Ani DiFranco Is Trying to Learn
In the 90s, Ani DiFranco was hailed as a feminist LGBT icon. In recent years, however, she's angered and alienated the same progressive fan base that once flocked to her.
Photo by NurPhoto via Getty Images
On the day of our interview, Ani DiFranco was initially scheduled to participate in a photoshoot that was going to be "a nice opportunity [for] a big magazine," the singer-songwriter described. "A voluptuous spread of women artists, and a lot of good company." But she had to pull out.
"The photographer is somebody who has been accused of being a sexual predator, of basically being a sexist jerk, of pushing women to be more suggestive in photographs than they were comfortable," DiFranco said.
"I didn't choose this magazine; I didn't choose this photographer," she continued. "They invited me. But my team is saying, 'OK, well, if you allow this dude to take your picture for this magazine, you will probably get shit. Is it worth it?' And it's so awful that some dude is potentially being uncool out there or has been in the past, so I will get shit if I stand in front of his camera. That's the way it fucking works. So I canceled, because I just thought, 'Whatever the exposure and the nice thing about it is, I don't want the other thing right now.' Those choices are everywhere now. Whatever I do, somebody's gonna give me shit and you gotta weigh it in there."
When she first emerged in 1990, DiFranco had an immediate appeal to misfits that magazines found marketable. After debuting her eponymous solo album that year, she followed it up with six more in rapid succession, taking only a brief one-year breather in between 1996's Dilate and 1998's best-selling Little Plastic Castle. In that intermission, she posed for the cover of Spin, bearing neon-green dreads for the story whose male writer referred to her as "folk's great white hope" and described her fans as "pierced, tattooed, obsessed, sexually ambiguous, passionate, young, noisy, bossy, possessive, and demanding." He called many of them "dykes."
DiFranco's folk-punk aesthetic (complete with staccato finger pickings and spoken word spun into song) was especially exciting to queer women, who rarely had the opportunity to sing along with inclusive lyrics like DiFranco's. Not only was she a poetic lyricist, but she had a handful of songs that were explicitly about other women, using female pronouns. Other songs were political, taking on social issues with lyrics that have been turned into inspirational pins.
More singable than riot grrrl, queerer than grunge, and more feminist than Jewel, DiFranco was an accessible, relatable icon who eschewed convention and, quite literally, "the man." She launched her own record label, Righteous Babe, and was a fixture at women's music festivals, including the Lilith Fair and the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival (known as the "Original Womyn's Woodstock," the festival's reputation for excluding trans women was part of its ultimate demise in 2015). And while she's still writing and recording music (her latest album, Binary, was released in June), DiFranco's own reputation has been sullied by the very insistence she had at the beginning of her career: that a marriage of music and political activism is integral to who she is, for better or for worse.
Early on, DiFranco was open about her bisexuality (she's married to producer Mike Napolitano, with whom she has two children), but in 2015, she told the LGBT blog GoPride.com she's "not so queer anymore, but definitely a woman-centered woman and just a human rights-centered artist." This didn't sit too well with the lesbian and otherwise queer fanbase she'd drawn from the beginning. In an interview with The New York Times, she bemoaned that she's "had to have a lot of really asinine discussions about [her] big betrayal of the queer community by getting married."
"In some ways, it makes it easier because [if] you're a public person—or at least, of the species that I am—you realize pretty early on that you can't satisfy all of the expectations of who and what you should be doing and saying in any given moment because they're different for every listener," DiFranco told Broadly. "You try to live up this person's expectation and you disappoint that person, so I try to stay just one step removed from all of that clamor and just try to be real; try to offer whatever it is I have, even if it's not what that or that or that individual is looking for in the world."
In 2013, she came under fire for planning a songwriting summit called Righteous Retreat at a former slave plantation. Its current owners had donated to the election campaign of former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who has argued against same-sex marriage and been accused of sexism. It seemed almost implausible that the woman who once refused to play on Late Night With David Letterman because they denied her request to perform a song about racism and gentrification was now planning a retreat at one of the largest plantations in the South.
Although she canceled the retreat after being called out for the venue's violent history and current ties to far-right politicians, many found DiFranco's announcement defensive and unapologetic. "I did not imagine or understand that the setting of a plantation would trigger such collective outrage or result in so much high velocity bitterness," she wrote. The very fanbase she grew by being a supposedly radical white woman took her to task for the white privilege she displayed in penning a letter requesting more "compassion." She asked if she should be expected to vet the owners of any venues she or other musicians play—"the performing arts centers? The theaters? The night clubs?"
"I bet there are a lot of rich white dudes with conservative political leanings on the list," DiFranco wrote. "Is it possible to separate the positive from the negative people in this world? Will those lines be clear and discernible with enough research? Is it my job to do this for every gig?"
It seems DiFranco has learned that the answer to this is inevitably "yes."
After canceling her shoot with the allegedly predatory photographer, DiFranco hosted the second annual Babefest over the weekend. The festival included live music as well as an "Activist University" component of panelists who discussed "using local activism to make a difference in your city." DiFranco played alongside spoken word star Andrea Gibson, comedian Rae Sanni, and indie pop duo Gracie and Rachel at Provincetown Town Hall for what she hoped was an opportunity for inspiration and conversation.
"I try not to feel pressure from the outside world to be or do anything at any given moment, you know," DiFranco said. "I try to stay true to myself as a person and as an artist and express what I'm feeling. But the pressure is there—the pressure to, you know, stand up there and represent and provide hope for blah blah blah—to address whatever the political moment is. I do feel it and yes, sometimes, I wish I could escape it. Whether I decide to sort of heed it or not, it's there. And some nights, absolutely, I just wanna go have a good time, or I just wanna be heartbroken, or I just wanna be tired or whatever the fuck I am."