By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
From Fairbanks to Hemingway to celebrities in "other fields," i.e. Bob Dylan, is easy enough. And from Dylan to DiFranco the analogy is even easier. After the great "I Am" of her first eight albums, one could see In-Love-With-Goat-Boy Dilate and Call-Off-the-Girl-Police Little Plastic Castles as breaks with her audience.
"Not since Bob Dylan plugged in his electric guitar have a group of fans been so freaked by an artist's evolution," claims a 1997 Spin profile. But is it the same? What if that celebrity is a feminist? Suppose girls see the world more in terms of relationships and boys more in terms of abstractions. Suppose girls are made to feel not only that what they want and need is not important but that how they see things is less "mature" than how boys see things. Just suppose.
Suppose a female rocker who achieves an autonomous voice ends up on an island cut off from her female voice. And suppose a female rocker who stays true to her relational voice ends up cut off from her rocking voice and so ends up on another island.
And suppose that in the 1990s a punk comes along who calls herself a folksinger and a feminist and has a political and psychological understanding of the power grids people, particularly girls, have to live inside. Suppose she has a sense of history. And suppose along with her intelligence she has an erotically charged rock and roll musical stance and songs that acknowledge need and vulnerability and a voice to get it all across. And suppose this folksinger has a devoted female audience and controls her own career.
That is to say, suppose Ani DiFranco and her audience have acted out a successful drama combining autonomy and relationship. Suppose, unlike female rockers whose similar dramas were too often performed in front of what academics call "the male gaze" but we shall call "the male leer," Ani and her fans gazed at each other and found their suppressed "other voice." Or voices.
Maybe they healed a psychic split.
And maybe once that split was healed, although the machinery of celebrity was still in place, they all got off the island together. Maybe this time, when the core group of fans matured just as the artist felt the need to control the celebrity spotlight, it was neither Bob-Dylan-goes-electric nor Linda-Ronstadt-goes-bimbo but a healing of a second psychic split. Maybe DiFranco has the space to maintain a relationship with her fans while they differentiate. Maybe that will form a continuing story, not a break. Maybe DiFranco will be Pete Seeger, not Bob Dylan.
For Ani traditionalists, Up Up Up Up Up Up (hereafter UpX6) contains a breaking-up-with-a-girlfriend song and a political-outlaw-on-the-run song. But the voice is calmer. The first single is "Not Angry Anymore," as in "not," and this is the only Ani record with two songs in a row that mention churches. The vocals aren't exactly understated. But they aren't all over the place anymore either.
Much of the sound reminded me of early Country Joe, Surrealistic Pillow, and the pothead, flower-power Donovan. They were folkies gone electric also, but acidhead optimists, and evolutionists. Ani adds lyrical focus to the same spacey sound. "Come Away," a lover-junkie song like Little Plastic Castles's "Two Little Girls," is almost gorgeous, but the softer music only deepens the song's bite.
UpX6 has been billed as the first Ani CD composed with not just drummer Andy Stochansky but the whole band in mind. There are no Ginsbergian explosions of words the contrasts in mood and texture from cut to cut are more sonic than verbal, and mostly pleasing, even beautiful. But the expanded musical pallet makes the rough moments stand out. I'll pass on the closing jam, thanks, although I liked "Pulse" the last time, and there's awkward stuff that would have passed boiled down to an acoustic guitar riff. All in all, it's an album that fits together better the more you listen. It needs a discerning and devoted audience before those rough edges will smooth out and cohere. And I hope such an audience is still there.
Why does it matter? Why can't an old rad like me allow DiFranco, after all that she's accomplished, the ambiguous spotty maturity of most pop acts?
Because of Buffalo.
As the saga is told, the young DiFranco moved from Buffalo to NYC, where she survived and found her voice. But her record company is up in Buffalo, and at some point DiFranco moved back. UpX6's "Trickle Down" is a reverbed recounting of childhood memories of the steel mills closing.