Saturday, October 28, 2006

Kat's Korner: The death of Ani DiFranco?

Kat: Back before Ani DiFranco released Reprieve, I was excited, I was counting down the weeks. Then the CD came out and I thought I had a review for it. I made notes on various scraps of paper and was all set to assemble it into one review.

I never did.

That's not due to the fact that I'm in Ireland dealing with a dying family member. That's due to the news by way of Toni.

I practically grabbed her by the arm and pulled her from my front door to the living room to listen to Reprieve shortly after it came out. We all love Ani but Toni's probably been her biggest and longest fan of my small circle of friends.

I was full of "Isn't it great" and "Isn't it wonderful" talk and basically stepping on every word Toni started to say. Finally, after I shoved her on the sofa and went to the stereo, it hit me that Toni wasn't excited.

I made all the pleasantries I normally would have greeted her with but now I was listening for any indication of something seriously wrong. No indications were given and no words of distress were spoken.

Assuming it was the heat, this was still summer and these were furnace days, I ran to the kitchen for the pitcher of margaritas I'd made earlier and came back with salted glasses. Toni's face lit up like Maggie's. Since she's not quite the booze hound Maggie is, I assumed it was the weather, poured her a glass and headed towards the stereo.

"Do we have to listen?"

Okay, now I was seriously disturbed. This is the woman who drags me to Ani concerts. This is the woman who argued for fifteen minutes with a clerk at Tower over a free poster that was supposed to come with purchase of Evolve. (She got the Ani poster but only after she'd created such a scene that the manager had to intervene.) This is the woman who begged me to help her create an Ani T-shirt in 1994 because she didn't think any of the ones available (on either market) did Ani justice. What the hell was going on?

Hadn't I heard, Toni wondered, Ani was pregnant.


I put on the Who's Tommy and turned the lights down. We listened in silence and didn't begin speaking until the next CD, around the time Janis was singing "Call On Me."

See, the thing is, women have to fight for any kind of artistic credibility. And, for women who've listened to music for any length of time, pregnancy doesn't mean "joy." It usually means soggy.

You start getting 'lullaby' CDs that the artists wouldn't normally put out until after the chart making days were over. Or you get these audio equivalents of "destiny." You get a whole lot of crap, you just don't get any art.

I was never a huge fan of Sarah McLachlan. But she was getting better with each album and, by the time of Surfacing, I was actually starting to enjoy her arc of growth. Then came the news that she was pregnant. I knew the next album would be a retreat. And it was, despite being called World On Fire.

Shawn Colvin's often used these days as an example by some of how women can't really work. The argument goes, it's not 'natural' for women, they have to really work at it. (Well the last few few Bob Dylan albums have felt phoned in -- maybe everyone needs to work a little harder?) They toss out Shawn Colvin and the soggy mush she released post-pregnancy and the overly lit commercials she did. And every woman suffers from that 'logic.'

'Logic' because Shawn Colvin wasn't a rocker before she got pregnant. She was as soggy as she is today long before she had her first bout of morning sickness. But the 'logic' dominates and there are plenty of examples to back it up.

The woman who've left a big impact tend to be childless or else they adopted a child (or gave one up for adoption). That includes Janis who died early. It includes Stevie Nicks, Joni Mitchell, Ann Wilson, and not many others.

Laura Nyro is an artist I love but when she emerged post-pregnancy, the art lost its urgency. Some argue Cass Elliot, whom I love, went into schmaltz after her pregnancy. There are too many arguments to be made to put it down just as 'getting older.' Even Chrissie Hynde who can usually be counted on to kick out the jams when everyone around her is brewing tea and reaching for a caftan began making drippy statements about women's 'nature' as she began having children.

Toni and I started talking about what women we could think of who didn't go into retreat at the first sign of pregnancy? We could name three: Etta James, Aretha Franklin and Carly Simon. We were depressed and you might be able to name more. I actually hope you can.

Lady Soul was always Lady Soul. She might get the worst producer in the world and, goodness knows, she's had some of them. But her work that goes soggy can be traced to that. Etta James? The original 'bad girl' -- the archetype before the Ronettes and the Shangri-Las ever harmonized on their first note. Carly? That keen eye for observation didn't switch to soft focus as a result of Sally and Ben.

Think Toni and I were making too much of it? Did you ever listen to Patti Smith's Dream of Life? That the album which provided one of her best songs ("People Have The Power") could be surrounded with so much corn was heart breaking. Or take the strange career of Pat Benetar who came out belting hard rocking songs in her caberet voice, traded in the tights for shoulder pads and then seemed to turn the whole career over to her husband and lose every fan who'd ever screamed along to "Treat Me Right" with the acoustic drip that was Tropico. The woman who once snarled, "You Better Run" has spent the rest of her career trying to reclaim her fans, often via the blues, but traveling the road with some sort of Cowsills act.

Benatar, the woman who won four consecutives Grammys in the women rock vocals category (all before she gave birth and none since), also provided MTV with the second video they ever played. Not even the blues could allow her to, as the Jefferson Starship once sang, "Find Your Way Back" to her fans.

The two Pats offer an interesting comparison. One was an artistic heavy hitter (Smith), the other a chart topper. Both rocked. Both went soft.

A little over a decade ago, we got another 'year of the women' in rock. The poster girl was Liz Phair. Exile in Guyville was a smart album full of angry thoughts and angry music. It rocked. She had a highly limited vocal range but she got crowned by most as the 'rocker.' Then came the days of Mommy-dom. And her career's never been the same. While her self-titled CD was so idiotic and so art-free, it made more than a few fans wish for the days of Whip Smart, the truth is that Liz Phair was already on the road to soggy.

The reality of pregnancy for many rocking women (I've gone with 'big' names because smaller artists, of any gender, have enough problems trying to break through) is not that different from the average women. It's late nights in the rocking chair, it's blurry mornings where you sit at the kitchen table watching the high chair. It's a lot of yawning, it's a lot adjustment to a new schedule. And, reality, it's still an enormous amount of work that falls mainly on women.

To be a woman in rock is to invert, subvert or spoof the stereotype and possibly there's no energy left for that in the post-birth days? Now an artist could explore these moments, and Toni and I give Carly credit for doing so. But most ignore reality. It's as though when the creative urge strikes them, they're going for a Calgon-take-me-away feel.

And it's drippy and it's sad and it hurts all women. So, for most women I know, the early days of being interested in sharing the news that ___ is pregnant quickly turns into an avoid the topic all together mood. Toni was tying it into an episode of Sex in the City which I never saw but apparently Sarah Jessica Parker and company go to a party thrown by a woman who's become a mother and it becomes a nightmare. (Sarah Jess' Carrie even loses her beloved shoes. Clearly a tragedy akin to Dorothy losing her red ruby slippers.) Even without having seen the episode, I could nod along to Toni's recap of retreat portrayed.

So what does the future hold for Ani DiFranco? The self-described "punk" (she didn't want to be called folk) has always rejected most labels. She's been lesbian, she's been bi-sexual, she's been married to a man, she's spoken of, and sang of, the 'girl police' who want her to be one thing when she wants to be another.

Long before the first wave of concern over the career from dedicated fans, Ani had declared, "I am no poster girl with a poster" ("32 Flavors"). So despite the talent that practically screams for you to say, "Okay, with Ani, with Ani there will be a difference!"; you find yourself quickly realizing that asking her to be a standard-bearer is asking for disappointment and all but inviting her to run the other way.

Now Patti Smith, unlike Pat Benatar, bounded back in the 90s and has stayed strong. Dream of Life sounds, now, like something she just had to get out of her system. Ani shares more similarities to Patti than to Pat so there may be reason to hope. But, to be honest, for too many women who've seen SoggyStock play out (the ever evolving 'happening' that's outlived Woodstock and any other 'event' in the rock era), there's not much reason to hope.

Add in that Ani's had problems in the last few years (which led to a tour cancellation) that interfered with her guitar playing and the 'news' is enough to depress the hell out of you. You might, as Toni and I did, try to find comfort in the fact that, if the sog-fest is temporary, the artist usually rebounds while, on the male end, they often seemed trapped in a cartoon version of themselves.

But that doesn't change the fact that the 'news' depresses us. We're fans of the music, not the artist. If we were fans of the personality, we could probably be as exicted for Ani as anyone who spent the summer breathless over Angelina and Brad's offsprings or Tom and Katie's.

A pitcher and a half of margaritas later, we were ready to listen. "Half-Assed" is probably the best track on the CD. But what we noticed was that this is Ani's album. She's had albums that worked before from start to finish as something more than a collection of songs. Obviously the live albums but the studio ones too (Not A Pretty Face, Little Plastic Castle, Evolve, Educated Guess). But on this one, it's not just the songs that add together for a total portrait, it's the musical accents. I honestly had missed that until C.I. pointed them out.

Reprieve is a CD for the big speakers, no question. But it's also one that you really should put on the head phones for at least once. You'll discover so much more to it if you do. In terms of the production, it's a very textured work. Which is interesting considering that last time around, Ani had surrendered production duties to Joe Henry (Knuckle Down, an album that still hasn't spoken to me). The textures are so wonderful (again, use headphones -- birds, traffic and more) that if Ani's going out, she's going out with a blaze.

"Hypnotized" opens the album softly and it may rank with "Both Hands" for Ani's most beautiful of her gentle songs. "So that's how you found me/ Rain falling around me . . . And you were no picnic/ And you were no prize/ But you had enough pathos/ To keep me hypnotized." On the second track, "Subconscious," the key line is "I know where I'm going/ And it aint' where I've been." That really sums up the album. Reprieve is looking at the world and refusing to take part in the uglier parts. The uglier parts are summed up best in "Millennium Theater:"

While out in TV nation
Under darkening skies
The resistance is just waiting
To be organized.

That's the album. She's looking at where the world is going and where it's been. Of the illustration on the cover, Ani writes in the liner notes: "the cover tree was inspired by a photgraph taken in nagasaki, japan on august 10, 1945 by yosuke yamahata, just hours after the explosion of the atomic bomb." The tree on the cover is half-destroyed, half-alive. That too goes to what she's commenting on this time around. It's a powerful album.

Still, it's hard not to hear "Millennium Theater" now (post 'news') and not worry, or at least wonder, where the 'news' will take Ani next? The fear is soggy in a New Morning retreat.

I hope that's not the case but most women into music can tell you they've pinned their hopes on a person before, "She'll be the one! She is the one!" The comedown is never pretty. While back, around Ray of Light, I can remember some of my friends talking up Madonna as the "one." She was more marketeer than muscian. But she'd had a run on the charts like no one since Olivia Newton-John. So, on the basis of that, there was some excitement even though she was doing the faux British accent, even though she was aspiring for 'respectable.' Today, she seems genuinely puzzled that her stage shows, where the most creativity has always gone, are seen as controversial in a manner that doesn't excite media debate but just brings condemnations. When you go for 'respectable,' maybe you bring that criticism on yourself? It's one thing to court controversy and try for 'edgy' when you're all but passing out snapshots of your vagina, it's quite another when you're reinvented yourself for the last mile.

Ani's no Madonna. There's never been a team of writers or musicians needed for her to produce an album. All Ani's learned, all she's observed, come together on this album. Is Reprieve the swan song?

On 1974's Hotcakes, Carly Simon observed the following in "Think I'm Gonna Have a Baby:"

Platform shoes on table tops
I think I'm going to have a baby
Opinons flying right and left
I think I'm going to tell them maybe
They're puttin' out to many photographs records
Think I'm gonna have a baby, a baby . . .

I'm sure there are many "opinions flying right and left" with regards to Ani's 'news.' And for her, it may be all annoying. (If so, don't follow your press.) But it is a real very concern. Janis Joplin was blazing a trail of exploration and, once she died, she became a cautionary note. The 'boys' can be wild and never suffer the 'afterschool special' portrayals (Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, . . .). The reality is that women are the first overlooked in the histories. That's still true. They'll do their 'exception' and note a Joni Mitchell but, for instance, having just read a 'history of US rock' here in Ireland which lists only one female (Joni) but goes on and on about Jan & Dean, the Rascals, the Bee Gees, the Blues Magoos, and just about every other name of someone with a penis attached to the body, things haven't changed that much. In the late eighties, pop stations in the United States, were going out of their way to attempt to figure out how to play the hits but avoid playing a woman after another. The same 'concern,' then or now, has never been applied to male artists.

So there's a lot that women are up against. When someone manages to carve out their own space, that's cause for celebration. Maybe in forty years, there won't be a need for women to respond to the news that a favorite female artist is pregnant with fears? But that's reality as well.

Of the big name female artists who 'crossed over' (even temporarily) into the 'boys' club' (which is what it is, it's not 'the club,' it's the 'boys' club' and a lot of men in the print set work harder than Spanky of The Little Rascals to keep it that way), the only one to give birth and not cause embarrassment is Carly Simon. She did it by exploring life, what she was doing before. Maybe Ani will follow that path?

Time will tell. After a couple of hours discussing the topic, Toni and I were able to think of one more woman of 'rock' whose work didn't go soggy as a result of motherhood: Tori Amos. So we were left with four.

Right now, we have Reprieve and if you haven't checked it out yet, make a point to. Forget the 'news,' just blast "Half-Assed" out your speakers:

You start trippin
And I start slippin away
I was taught to zip it
If I got nothing nice to say
And down in the Texas of my heart
Driving a really big truck
Headed down a dirt road . . .