Feminist epiphanies, by Ani DiFranco
by Jordan Kisner
I’m no heroine, Ani DiFranco protests in one of her songs, I just sing what I wish I could say and hope somewhere some woman hears my music and it helps her through her day.
This is as close to a dominant mission statement as DiFranco, a woman on many missions, seems to get. DiFranco, clearly a product of both American folk tradition and rock-and-roll, is known for vivid, poetic lyrics that showcase a feminist and political agenda as in-your-face as her hair (past favorites include a shaved head, green spikes and dreadlocks, though more recently she opts for natural and short-cropped). She writes songs about prostitution (“Don’t ask me why I’m crying/ I’m not going to tell you what’s wrong/ I’m just going to sit on your lap/ For five dollars a song”), poverty (I remember the first time I saw someone lying on the cold street/I thought, "I can't just walk past here, this can't just be true.”/But I learned by example to just keep moving my feet./ It's amazing the things that we all learn to do.”) and, of course, gender politics (I still answer to the other half of the race/I don’t fool myself like I’ve fooled you/I don’t have the power/you know, we just don’t run this place.) Some of her music is exquisitely beautiful, some of it is difficult to listen to (“Two Little Girls,” for example, isn’t a family song), but all of it reveals a woman with a sophisticated critical eye for American society and what it asks of the women who live in it.
DiFranco started touring in her hometown, Buffalo, New York, at the age of fifteen, and at sixteen she left home with her mother’s blessing and moved to New York. She recorded her first album at age twenty with borrowed money and sold it out of her trunk as she toured college campuses and bars across America, gaining a cult following as she went. Despite receiving offers from numerous record labels, DiFranco opted to continue producing her own work and founded Righteous Babe Records. Over a decade later, Righteous Babe now produces the music of 14 men and women who, like Ani, write about sexism, racism, war, sexual abuse, poverty, reproductive rights and social justice.
I first came across Ani when I was still in high school. My mother had bought a CD of hers in the '90s and, realizing the language wasn’t consistently appropriate for my young brother and me, filed it on a back shelf. I found it one afternoon, dusted it off, and popped it in the stereo. That first listen is an experience I remember vividly because I now locate it as the beginning of my own journey from an I’m-not-a-feminist-but to a fully formed blog-writing Women & Gender Studies-degree-earning feminist. The bravery she displays in writing songs –often autobiographical—about subjects girls and women are so frequently too ashamed to approach made a deep and immediate impression on me, and the realization that I, too, should strive for such courage was the first of many feminist epiphanies courtesy of Ani.
So over the next few posts, I will be exploring a few of my “AHA!” moments catalyzed by Ani DiFranco songs. It’s my way of paying homage to the woman who brought me here, tackling some tough questions (What does being an Angry Feminist really mean? How do we inherit body image insecurity from our mothers?), and, like Ani, chasing the ever-elusive ultimate goal: “to be Commander-in-Chief of my one-woman army.”
(Part 1 of 4)