Ani DiFranco Has Lots of Luck with Girls

(This interview first appeared in off our backs, nov.94 so biographical/discography info will be dated)

23-yr. old Ani DiFranco has been called the “thinking person’s acoustic punk feminist.” Her six independent musical releases include Like I Said, Puddle Dive, Imperfectly, Not So Soft, Ani DiFranco, and her latest, Out of Range–all available from Righteous Babe Records. Ani is currently (and usually) on tour in the states, and was a featured performer at the 1993 Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. The following is an interview with Ani by Emily Lloyd.

EM: OK, Ani–something I’ve been interested in lately is identity politics–trying to figure out if it is undesirable to keep on identifying myself as a lesbian because labelling is a “tool of the patriarchy” and I’m buying into that practice–while at the same time feeling that standing up and being counted is important politically, even if that means throwing myself into a box–at least it’s a radical box. In your song “In or Out,” you talk about the pressure to identify as an out queer, and the ways in which both heterosexual men and lesbians try to twist your bi identity to their own advantages. In addition to being one of the first songs to tackle biphobia aggressively, “In or Out” also seems to be attacking categorization in general. What’s your stance on identity politics now? Is identifying a political necessity or is it ultimately oppressive?

ANI: I think our ability and our right to identify ourselves is really important. In any marginalized community, whether people identify themselves or not affects us all. In that sense I think it really is important to say it, to put it in the face of society at large. So–yeah–I guess being closeted was never an option for me. I don’t find that useful in any way. When I wrote “In or Out,” naively my intention was to throw off all labels: “Don’t narrow my options; it’s hard enough to find someone to love.” But what happened is that “bisexual”–the big, inescapable label–came down on my head…which is fine, I guess. Being labelled as bisexual can be a drag, though, because you’re never quite part of the inner circle. But I’d rather suffer the consequences of truth than of silence. Still, ultimately I would prefer a world where who I slept with wasn’t as important as what I have to say, what I have to offer the world.

EM: “Face Up and Sing,” off your latest album (Out of Range), is a call to action for those fans of yours who have told you that you sing about the things they’ve always wanted to say. Your response is something to the tune of “That’s nice, but you could get off your butt, too, you know”–a frustration in knowing that you’re not the only one who feels a certain way, but it sometimes seems like you’re the only one doing anything about it. The “Ani-You’re-My-Hero” attitude not only makes you into a potential poster child, it also reduces your work to something that is merely hitting nerves rather than inciting action. The problem, though, is that many of us don’t have the freedom to speak out like you do–we could lose our jobs or get kicked out of our homes. Others have the freedom but not the access to recording companies or the press. Do you have any practical ideas for how those of us in these positions might make our voices heard?

ANI: Well, I think that whether you have the freedom to tell the truth about your life depends on whether or not you feel you do. I think that it’s a mistake to think I have any more freedom than anyone else. People oftentimes will approach me after a show and ask if it’s been difficult being out as a performer, putting myself out of the mainstream of the music industry–and if I’ve found myself being pigeonholed–and the answer is yes. Of course. It’s like any other job; I’m dealing with the same world everyone else is. But I prefer those obstacles to the obstacles created by lying about myself. I think that if you’re a freak from hell, you should say “I’m a freak from hell.” I don’t stand in judgment of performers or people in any line of work who are closeted, but I think that what you feel you can do is all in your head. If you think you can come out at work, you can–and then you’re becoming part of the solution. If you’re not willing to sacrifice for something you personally believe in, you’re part of the problem. If more people were making noise, then I think it would be easier for all of us.

EM: Alright–apart from your music, in what other ways are you (or have you been) active politically? Do you subscribe to the ideology of any particular activist group?

ANI: I used to, before this–music is like a full-time job now. THIS is my activism now. I used to work for a Central American Solidarity organization in New York, and with the War Resisters’ League, a pacifist anti-war group. I’ve always been involved in various performances or benefits for womens’ rights groups. But I guess I sort of decided that what I have most to offer is my music, so that’s sort of what I’ve most concentrated on.

EM: OK–so, spinning off that, I’d like to talk about performance and its relation to politics, art as a medium for expressing political concerns. What advantages do you see in communicating through music (or any other art form)? The ability to reach a wider audience than, say, an essay in an academic journal might seem like a clear advantage. A problem, though, with “political musicians” gaining a wide audience is that it can become “trendy” to like them, and the impact of their message is either lost or secondary to some fans. How are you prepared to deal with this? Have you found any disadvantages to having art be the primary channel for your activism?

ANI: Well–I guess I was never really the intellectual type–that’s why I play music and don’t stand in front of a blackboard with a cue-stick–it’s a form I can relate to. And it’s MUSIC–it’s the closest thing to our hearts–we all hum when we’re walking down the street. But yeah, I see a lot of musicians who start off challenging the system and then it gets obscured somewhere along the way–but I think that often happens with the artist’s permission and participation. I started my own record company because I didn’t want to have to answer to someone else’s. And I’ve had offers to be signed, and it would make my life easy and glamorous, but if you put your personal ambition before your political commitment, your work becomes commercialized: they end up turning your culture into a clothing line. If you really want to challenge the system, don’t get into bed with it.

EM: Speaking of getting into bed…

ANI: Uh-oh.

EM: Over the course of your albums, whenever you sing about abusive relationships or harmful situations, those songs are directed towards men. Have you just had amazing luck with women, or is there a sort of pressure, as a voice for both women’s and queers’ rights, to represent those communities positively–no matter what? If you had a relationship with an abusive woman, would you sing about it?

ANI:Oh yeah, I’d sing about it. The truth is, though, I have great taste in women and horrible taste in men. So I go out with these amazing women and these total schmoes. Generally, my relationships with women have been much more positive and nurturing–I know that’s not the case for everyone, but I guess I’ve had a lot of luck with girls. You should call the interview that: “Ani DiFranco Has Lots of Luck with Girls.”

EM: OK, last question–although your songs have hit on everything from corrupt police forces to dysfunctional democracies, the bulk of your political focus is on women’s issues, and your experience as a woman growing up in a misogynist society. Imagine for a second that you’d been born male–what do you think you’d be singing about?

ANI: Well, I think politics is a way of looking at the world and processing your experience. As a woman, I don’t have to go very far to politicize my personal experience, because it’s made very obvious what the problems are. But I don’t think you have to be a member of a marginalized group to be aware of the issues facing that group–still, oftentimes people who have the power can overlook that fact, and ignore problems that they think don’t affect them directly…hey! I’d be able to frolic and play, with no pain to the mammaries! And I’ve always wanted a handlebar mustache…that’s what I’d do if I were a guy, sing songs about my beard and how much fun it is…

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