What happened to Ani DiFranco?

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com

What happened to Ani DiFranco? In 1993 I dated a woman who introduced me to Ani DiFranco. For the next 12 years, a lot of my female friends were in love with Ani DiFranco. She was a huge icon to a particular demographic. danah boyd maintained a page of Ani DiFranco lyrics. (I also liked DiFranco very much.)

Over the last 10 years, DiFranco has vanished. I am not aware of any of my female friends who still follow her. Meredith Heil and Lola Pellegrino try to rustle up some answers, although their answers are mostly focused on their own feelings about the matter, which is valid, though it doesn’t exactly answer the question why younger women never latched onto DiFranco. Here are a few of the more interesting answers:

Sick of Me Hypothesis.
Much like how the most fatal viruses kill their hosts too quickly to ever lead to widespread epidemics, Ani “infected” her victims so hard and so terminally that they failed to infect others, so the outbreak flamed out.

There was an amazing intensity to the way young queer women loved DiFranco in the 90s, so this is true, though by itself it doesn’t answer the question “Why didn’t this love age gracefully?” As a counter-point, consider the hysterical way young girls loved the Beatles in 1964, and then consider the serious consideration their music was given by 1968. Just 4 years later, it was as if it was a different band. Was DiFranco incapable of such a personal transformation? I have the impression that the personal transformation she went through freed her from the anger she had previously used to define herself, and she did not know how to reinvent her music, post-anger.

What if No One’s Watching? Hypothesis.
Folk festivals used to be such A THING in the 1990s. Like, you’d pony up $65 to spend the weekend camping out and eating hemp seed cookies and braiding your hair and watching a bunch of vaguely familiar acts with one or two headliners (cue Ani DiFranco). Then Bonnaroo ruined everything. Fests are no longer about bands you’ve never heard before playing a similar genre of music. Now they’re like, Steely Dan sharing a million dollar stage with Snoop Dogg. Or whatever. Holograms.

I appreciate this one, and yet, the women I knew didn’t love DiFranco this particular way. They did not go to folk festivals. They loved DiFranco because they personally felt isolated and alone and DiFranco was a voice calling to them in the darkness.

Outta Me, Onto You Hypothesis.
Today’s media landscape boasts so many out, queer-identified famous people that we’re no longer resigned to projecting our queer dreams and aspirations upon a cis woman who has two babies with a cis man. To whom she is legally married. A husband-man. Her SECOND husband-man.

This seems the most solid of all the possible reasons. Though, again, DiFranco could have re-invented herself, and she did not.

Make Them Apologize Hypothesis.
Without an intersectional approach, her already-rickety second-wave feminist politics aged into obsolescence melting into defensive ignorance: cf. the Righteous Retreatgate of 2013.

This is a re-wording of the previous one, I think.

This one isn’t true, but is especially interesting:

The Next Big Thing Hypothesis.
Now that musicians can get famous on YouTube in a matter of five minutes, maybe Ani’s much publicized DIY struggle to combat major label domination doesn’t exactly qualify as #TheStruggle any longer.

And yet, the DIY movement is bigger than ever, and DiFranco obviously could have been a hero of this movement. But she is not. Partly because she dropped out. Her life went in a different direction: stable, affluent, peaceful, and she did not know how to turn that into music. For contrast, Liz Phair also became a mother but found that her new, settled life was a topic that inspired music.

Evolve Hypothesis.
Meredith started listening to Tegan and Sara around the same time she found Ani. She remembers T & S’s first record—a raw, underproduced compilation of sad/angry, folk-fueled college radio jams. She also lovingly remembers Ani’s first album (a raw, underproduced compilations of sad/angry, folk-fueled college radio jams). Yet Tegan and Sara are currently killing it on mainstream radio, selling out enormous venues and enjoying a cushy front row seat on the indie charts. Why? Because they changed with the times, applying production technology to slicken their songs, modifying their sound as they grew. Ani’s untethered acoustics no longer jive with a generation raised on the internet, where feelings are mediated through a series of shiny hooks and cross-fades. She’s too damn real.

She failed to evolve — that sums it up.

Jenna McWilliams offers an extended treatment of this theme:

As a feminist gets older, if she’s paying attention, she starts to see that the world is a little more complicated than she thought, and that a lot of different types of prejudice and oppression are acting on people all at the same time, and sexism and racism and classism and ableism and heterosexism and other forms of oppression are all wrapped up together. As a feminist gets older, she starts to see that the way a man treats a woman is just a symptom of a larger illness: Institutional disease. Our institutions–culture, education, government, religion–are all wrapped up in perpetuating oppression as a means of keeping themselves afloat. It’s baked right in to everything we do, every interaction, every transaction.

Not only that, but an American feminist–if she’s white and middle class–should start to see how “mainstream” feminism tends to focus on issues of relevance to white middle class women, to the exclusion of the interests and needs of nonwhite, non-middle class women. (It often takes a while, if you’re a white, middle-class feminist, to realize that your feminism can be a form of oppression of women who don’t look like you.) And she should start to see how feminism cannot stand alone as a belief system: A feminist who wants change needs to be critical of government and the law, needs to see the complexities of social action wielded for the public good. A feminist needs to be critical of feminism. She needs to be critical of herself. A feminist needs to change, in other words. She needs to get more complex and use that complexity to treat the world she’s fighting through as more complex as well.

In this rendition, DiFranco resembles Phil Ochs, another folk singer who was intensely loved by a specific demographic for a short stretch of time, and who also had trouble evolving. But at the same age that Phil Ochs committed suicide, DiFranco had a child.

What is the lesson of all this? McWilliams sums it up:

Ani DiFranco is a female folksinger who has fought her way to her spot as a prominent contemporary folk singer who has been selling out concert venues for two decades. Along the way, she’s not only had to battle an industry that didn’t particularly want her, but she’s also had to deal with her fans’ criticisms of her life choices. Most significant among these criticisms was the shock, outrage, and disappointment expressed by her lesbian fan base when Ani got married to a man–and then divorced him and married another man. I’m not trying to judge Ani DiFranco as a person here–she’s had enough of that over the years. (Although I’m firmly in the camp that believes that she can do whatever she wants with her personal life, but if she chooses to talk about her personal life in her music she shouldn’t be surprised when people are disappointed in the paths her life takes–she made her life choices fair game for analysis when she decided to include them in her lyrics.) But I do think that what happened to Ani DiFranco can serve as a cautionary tale for younger feminists. Our society wants you to get your righteous (and deserved) anger out while you’re young, then it wants you to settle in to a set of political beliefs that don’t cause too much hassle for anyone.

There will be so many different pressures on you that are set up to turn an angry young radical feminist into a calm political moderate. By “political moderate,” I mean “anyone who thinks that voting for the better of two choices for President of the United States is sufficient to lead to victory for ‘we the people’.”

It’s our job as feminists to stay angry for as long as we can sustain our anger, because there’s plenty to stay angry about. It’s our job to put our queer shoulders to the wheel.