Pretty, Twisted & Independent: Ani DiFranco
At 26 years old, punk-folk singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco has accomplished during her short career than many people twice her age.DiFranco began performing Beatles covers in bars at age 9, recorded her first album when she was 18, and started her own record label, Righteous Babe Records, at 20. Since 1988, she's recorded seven critically acclaimed albums; her eighth, Dilate, was just released.It's DiFranco's best work yet. Following last year's breakthrough album, the critically lauded and modestly successful Not a Pretty Girl, Dilate is a tightly wound coil of combustible emotions, a pulsating trip carried over the jagged glass shards of broken relationships and crumbling self-worth. Dilate is a stormy tour de force centered around one woman's journey to the burning, nauseous pit of her soul. It's a journey that's earned the New York-based singer-songwriter numerous comparisons to the histrionically inclined Canadian diva Alanis Morissette. Indeed, the trip-hop treated "Outta Me, Onto You" rages with the same ferocious intensity as Morissette's signature song, "You Oughta Know.""Some people wear their heart up on their sleeve," spits DiFranco through gritted teeth. "I wear mine underneath my right pant leg, strapped to my boot. Don't think 'cuz I'm easy, I'm naive. Don't think I won't pull it out, don't think I won't shoot."But Ani DiFranco is not this year's answer to Alanis Morissette. DiFranco was the year before's answer; in fact, she was the answer the year before that one, too.During a telephone interview from New York. DiFranco discussed her place among today's calvary of shoot-'em up, knock-'em dead female singers."It's funny being around forever and forever and having eight albums, and I'm [still] compared to the chick of the month whether it's Liz Phair or Sinead O'Connor," she says. "Lately there's been a new twist--now I'm the matriarch because I've been here fucking forever [making] music on the grass-roots level, and I've seen a lot of people zoom past me. One year someone will open for me, and the next year she'll be on the cover of Rolling Stone."And though she bristles at the comparison, DiFranco insists on giving Morissette her due. "I think she's good at what she does. It's good; she's out there making noise and I'm out there making noise."The noises generated by the two artists are alike on the surface. But whereas Morissette's Jagged Little Pill is a cleverly crafted, slickly produced manifesto created to satisfy a new generation of disenchanted coeds, DiFranco's exhaustively personal music seethes with a choleric subtext of self-betrayal and destruction."I used to be a superhero, no one could touch me not even myself," DiFranco sings on "Superhero." "You are like a phone book that I somehow stumbled into, and now look at me: I am just like everybody else."Visually, DiFranco offers a similar juxtaposition of rugged sexuality and naked vulnerability. Not a Pretty Girl's liner notes show a foreboding figure with a half-shaved head, decked out in a black leather tank top; other photos play up both the singer's piercing blue eyes and the prominent tattoo sweeping across her collarbone.As one would expect from this shrewdly witted performer, nothing about DiFranco's appearance is by accident or whimsy. At age 18, fed up because she was only being noticed for her naturally good looks, DiFranco shaved her head and found herself instantly liberated--not just by the amount of time saved on a daily hair regimen, but by the pronounced shift in people's reactions toward her."I've always manipulated my appearance and everything else in my life," says DiFranco, who now sports shoulder-length cornrows. "I like to stand up on stage and watch the reactions."It changes everything: One day I'm walking down the street and guys are whistling, and the next day people are crossing the street to avoid me. People are scared of me."Despite the glee in DiFranco's voice as she recounts the experience, the singer is quick to point out that she's not the sum total of her image's parts."The most common misconception about me is that I'm an angry young woman," she says. "If you include anger in your range of emotions, then you're reduced to a stereotype. I'm one of the happiest, most easygoing people I know. It's terribly ironic."