Time to Overthrow the State
168 · 16 April 98
Ani DiFranco: Little Plastic Castle
My birthday is the fourth of April, and my sister's is the twelfth, which is a sufficient critical mass of occasions to get our parents to drive up from Connecticut on whichever adjacent weekend the seedlings can spare them for, which this year was this past one. It was a short visit, and quiet, but a good one all the same. We tried putting up the drapes Mom made me (clearance problems: the loops on the top need to be a little shorter), and she wandered around my tiny back yard telling me the names of the weeds so I can pretend I planted them there on purpose. We ran some errands for my sister, because she doesn't have a car and mine is tiny, we went out to dinner, and then we went back to my house and played the new edition of Trivial Pursuit (which seems, disappointingly, to have been the victim of focus groups complaining that the questions were too hard to answer if you were drunk, and we weren't). The next day I took them out to brunch, and then they went back to Connecticut.
And although I've had embryonic variants of the thought a few times before, this visit was the first time I explicitly identified it: I am grown up now. I've said things to myself like "I am ready to be an adult", many times since turning thirty last year, but this weekend was the first time I felt like readiness had become accomplishment. As I shooed my father away from the squeaky screen door that leads out to my patio, whose springtime roller-tension adjustment I just haven't gotten around to yet, I had a momentary out-of-body experience, and saw myself as my parents must see me, an astonishing self-propelled creature that the cooing, helpless infant they still vividly recall has inexplicably metamorphosed into. They've mentioned this feeling of befuddled amazement nearly every time I've seen them since college, of course, but I've never felt it until now. Illogic notwithstanding, I've clung to the stubborn belief that I'm still the same person I've always been, that the me my real-estate agent calls to tell that one of the townhouses exactly like mine just sold for eighty thousand dollars more than I paid is still essentially the same me that was rendered apoplectic, when I was ten, by my parents' insistence that I had to come with them to a SMU symphony concert instead of staying home and watching The Return of the Pink Panther on television. But it isn't true, I see that now. The transformation and the realization go together, I think: becoming the person you will be is so engrossing, so selfish, and seeing yourself through the eyes of your parents, who knew you before you were, is an embodiment of selflessness. The finality of it is a mirage, of course, as you're free to keep re-inventing yourself until you cease, but this is the moment, in my life, before which I was inventing, and after which I am re-inventing, and though I suppose I could have deduced its existence, knowing it's around here somewhere and finding yourself across it are radically different. Now I'm thirty-one, and have to figure out what happens next.
It was in this pensive frame of mind, later in the evening, after my parents left, that I went out to see Edward Burns' new movie, No Looking Back. I liked The Brothers McMullen and She's the One a lot, but this one I hated. The plot read like a Kinko's applicant had been handed loose-leaf scripts to Beautiful Girls and The Myth of Fingerprints with which to flunk a collating test, and the dialog was assembled out of so many telegraphed clichés that I felt like I was being slowly and methodically beaten up by a gang of déjà vu ninjas. I never thought Maxine Bahns was a particularly gifted actress, but she was right for her parts, and seemed like an appealing person; Lauren Holly is more glamorous, but she plays a small-town diner waitress with all the grace and credibility of a Fifth Avenue mannequin with a polyester shirt hastily draped over its shoulders. She yearns to escape the town (which is shown, manipulatively, exclusively in static, lifeless, grimly overcast tableaux), but Burns neglects to provide her character with any apparent talents or passions, and so largely reduces her longing to petulance. It doesn't help that his own character, who lures her away, is sleazy, patently insincere, and of no detectable account, while her boyfriend (played by Jon Bon Jovi, in the film's only display of acting) is patient, uncomplicated and loyal. The Brothers McMullen and She's the One seemed to me like movies you'd struggle to make, personal labors of love; No Looking Back felt more like "Well, I'm a filmmaker now, so I guess I'd better make another film."
But then again, I thought as I drove home, the city sparkling and clashing around me, what else did I expect him to do? Filmmaker is a occupation I believe should exist, and if it's okay that I go to work and design software even on the days when I don't have any grand software-design insights in mind, I can hardly demand that filmmakers wait for dizzying inspiration before pursuing their trade. Which is why steady artistic production is, to me, a special achievement. Annie Hall, Manhattan and Husbands and Wives are three of my favorite movies, but the most remarkable thing about Woody Allen is just that every year he makes another movie. This is why, too, Orson Scott Card is my favorite writer, not J.D. Salinger or Raymond Carver. We idolize flashes of self-destructive brilliance too much, I think, and snipe jealously at anything sustainable. "Choose again", Aenea says, in Dan Simmons' Endymion, reducing an entire gospel of persistence to two words. Continuing is frequently the most courageous possible act. And so, too, in music, I reserve some extra patience for artists who keep making records, even when it seems like there's no occasion for them other than the passage of time. Ani DiFranco, since she runs her own record label, pretty much has to keep putting out albums and going on tours, for the same reason you and I keep sheepishly going to work: that's how we make our livings. I approve of her independence, and buy her albums to support her in it. Patience and approval, however, don't always translate into captivation, and after liking Out of Range, the first album of hers I bought, I didn't have much new to say, either to you or myself, about Not a Pretty Girl and Dilate, the next two. Living in Clip, though, last year's double-live album, revealed things I hadn't heard in the studio albums, and I bought Little Plastic Castle with great hopes, not so much that it would be different, but that my new capacity to appreciate her would be enough that I'd love it even if it sounded exactly like the others.
And on cursory inspection, both halves of this expectation appeared to be fulfilled. Ani has three trademarks, all of which are in plain evidence on this album. First, she plays her acoustic guitar very quickly, often with a particular, unmistakable cadence, halfway between a spastic punk sprint and a flamenco flutter, best demonstrated here by "Gravel", "Loom" and "Swan Dive". Second, she sings with a frenetic, syncopated urgency similar to her guitar playing, skittering back and forth between melody and rap, something like Christine Lavin on speed. And third, her lyrics, which rhyme so effortlessly that her thoughts must emerge that way, almost invariably involve some sort of frank, arresting, gender-political provocation ("Two Little Girls" being the obvious attention-magnet here). There's usually also, at least on the recent albums, some new experimental musical wrinkle, like the studio indulgences on Dilate, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra on Living in Clip, and a lunatic horn section on a couple of the songs on Little Plastic Castle, but these rarely change the overall personality of the albums, for me, any more than the choir in Mighty Aphrodite, the dance routines in Everyone Says I Love You or the descent into Hell in Deconstructing Harry keep those films from being manifestly Woody Allen movies. The good news, for newcomers, is that pretty much any Ani DiFranco album can serve as an introduction. The good news for fanatics is that she is unlikely to betray the cause. The bad news, correspondingly, is that the albums blend together, and have we heard this one before or not?
But the favor I'd ask of you, before you write off Little Plastic Castle, and maybe the reason I didn't learn to love Not a Pretty Girl and Dilate is that I didn't do this, is to turn it up, sit down right in front of your speakers, and actually pay attention to it. It's just over an hour long, which I realize is a substantial time to ask you to sit still, but if your experience is like mine, it won't take very many minutes before you stop counting. It will be tempting for newcomers to jump to "Okay, now I know what Ani DiFranco sounds like", and for long-time fans to leap to "Yep, another solid album", but these mildnesses will be your fault. If the only space you allocate to this album is the background, the car-radio while you're commuting, or the stereo in the next room while you're making a stir fry, set low to spare the neighbors, it will inevitably end up as filler -- Ani DiFranco-brand filler, but filler all the same. Park the car, fuck the neighbors, and give it a real chance.
When I do this, I discover two subtler nuances every bit as crucial as the three trademarks, both of which are at least partially new. The musical one is an unexpected studio confidence. I expected, after the enthralling improvised charm of Living in Clip, that the next album would find Ani consciously trying to reintegrate the informality of playing live into her studio recording, and there are a few points where her giggly stage-persona shines through, but more notable, to me, are the little touches that result from close attention to detail, not magnificent unconcern: the careful dynamic control of the horns on "Little Plastic Castle", the fade-away snare rattle and airy guitar harmonics on "Fuel", Sara Lee's clef-scaling bass runs and the little vocal echoes on "Gravel", minor-key backing-vocal-sample swells and a feedback coda on "Two Little Girls", goofy funhouse spookiness and meandering quasi-Zen voice-overs on "Deep Dish", the abrupt expiry of "Loom", the strangled guitar tone and sighing group vocals of "Pixie", the warm keyboard and vocal textures and fitful percussion of "Swan Dive", faint dub processing and boingy bass on "Glass House", hushed reverb and bowed upright bass on the haunting "Independence Day", and pretty much the entirety of the jazzy fourteen-minute exit jam, "Pulse".
Lyrically, the definitive old-style Ani DiFranco rant, for me, was "Tip Toe", the stark spoken-word pre-abortion meditation on Not a Pretty Girl; "Tiptoeing thru the used condoms", it begins, on the way to "With a fetus holding court in my gut", one of the least charitable descriptions of pregnancy I've ever heard. On Dilate, though, things started to change, as romantic vulnerability and ebullience began to seep into her vitriolic, confrontational demeanor. ("I kinda got distracted", Ani explains, coyly, between songs on Living in Clip.) It was an initially uneasy adaptation; "I used to be a superhero / ... / But now look at me, / I am just like everybody else", she frets, on "Superhero", her narrator's fear of dependence easily extrapolated to Ani's fear that writing love songs would consign her to pop mediocrity, and there was at least enough backlash from her hard-core fans to keep the worry from sounding like paranoia. Little Plastic Castle, defiantly, abandons the analogical meta-uncertainty and demands that the exposure of intimacy be taken seriously. The three striking love songs all revolve around the pain you let yourself in for when you start admitting you care about people: "Two Little Girls" compounds the awkwardness of unreturned affection with the torment of watching the one your lover loves abet her self-destruction; "Independence Day" captures the helpless, desperate hope that a restarted relationship will work better this time; and "Pulse", despite the inclusion of a couple lines like "That night you leaned over / And threw up into your hair", to make sure you never mistake Ani for Lou Gramm, revolves around the simple, reverent, zero-sum revelation, "I would offer you my pulse".
But the love songs were only half of it. By Dilate Ani had also made some commercial inroads, and her encounters with the rest of the music industry began to leak into her songs, as well. By Little Plastic Castle she's progressed past an awareness of her antagonistic position in the industry to a second-order cognizance of the new spotlight difficulties that label independence can't exempt her from. There was only really one song about the music business on Dilate, and there's only one anthem of self-reference here, but the strident chorus of "Everyone is a fucking Napoleon", and its position in the middle of the track order, made "Napoleon" something of a centerpiece on Dilate, and making Little Plastic Castle's one self-referential song both the album opener and the title track ensures it similar prominence. "People talk about my image / Like I come in two dimensions, / Like lipstick is a sign of my declining mind, / Like what I happen to be wearing / The day that someone takes a picture / Is my new statement for all of womankind". Maybe this means Ani is getting consumed by her own mythology. Maybe it means that she's trying to repudiate parts of it. Maybe she's just gloating, or griping. Actually, what I really think it means is that Ani has gone from being an observer of our culture to being a part of it, and while it's frightening and disorienting to get swept up in something you were trying to observe, it's also the way you get to be immortal.
Dan Bern: Fifty Eggs
The other recent sign of Ani's new station in the world is that she's now good enough, or at least notorious enough, to produce other people's records, even one on a major label, like Work/Sony's second album by manic folk-singer Dan Bern. Except for the guitar and lead-vocal lines, in fact, the credits for Little Plastic Castle and Fifty Eggs are nearly identical: Ani produces, Ani and Andrew Gilchrist engineer and record (at Congress House, in Austin), Sara Lee and Jason Mercer play bass, Andy Stochansky drums. A more fitting pairing than Ani and Dan is difficult to imagine: his guitar style is eerily reminiscent of Ani's, and his singing and lyrics, though they don't literally resemble Ani's, are bound to appeal to the same palettes. I've seen them both described as the new Bob Dylan, but if it's allowable (leaving aside, for the moment, the awkward reluctance of Dylan to relinquish his own claim to himself), they ought to share the distinction, because I think they constitute a new Dylan more effectively in combination than either does by themselves. Dan exhibits more of the phenotype, especially the wheezy nasal drawl, but Ani's lyrics have much more of Dylan's poetic caginess. If Dylan's great innovation was taking the cogency of folk populism and infusing it with the individualist fervor that would later animate punk (turning "We will overcome" into "I will overcome"), Ani and Dan are his most conscientious students since Billy Bragg.
If you meet enough Ani DiFranco zealots to merit statistics, you'll probably find that a significant number of them discuss Ani entirely in terms of her lyrical and socio-political agendas, and only mention the music if you question them about it directly. If there are Dan Bern disciples yet (and the sticker on the front of the jewel case, which claims he is "the best-reviewed underground artist in America today", suggests there are), I'm guessing they will be even more predictable. There's enough musical interest on this album (the galloping "Chick Singers", the plodding Dead-Milkmen-esque "Different Worlds", the languid, smoky, Costello-ish "Everybody's Baby", the edgy, circling "One Dance" and the alternately straining and muted "Jesus Freak", even if the rest of the songs all sound like they could break into "The Times They Are A-Changin'" at any moment), but it would practically have to be Master of Puppets to shout down Bern's lyrics. I won't ruin any of the punch lines, but the topics covered range from audacity ("Tiger Woods"), authenticity ("One Thing Real"), evolution ("No Missing Link"), family ("Oh Sister"), sex and sexual politics ("Cure for AIDS"), women ("Chick Singers"), skin color ("Different Worlds"), love-struck foolishness ("One Dance"), organized religion ("Jesus Freak") and the price of fame ("Monica") to the fight to hold a relationship together ("Rolling Away"), and almost every song involves at least one breathtakingly profane insight that will keep you from playing the album at work, along with two or three (or a dozen) pop-culture references (Muhammad Ali, Tiger Woods, Madonna, McDonald's, Van Gogh, alien abductions, Michael Jordan, digital remastering, Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson, Björk, Courtney Love, PJ Harvey, Tori Amos, Liz Phair, Sinéad O'Connor, Suzanne Vega, Jill Sobule, Melissa Etheridge, Tracy Chapman, Michelle Shocked, Ani herself (twice), Kate Bush, Patsy Cline, Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin, Bessie Smith, Patti Smith, Annie Lennox, Chrissie Hynde, Bonnie Raitt, car radios, Woody Guthrie, Monica Seles, Martin Luther King, John Lennon, nose jobs, hair relaxers, Andie McDowell and Indian food) that conflate the profound and the mundane intriguingly. Bern works his way through these mazes of reference and denunciation with a disarming stream-of-consciousness unhurriedness that makes the songs that end with twists, instead of mantra repetitions, all the more surprising.
But in the end, after I've worked through all the visceral lyrical thrills (what's more alarming: a song about testicle size, xeno-bestiality, Christ saying "fuck" or a twinge of incest fantasy?), it's actually the music I come back to. With lyrics like these, the accompaniment could easily have been an afterthought, and Bern could quite plausibly have ended up sounding like Adam Sandler. Ani fights the same entropy. The fact that I can sing along with their songs, after I've stopped laughing, says enough wonderful things about human dignity to counterbalance every failing and frailty they bemoan. Writing real tunes to go under their words is like painting the backs of furniture, or writing jokes in an instruction manual, something you do not because the market demands it, but because the things we create go out into the world with only the life we breathe into them, and if we surround ourselves with broken souls, we risk our own.