Editor’s Note: The embedded audio and book excerpt below contain some explicit language.
Since the 1990s, musician, poet and activist Ani DiFranco has attracted a fierce following of devoted fans through her righteous anger and clear-eyed feminism.
But sometimes the fan embrace was too tight, and she was often punished for perceived missteps, DiFranco (@Righteous_Babes) says.
She opens up about her career — from playing in Buffalo, New York, bars at age 9 to becoming an emancipated minor at 15 to founding her own independent record company — in her new book, “No Walls and the Recurring Dream: A Memoir.”
The daughter of a Canadian mother and an Italian immigrant father, DiFranco’s childhood quickly grew dark, she tells Here & Now’s Robin Young. Both her father and brother attempted suicide when she was a child.
“I think that this anger that I was so known for or reduced to or thought of as being this angry chick — I really think that it was my mother’s anger moving through me,” she says. “And anger is not as precise as feminist outrage. But then her energy also was so vibrant. She gave me a lot of the tools that I used.”
Even though fans were attracted to her anger, DiFranco says to this day people don’t know what to make of her. She says she instantly became identified for her gender fluidity.
“Late ’80s, early ’90s, a lot of people were still in the closet. I got why they didn’t want their whole lives to be reduced to one element because that is exactly what happened [to me],” DiFranco says. “When I wrote songs for women and men, and suddenly it’s ‘bisexual singer.’ Like oh, OK I’ve written songs about a lot of things. They don’t say ‘anti-capitalist singer’ … and that’s to this day.”
On her musical influences
“So my father loved music and because he was an immigrant, he revered American artists. You know, it’s my subconscious. I was playing [New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival] the other day, and somebody said, ‘You are so quintessentially American.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah that’s what I got made of.’ ”
On how she became defined by her gender fluidity
“That’s another story that just was bigger than me. The writers in the media, they would literally ask me every day, ‘So what do you think it is about you that makes you so successful?’ It’s like, ‘I don’t know dude. I don’t know.’ And if you want to bust out of that frame you need strength, you need conviction.
On how she sometimes felt suffocated by her fans
“Yeah, well you know, I feel that if you are not seeing yourself reflected in your culture and affirmed — and it’s a human need. So I could feel that on a daily basis. And this role that I was playing that’s something that I was providing, which is, ‘Yes, you’re not alone.’ So for somebody who is finding themselves affirmed for the first time ever, there is a clinging that comes with that.”
“Pretty quickly I realized, ‘Wow, I can’t satisfy that person’s need for me to be exactly what they need and that person and that person,’ you know, because it changes.“
On how she sometimes felt perceived as a “sellout”
“I seem to feel that a lot. People who are in a very tight spot want somebody else in there with them. It could be very punishing, my relationship with my listeners. It’s a long-term relationship, and we’ve been through a lot together. And the whole picture is I have been fed and affirmed and uplifted much more than constricted. The one thing that I was searching for through music was family because my family sucked, you know? So I went out in the world and I looked for my family and I found them. And of course, family hurts.”
On her bravery
“Well I mean, a lot of it is just the chemistry of youth. And I do find it harder as I get older. I’ve had experiences more recently in life that have made me feel fear and self-doubt.”
“I would say that writing this book has made me more grateful. You sort of jot down your memories, and I think a lot of those had a negative. And when I sat down for two years and I really thought about it, I realized that’s not the whole story.”
Book Excerpt: ‘No Walls And The Recurring Dream’
by Ani DiFranco
I remember being on stage once in a tight little dress, the bottom of which kept riding up my thighs all the way to my crotch as I moved around and sang (why doing this?!!) … my face growing hotter and hotter as I tried to hide behind my guitar.
I remember once walking out in New York City to get some kind of queer award and booed … for not being queer enough … before I even reached the podium.
I remember seeing something warpy and reflective from stage, it was in Amsterdam, and saying on mic, “What the fuck is that?!” only to walk over and see it was a young woman in the audience living with such severe palsy that she had to lie back in a special wheelchair with an elaborate series of mirrors in which to see the world beyond her knees.
In other words, I’ve had many experiences of being on stage and wanting to die or disappear. I’ve had many experiences of being trapped in spotlights and time suddenly slowing way down, the sound of my own blood pounding in my ears taking over from some distant sonic background in which angry words are being flung at me from a deep darkness.
Somehow this was worse.
It was not just crying but sobbing. It was Carnegie Hall, spring of 2002, and the sobbing from the third balcony was getting louder and louder until it began echoing around the room. Plus, she was not even the only one crying. A moment of paralyzing trepidation came over me and I heard my voice falter and begin to move into a distant slow motion. It was the culmination of so many recent moments of paralyzing trepidation. Having been in Manhattan on 9/11 (months earlier) and having breathed in the acrid blue smoke of the towers. Having hit the road mere weeks afterward when everyone else was canceling their tours and staying home behind closed shutters. I traveled around a country in a state of emergency. I played to half-empty houses that took months to slowly fill up again. I felt, all the while, a great pressure to lift up the small audiences that were brave enough to come out. A pressure to make sense of it all. To make hope happen.
I was confronted nightly with impossible task: How am I supposed to make a whole show filled with all kinds of songs about all kinds of things when there is just one big thing pressing down on all of us? How could I possibly sing or talk about anything other than the all-encompassing panic in the air or the ominous march to war? And even if I could magically, suddenly make a whole show around this one looming thing, what the hell would I say? It was a challenging time to be a folksinger, at least, if you take your job seriously. The message that it was unpatriotic to criticize the president and his “just go shopping while we bomb the shit out of ‘em” rhetoric was everywhere. Even from people and sources where you wouldn’t expect it. It was weird, watching what fear did to people. Unnerving numbers fell into lockstep.
I tried to make myself into a lightning rod for critical thinking and accountability. I studied and I made notes and I got my facts straight. I stayed up debating and discussing late into the night with the most politically astute of my friends. I consulted trusted sources like Noam Chomsky and The Nation for guidance in sorting through the mainstream media quagmire. I traveled around the country and I talked to people everywhere I went.
I wrote and I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. On each stage, I unfolded a different permutation of a poem that came to be called “Self Evident.” I attempted to engage people directly with this poem in real time. But now here I was, laying a poem about 9/11 down on the very people who had shouldered the brunt of the violence, the brunt of the loss. It was Carnegie Hall, it was only seven months later, and I was alone on stage when the question of “How can I possibly talk about anything but this right now?” suddenly wheeled around and became “How dare you talk about this right now?”
It was too late. I was trapped again. The spotlight was on me and there was no time to rethink my decision. I heard my distant voice finish reciting the poem. I think it may have even sung a few more songs. Then I was back in a dressing room full of smelly lilies and roses and there were pats on the back and congratulations-you-just-played-Carnegie-Hall hugs. Time inexplicably kept going.
I will never know what is the right balance in art between painful truths and painful silences. There is no right balance to be known. It is a question to be asked of every moment and its answer pertains only to that moment and no other. It’s the spontaneous deal we strike with others, the conversation or lack thereof. Having played my part every which way, I’m not even sure what I’d recommend. I just know that we need to be willing to make mistakes. I know that we need to allow for our differences. I know we need to forgive each other.
I’ve managed to transcend my own trepidation many times and I’ve lifted whole groups of people up with me and, of course, I’ve also failed miserably. I have caught glimpses along the way of something very powerful and I’m not sure that I can tell you what it is but if you give me a chance maybe whatever it is will show itself.
Which brings me back to that night in the mid-nineties (I was quite young at the time) when that gawdawful dress kept riding up my ass. It took me about four songs before I decided that the only thing to do was to take the dress off. There was no fixing of the problem, only the conquering of fear.
Get ready: The truth is too valuable to put safety first.
Get set: No amount of exposure is unbearable unless you let it be.
Go: If you get caught with your pants down, take ’em off.
From NO WALLS AND THE RECURRING DREAM by Ani DiFranco, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random house, LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Ani DiFranco.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.