaustion, road-worn weariness. She is fed up with strange hotel rooms and relationships that leave her wasted: "When I say you sucked my brain out/ The English translation is I am in love with you." But there is some inspiration amidst the ashes. On "Joyful Girl" she rhapsodizes about her career, perhaps reminding herself why she does things the hard, unglamorous way: "I do it for the joy it brings...the world owes me nothing, we owe each other the world."

At the San Francisco show, DiFranco mimicked a deep-voiced reporter asking her if her new album was a "conscious move away from politics." "No," DiFranco said, "I've just been a little distracted." In concert, she is positively giddy, beaming at her adoring fans, laughing, taunting, joking. "Ever been in one of those hideous relationships where Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston start to make a lot of sense?," she asked, before breaking into Houston's syrupy smash "I Will Always Love You." (The set also included an ode to Aerosmith).

DiFranco has inspired a maniacal cult following. There are Ani look alikes, Ani websites, Ani worshipers. Her audiences are mostly female but increasingly male, from teenagers on up, gay, strait and bi. They know all the words to her songs and repeat them like a mantra. They snatch up her CD's and tapes, and record them for their friends, on an evangelical mission to spread the gospel of Ani. Her fans respect her even more than they love her and it's because of what she's not: a sellout.

DiFranco runs a cottage industry sculpted in her own independently conscious likeness. Seven men and women are employed full time at Righteous Babe Records in Buffalo. (There is one half-time worker: Ani's Mom, a bookkeeper.) DiFranco helps keep the local economy afloat by insisting on using only local graphic designers and photographers for her cover art and posters, and her CD's are made at the only manufacturer in the city. When she's not on tour, she shuttles between Manhattan and Buffalo, playing numerous benefit concerts in her hometown. She has sold over 300,000 CD's at her shows, through her toll free number 1-800-ON-HER-OWN and at record stores through an independent distributor. A recent mailing about her new album and tour went out to 30,000 fans. On tour, she brings along a bass player, Sara Lee (who played with Gang of Four and the B-52's) and drummer Andy Stochansky , but DiFranco does all the songwriting, producing and arranging herself. (She only recently hired a manager.) She has been repeatedly courted by major labels (Nirvana producer Danny Goldberg heavily recruited her when he was at Atlantic records), but DiFranco has yet to budge.

And what if she did? What if she signed with a big label, got a little more promotion and attracted more fans? Would it be so awful for America to hear a female voice of uncompromised rage singing pointed social commentary and love songs addressed to both men and women? Would it be that hard to market a bi-, punk goddess to the masses? Doesn't Ani want to empower as many people as she possibly can?

Yes. But, on her own terms. As she says on this kiss-off to the record industry,"No I don't prefer obscurity/But I'm an idealistic girl/And I wouldn't work for you/No matter what you paid/And I may not be able to change the whole fucking world/But I can be the million you never made."

By Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

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