A folkie in punk's clothing, Ani DiFranco battled successfully against the Goliath of corporate rock to emerge as one of the most influential and inspirational cult heroines of the 1990s. A resolute follower of D.I.Y. ethos, ... A folkie in punk's clothing, Ani DiFranco battled successfully against the Goliath of corporate rock to emerge as one of the most influential and inspirational cult heroines of the 1990s. A resolute follower of D.I.Y. ethos, DiFranco released her records through her own indie label, Righteous Babe, slowly but steadily building a devout grassroots following on the strength of a relentless tour schedule. An ardent feminist and an open bisexual, her songs tackled issues like rape, abortion, and sexism with insight and compassion, the music's empowering attitude and anger tempered by the poignant candor of singer/songwriter confessionalism.
DiFranco was born in Buffalo, NY, on September 23, 1970. She began her career at the age of nine, when her guitar teacher helped her land her first gig -- performing a set of Beatles covers -- at an area coffeehouse. Befriended by the likes of Suzanne Vega and Michelle Shocked, she later gave up music to study ballet, but at the age of 14 returned to the guitar and began composing her first songs. A year later, alienated from her crumbling family structure, she left home, living with friends while making the rounds of the Buffalo folk club circuit.
DiFranco had written over 100 original songs by the age of 19, and after briefly studying art, she relocated to New York City to further her musical aspirations; besieged by requests from fans for tapes of her performances, she recorded a demo and pressed 500 copies of a self-titled cassette to sell at shows. The tape -- a Spartan acoustic folk collection of intensely personal essays on failed relationships and gender inequities -- quickly sold out, and in 1990 DiFranco founded Righteous Babe to better distribute her recordings, which were slowly spreading across the country on the strength of a substantial word-of-mouth following.
In 1991, after issuing the assured Not So Soft, DiFranco hit the road alone, touring the nation in her Volkswagen and playing gigs wherever she could find them. Her cult blossomed, and her distinct image -- shaved head, tattoos, and body piercings -- soon became the de rigueur look for her fans as well. As albums like 1992's Imperfectly and 1993's Puddle Dive expanded her musical ambitions as well as her following, DiFranco became the subject of considerable major-label interest, yet she steadfastly rejected all offers as Righteous Babe grew to become a highly viable business venture.
DiFranco continued playing over 200 dates a year, and soon even the mainstream media took notice of her cottage-industry music; after 1994's masterful Out of Range, she exploded with the following year's Not a Pretty Girl, which garnered notice from outlets ranging from CNN to The New York Times. A sprawling, eclectic work detailing a heated love affair with a man (much to the chagrin of her lesbian followers), 1996's Dilate even debuted in the Top 100 of the Billboard charts, a stunning achievement for an independent release. The live set Living in Clip followed in 1997.
Early in 1998, DiFranco released the studio effort Little Plastic Castle; her most musically diverse release yet, it also was her highest-charting album to date, and set the stage for the release of Up Up Up Up Up Up the following year. Another new LP, To the Teeth, appeared in 1999 as well, and in mid-2000 came the release of the odds-and-ends compilation Swing Set. Revelling: Reckoning appeared in spring 2001. In 2002, DiFranco trudged on; a road warrior at heart, she issued the double-disc So Much Shouting, So Much Laughter in September, her first live album since 1997's Living in Clip. The So Much Shouting set captured handpicked favorites by DiFranco and three previously unreleased songs.
The following year's Evolve added funk, jazz, and Latin elements to the mix, while 2004's Educated Guess was performed completely by DiFranco. Knuckle Down, co-produced by Joe Henry, arrived in 2005. The eighth disc in her Official Bootleg series, Carnegie Hall (recorded live on April 2, 2002), was released in the spring of 2006, and then -- shortly after the singer announced she was pregnant -- her studio album Reprieve arrived that same August. DiFranco gave birth to her daughter in January 2007 and released another Official Bootleg, Hamburg, Germany, in 2008. Red Letter Year appeared later in 2008, featuring songs inspired by the impending presidential race, DiFranco's baby daughter, and her partner/producer Mike Napolitano.
Ani DiFranco Appreciation Club is an all-inclusive, safe space devoted to the appreciation and discussion of Ani DiFranco’s music. Meetings are open to anyone with a love of Ani DiFranco; new members welcome. Please sign the attendance sheet in the comments. We also encourage everyone to buy Ani’s music and not download it illegally, please.
Ani DiFranco is trying to break your heart. Actually, she’s probably already succeeded a bunch of times, which is why you’re here. Because that’s what’s so special about Ani’s music: although she’s never been popular in the mainstream or gained much radio play, she’s cultivated legions of fans through the raw power of her lyrics and her ability to write something so heart-wrenchingly true to your own experience that it makes you feel like SHE KNOWS YOU.
It’s that deep connection, that feeling of relating so completely that makes our love for her so deep and red.
This is what we’ve determined, anyhow. While cultivating this meeting’s thematic list — her most close-to-the-heart-devastating tracks — we came to the conclusion that Ani DiFranco is better at describing your feelings than any other living musician of all time forever infinity plus one. That’s right — YOUR feelings.
When Ani detracts from singing about “you” to sing about a specific man/woman/person — which she rarely does — it’s necessary for the story but it’s not contained within her. We’re not on the outside hearing stories about her life. We’re sitting in a drum circle (lesbians love feelings and drum circles) where the details are inconsequential compared to the feelings they provoke: feelings that are too fucking honest for anyone to NOT relate. Ani herself can bare her raw, pulsing, bleeding soul all over her guitar and still remain a total mystery. THAT’S fucking artistry.
Which brings us to today’s topical list of Ani’s most personally-meaningful-for-us / devastating songs. At our first meeting, we discussed some of Ani’s more “classic,” well-known songs. In our opinion, her best songs are not necessarily the most popular, they’re the ones that tear you up. Everyone has a few Ani songs that speak SO LOUDLY to a specific experience/time/relationship/drama of yours that you feel it viscerally. Those songs are different for everyone.
Most of the songs we (riese & bcw) have chosen to discuss are off the album Reckoning, which, we are prepared to argue, is her overall most heartbreaking album. These are songs you may not have heard before, but might just rip your heart out of your chest and feed it back to you. Or they might not. One of the best things about Ani is that just about any one of her songs has the potential to do that. Except Hat-Shaped Hat. That song is weird.
Providence (To The Teeth)
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bcw: You guys, PRINCE. Prince is on this song. This song is a bit of a departure musically – along with the rest of To The Teeth – and I wasn’t into it the first time I heard it. But like some of her other songs, once I can relate to it it’s all over. I think this song is a masterpiece, quite honestly. It tells a whole story in just the first line. Then it goes on and tells a hundred more stories that could be anyone’s, and spans years, and includes lines like “it’s late – much too late for us, and I’m fixing to go home / with just my conscience and a bitter sense of irony as my chaperone.”
Riese: Ani has a few different voices (at least in my head), and this is the voice she uses for songs about ‘accidental/irresistible (maybe doomed, maybe not) romance.’ Sometimes my head contains only two things: 1. Providence, 2. “Is a new episode of The Office up yet?”
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Riese: For this –> “As bad as I am / I’m proud of the fact / that I’m worse than I seem.” It’s the hollowed-out urgent despair that follows ‘losing a thing you love.’ When you feel proud of yourself the first day you make it through work without crying in the bathroom.
bcw: “I’m proud of the fact that I’m worse than I seem” is maybe the best way of describing that feeling of . . . you know, I’ve been sitting here for ten minutes trying to think of a way to describe that feeling and I just realized that Ani’s way is already the best way. Maybe the only way.
Riese: …as my (above) attempt to describe that feeling suggests!
As Is (Little Plastic Castle)
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bcw: This song will always remind me of this time when I like 14-15. It was my first bigger-than-anything-has-ever-felt crazy girldrama: we like-liked each other but she was scared to be gay so she’d just write me really intense letters. “Just give up and admit you’re an asshole” meant a lot to me at that time.
Riese: This song is all over the place for me. Pieces of it apply here and there — how you lied to my face about your relationship with the lifeguard, how I knew what I was getting into when I kissed you, how you came damaged and I said ‘I’ll take it as is.’ It’s about me because I never look in the right places and I trip over things. “What scares me/ is while you’re telling me stories / you actually / believe that they are real,” is about everyone’s brick wall.
I write because I’m often convinced I feel the thing behind the thing you’re saying to me, even when you don’t see it yourself AND IT’S YOUR THING. I could be wrong, but that’s irrelevant really. It’s about being a psychic/writer. Her voice is self-righteously playful. She knows how you feel and you don’t know how you feel. If you did, you would understand that this is good enough. It’s so good that it’s ridiculous, really.
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Riese: Someone needed to write these words: “You can doubt anything if you think about it long enough / because what happened always adjusts to fit what happened after that.” So Ani DiFranco wrote them.
bcw: “But win or lose, just that you choose this little war is what kills you.” Fuck if that line doesn’t say everything.
Riese: Also, Nothing is as it appears / in the fun house mirrors of your fears/ on the roller coaster of all these years / with your hands above your head.
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bcw: I’ve always understood this song to be about being in a relationship with someone who’s more into it than you are.
Riese: I’ve always understood this song to be about losing a best friend to a relationship — not an ordinary best friend, but the kind you’re so close to you feel like you’re in love sometimes.
bcw: “But with you down on bended knee, always looking up at me, that feeling of standing up together is gone” is the line that made me think it was about her relationship. When I first heard it, I remember thinking that I’d never heard someone sing about love that way; about such a complicated, disquieting feeling about the person you love or an imbalance in a relationship – like she loved the person but they weren’t on the same page. I really admired how she was expressing it honestly, even though it was probably hard to say. This song made me re-evaluate the way I processed my own emotions.
Riese: When I first heard it, I remember thinking that I’d never heard someone sing about friendships that way. I was projecting. It was the winter of 2005, when my roommate/best friend/’sister’ and I were fighting all the time and eventually decided to move out of our Harlem apartment. She’d move in with her boyfriend in Park Slope and I’d move to Williamsburg with a straight girl I was hooking up with. (If you know NY neighborhoods that says it all). Your twenties are a weird time to be friends. People keep changing and also never changing. Sometimes they’re on Cloud Nine, and you’re obsessed with your own revelling. It didn’t feel like second place until I heard this song. This song changed my own story.
Independence Day (Little Plastic Castle)
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Riese: Have you ever heard “Blood and Fire” by the Indigo Girls? It’s pretty fucking raw, like Amy Ray’s letting her heart bleed all over the stage. This is like that. But it’s Ani, so it’s even better! These are the worst parts of being left: how I stopped eating when he stopped calling me, (I’ve always appreciated that she used ‘stopped eating’ instead of ‘started starving’, it’s perfect), how she can’t leave me here ’cause I had her back and she’s gotta have mine.
bcw: When Ani hurts she fucking HURTS. “Did I ever tell you that I stopped eating when you stopped calling me” needs no expansion. She will use the phrase “shitting rivers” in a song if she wants to because that’s what fucking time it is.
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Riese: The song starts after those first two lines (up there) for me. I’ve whittled this song down to what I consider a feeling you have the moment you transition from kissing someone consciously to kissing someone involuntarily, when your body takes over and you lose your mind: I’m a good kisser, and you’re a fast learner, and that kind of thing could float us for a pretty long time.
bcw: This song is so intense, lyrically, that’s it’s taken me years to wrap my head around it.
The answer came like a shot in the back while you were running from your lesson
Which might explain why years later all you could remember was the terror of the question.
I got tossed out the window of love’s El Camino
And I shattered into a shower of sparks on the curb
You were smoking me, weren’t you, between your yellow fingers
You just inhaled and exhaled without saying a word.
Where was your conscience? Where was your consciousness?
So What (Reckoning)
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bcw: This one kills me because it feels like she’s singing tome, like I’m the ‘you.’ I feel like she can see me. Like she’s saying, “you know what, asshole? You fucked it up. And you’re still fucking it up. Get your shit together.” I usually can’t listen to it all the way through. “I loved you so / I loved you, so what.” God. LIKE A KNIFE.
Riese: This is about how no matter how much I love you and how hard I try to prevent the moment of your forehead on the steering wheel, it will never match up to your favorite fantasy which doesn’t even have me in it. This song breaks my heart. Not because reality outpaced expectation, but because we’re all unfortunately, unmistakably human. And therefore; so what. WHAT IS LOVE IN THE FACE OF ALL THAT. GOD.
Sick of Me (Reckoning)
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bcw: THIS song makes me think of the first girl I ever loved; we were on-off for several years even though it wasn’t really fair to her. We’re still friends ten years later by some miracle. It was 2001, I was 18, this album had just come out and it was the soundtrack of my summer. Which is intense when I think about how many songs from that album are on this list.
Riese: I think, how sick of me must you be by now? at least once in every serious relationship I’ve ever had. Their responses were always the same, though. I first heard “Sick of Me” when I was dating a ridiculously sane future police officer and it hit HOME HARDCORE. Ani said it better than he did though: “I say I’m sorry I’m so crazy, I am astounded by your patience, and you say, believe it or not baby, the joy you bring me still outweighs it” I never believed him but I could have. It was true. A few years later I was throwing books at the wall, looking at Alex and thinking, “how sick of me must you be by now.”
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Riese: When she says “dirty drug” I think “mental illness.” I don’t know what “carpet-bombed” means but it seems like a thing that happened with us and I know your Mom didn’t know about it. Whatever it means, I’m pretty sure it’s true.
bcw: An ex sent me this song right after our breakup. HOOOOOOO. It’s a doozie, lemme tell you.
Sorry I Am (Not a Pretty Girl)
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Riese: This is about how hard it is to break somebody else’s heart. I thought we were a thing and then it turned out that we weren’t except that you still think we are. She sounds tired in the song, not sad. I’d listen to this in my Bravada driving away from the condo I shared with my now-ex-boyfriend into a different life. I was sorry, but only because he was so sad; not because I still cared. That devastated me by proxy. Because I suddenly cared so much less, all of a sudden. And it’s not you, seriously, it’s me. It’s definitely me.
School Night (Reckoning)
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We both agree that “I’m looking for my door key/but you are my porch light” only makes semi-sense with the rest of this song. Also the part about choosing between the children is a bit over the top.
bcw: I don’t know if I can talk about this song, Rachel B. It’s just too much. Maybe someday, in a therapy session or something, I’ll finally be like “I NEED TO TALK ABOUT THIS SONG CALLED SCHOOL NIGHT BY ANI DIFRANCO.” But that day is not today.