Richard Schickel’s His Picture in the Papers argues that it was Douglas Fairbanks”— not his wife, not his friend Chaplin, not any of the others— who cheerfully, perhaps unthinkingly, opened up his life, that rich good life, to the public, and invited them to participate in it, enjoy it with him. And it was he who then revolted against their endless intrusions.” Schickel then suggests “that J.D. Salinger learned his public manner from Garbo, that Hemingway was Fairbanks’ literary inheritor. The game of analogs can be indefinitely extended in literature. And in other fields.”
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.
Maybe Buffalo is just another Rust Belt city, but that’s why I like its place in the DiFranco cosmology. Ani on tour helps bring a voice to all those demi-Anis struggling to survive in their own little Lower East Sides, and her widening audience shows that those struggles and sites now stretch across America. Although we aren’t all laid-off steelworkers, the anxiety that we might inhabit the next private Buffalo now stretches coast to coast as well.
In the remarkable and ignored Disconnected, Barbara Rudolph traces the lives of six employees who lost their jobs at AT&T during the great 1990s downsizings. Richard Sennett’s Corrosion of Character paints a larger picture of an affluent America where instability in the workplace has made everyone unsure of who they are and whether they have a history.
While the right wing sees the culture of the ’60s spreading like an illness and a stiff dose of trad morality as the only cure, the instability that culture was trying to address has spread to the emotional lives of middle managers in New Jersey.
When Bob Dylan cried out “How does it feel?/To be on your own/With no direction home” in 1965, he was inside an expanding subculture. Today, Rudolph and Sennett show, that same question could be politely asked of any corporate commuter on any train or bus.
In this context, a sexual outlaw whose goal was always connection as well as sensation gained a voice and a history and a self not just alone, but for and with others.
Now an insecurity different from but similar to the one she escaped in her adolescence is spreading to adults across the country. Dealing with it requires someone who understands the link between social context and inner life. It also requires a feminist. Only a feminist can reach back through identity politics to an earlier tradition of opposition without slighting either. Only a feminist can bring us that history, that story, that voice. And only a rock and roller can make it seem as much fun as Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Bagdad.