In 1997, indie-rock queen Ani DiFranco, then 26, graced the cover of Spin magazine for the very first time, a feat that was viewed as extraordinary by some and as unwarranted by others. None of the folk singer’s studio albums had even been certified gold, yet the editors at the magazine knew something big was about to happen. Little did they know that putting DiFranco on their cover would be that big thing. That very year, Living in Clip, a live double-disc, topped critics’ lists and became DiFranco’s biggest seller, exposing her unique brand of folk-punk to an entire generation of mainstream rock fans. DiFranco was poised for her big breakthrough. Though she had made a career out of turning her nose up at the major labels that continually courted her, she finally seemed comfortable enough in her own skin to make the swan dive into mainstream popularity—on her own terms. The question was whether or not it would work.
DiFranco’s extensive catalog displays a woman on a mission whose musical development went hand-in-hand with personal discovery. Each album, from the pure folk of Not So Soft to the more musically padded Out of Range and the emotionally complex Not a Pretty Girl, mapped out a distinct pattern of perpetual growth. In fact, DiFranco was indeed a pretty girl coming to grips with a society (and fanbase) that would not allow a girl to be political while wearing lipstick and a dress. In 1996, she released Dilate, a dark and haunting mix of folk, punk, and dub influences. Many critics consider the album her best studio effort, with the folk singer pounding on the walls of every existing boundary in pop music. For the first time, she released a music video, a medium she had always viewed as too commercial. Co-directed by DiFranco herself, the clip was set to a trip-hop remix of the song “Joyful Girl” and featured DiFranco wearing an evening gown and enough makeup to send many of her militant feminist followers flying off the handle.
Seeing DiFranco perform live is essential to fully understanding the breadth of her talent. Her spastic energy, humor, and command of the stage is unrivaled, which is probably why 1997’s Living in Clip was such a huge success. But by 1998, her live audiences were changing. For the first time there were almost as many men as women, and swarms of trend-conscious teens began descending on DiFranco’s shows, due in large part to the media exposure and her new mainstream appeal. Where she had once played college campuses and small clubs, she was now selling out large theaters. Many of her core fans who had been there from the very beginning began feeling alienated by all the hoopla. They truly believed they owned her and didn’t want to see her change. Nor did they want to see her on the covers of mainstream magazines or on MTV News—which was just where she was headed.
There was speculation that DiFranco’s next studio album would be her official breakthrough. And no one seemed more aware of this than DiFranco herself, writing songs about self-examination under public scrutiny that would eventually become Little Plastic Castle. It was a fishbowl concept album, with DiFranco contemplating the leap into the shark-infested waters of rock stardom on tracks like “Swan Dive”: “They can call me crazy if I fail/All the chance I need is one in a million/And they can call me brilliant if I succeed.” The title track even responded to her disenchanted fans’ criticisms: “People talk about my image/Like I come in two dimensions/Like lipstick is a sign of my declining mind.” Released in March of 1998, Little Plastic Castle debuted at an impressive #22 on Billboard’s Top 200 chart, but the album never really made the long-term splash that everyone expected. Its pop leanings alienated her fans even further, yet it wasn’t pop enough to match the success of other Angry Females like Alanis Morissette. The album quickly faded away, failing to fully crossover or reach the coveted gold plateau.
Less than a year later, DiFranco returned with Up Up Up Up Up Up, a relatively understated answer to the public response of Little Plastic Castle. Whether intentional or not, it seemed DiFranco was taking a step back to more organic, folk-rooted music. For the most part, the album was super-political and generally steered clear of any references to the folk singer’s taste of super-stardom. While some may think DiFranco was attempting to win back the loyalty of her disillusioned fans, it’s more likely she was simply staying true to herself and wasn’t concerned with furthering her star power. Either way, the anticipation for what she would do next continued to escalate; Up debuted at #29, moving close to 51,000 copies in its first week.
DiFranco’s musical progression has always made sense and each album seems to be a stepping stone to the next.
Less than 10 months later, the ever-prolific songwriter released To the Teeth, her 11th studio album in a decade. Maceo Parker and company brought a jazzy quality to the project, and while it sported several blunders, it was an eclectic mix that proved that DiFranco was most definitely her own boss. The album continued her “jammy” musical progression leading up to her latest effort, the double disc Revelling/Reckoning. Revelling features more upbeat material while Reckoning focuses on slower, more introspective songs, and it might just be further proof that artists indeed make their worst music when they’re happy and in love. The opening track, “Ain’t That the Way,” finds DiFranco, who married a man in 1999 (much to the chagrin of her largely lesbian audience), singing “Love makes me feel so dumb”—and much of it makes her sound dumb too. The lyrical metaphors that were once clever and unexpected now seem awkward and long-winded. On “Reckoning,” she compares a relationship to an amusement park and it all seems very forced. It was once interesting to see where she might go with her horn arrangements, like the ones in “Heartbreak Even” and “What How When Where (Why Who),” but they now seem obtrusive and overindulgent.
DiFranco’s musical progression has always made sense and each album seems to be a stepping stone to the next. And while her latest direction might not be as emotionally gripping as her previous work, she seems to have come full circle on R/R. Many of the songs find DiFranco singing alone with an acoustic guitar. The appropriately titled “Garden of Simple” begins with “Some crazy fucker carved a sculpture out of butter,” a brazen reminder of her old-school lyrical prowess. She also continues her spoken-word tradition on “Tamburitza Lingua” and “Kazoointoit,” where she shows us what folk-tronica really sounds like. “Imagine That” is an intriguing look into the thoughts of a touring artist and provides further insight into the relationship she has with her fans (“In the haze is your face bathed in shadow/And what’s behind you is hidden from sight”), while the beautifully poetic “Grey” is solemn in its simplicity: “What can I say/But I’m wired this way/And you’re wired to me.” The problem, however, is that the album is a bit over-ambitious, one disc reviving her pure folk style while the other continues the muddled jam sessions of which she’s become so fond.
A tongue-drum featured on “Your Next Bold Move” provides a minimalist percussive backdrop for DiFranco’s familiar politics: “The left wing was broken long ago/By the sling shot of Cointelpro/And now it’s so hard to have faith in anything.” Her attack of the Reagan Era is typically fierce: “I am Cancer/I am HIV…Just looking up from my pillow feeling blessed.” These are the kinds of songs that would have made her early fans proud, but it’s probably too little too late. With her audience getting younger and younger, it’s hard to imagine they even know what Cointelpro is. They might prefer her growling “Fuck you for existing in the first place!” as she did in the popular “Untouchable Face.”
It might seem unfair to suggest that DiFranco is a better songwriter when she’s pissed off, but it might just be that she no longer needs to purge her feelings through songwriting now that she has a husband to confide in. On “Sick of Me,” she grapples with growing older and mellower: “I took to the stage/With my outrage/In the bad old days…But the songs/They come out more slowly/Now that I’m the bad guy.” “School Night” finds a woman choosing between the two loves in her life, her husband and her career: “What kind of scale/Compares the weight of two beauties…I stand committed to a love that came before you.” Elsewhere, she wrestles with the time that has flown by: “She’s 19 going on 30/Or maybe she’s really 30 now.” There’s a comforting brilliance in knowing that she at least acknowledges the fact that she has changed—personally and musically. At 30, she’s dealing with the world from an older, wiser perspective, a perspective that might be foreign to an audience that pines for the anger of songs like “I’m No Heroine” and “Not a Pretty Girl.”
DiFranco’s career can basically be divided into two parts: before and after Little Plastic Castle. It might seem harsh to say DiFranco has stumbled since that album, but there has been a definitive arch in popularity. R/R debuted at #50 on April 21st, 2001, selling 37,000 copies, significantly less than her last three releases. While double albums traditionally sell less, DiFranco followers are particularly fanatical, often snatching up her new albums even before the official release date. And though the album has received great reviews across the board, the fans seem increasingly fickle and the major labels have finally stopped courting her. The chances of DiFranco ever appearing on the cover of Spin again are essentially slim-to-none and with no music videos, MTV has little interest. Yet DiFranco is consciously limiting her exposure by not making music videos; therefore, like her gradual rise, she is once again in control.
But industry politics aside, DiFranco’s music now seems to lack focus. She’s dabbled in electronica and hip-hop, only to abandon them for twangy folk-rock and improv-jams, often all on the very same album. To the Teeth is a great example of this sort of inconsistency. Not a Pretty Girl and Dilate, on the other hand, are probably her most cohesive sets, and not because they’re musically homogenized, but because they’re sonically pure and emotionally raw. Now that she’s personally contented, her focus has shifted to larger issues like mortality but without the incendiary fervor of her early recordings. Perhaps it’s a product of growing older, or perhaps it’s a product of being in a stable relationship.
Or perhaps DiFranco is just evolving and redefining the music industry along the way. She’s still the queen of her own compost heap, but maybe she’s finally used to the smell. While she may have once jumped head-first into the unknown, she has clearly abandoned any aspirations for expanding her success in the mainstream. Developing new artists with her own Righteous Babe Records and inspiring musicians like Prince, who are looking for alternative ways to make music in an increasingly corporate industry, seems to be more important to DiFranco. And as far as disappointed fans, she sings: “They never really owned you/You just carried them around/And then one day you put ’em down/And found your hands were free.”