Quck(ish) Bits on Youthful Loves #2: Ani Difranco
In 1997, You could count the number of male attendees at an Ani Difranco show on one hand. When I was fourteen, I was thrilled to be at the House of Blues with one of these rarities, a friend of my dad’s emloyees who was, at the time, the only other person I knew who shared my passion for Ani Difranco’s music.
I had discovered her through an incongruous vehicle: Seventeen magazine. Their blurb for the newly-released Little Plastic Castle intrigued me, and I had no idea what to expect when I checked it out. What I got was something I’d never heard before but wanted, needed more of –namely the politically-charged spoken word that had a more rhythmic, melodic feel than the limited amount of rap music I had been exposed to by that point. It wasn’t just the choice of talking rather than singing, but all the strange, nuanced sounds her voice was twisted into as she spoke, the human voice was suddenly palpable, pliable, an instrument that I felt I had strung wrong, up until that point. I listened to Little Plastic Castle voraciously, playing it for my younger cousin when we went to visit family friends in St. Louis. “She’s not really singing,” my cousin said, when I played her my particular sonic obsession, “Fuel.” “That’s the point,” I told her. “She’s doing something better.”
DiFranco had well established her album releases as about one per year since 1989, so even then it was overwhelming to find a place to start as a burgeoning fan. Still, I occupied all the listening stations I could at record stores whichever city I happened to be, and when it was announced that she’d be returning to New Orleans (where she now lives) for a show at the House of Blues, I was elated. I remember looking out into the audience and seeing a woman with angel wings inked into her back –a striking image in the era before such body art became ubiquitous. I understood concerts as a different world from the one that caused all the frustrations outside the venue. We were a group of people drawn to so many qualities in the same art form, and something about that revealed our human connection more starkly, more necessarily, than anything I’d yet experienced. There was something like love understood between all of us, and no tiny screens existed to take us out of each other and prioritize the connections we already had.
When she unleashed the songs I’d never heard, I still felt like I knew them, like my body had found rhythms it could keep up with and really know. It would be years before I became a regular performer myself, but on Austin stages I felt, just for a few hours a week on end, that this was in fact a power not singular to one person’s gift, but something we could all tap into if that’s how we wanted to trust our ideas. Ani Difranco’s music, its fearlessly personal nature and its bare acknowledgement of larger systemic wrongs, taught me to trust my ideas, that there was a lot in ideas.
When she sang “Adam and Eve,” I saw something in her face, something that that I didn’t remember ever seeing except in my dad, when he played his guitar and sang. I wonder if what distinguishes a musician from someone who sings is, for the former, the song is a creature, a companion of sorts that needs you, and something like neglect and suffering will transpire if the creature is not shared and set free. I am, I am, I am, truly sorry about all this, aren’t words that do their every justice on the page, but as Ani sang, I saw, felt, and momentarily became that creature: the entity that is a song. At the time, I hadn’t heard many feminist declarations up until that point, and the lyrics: “I did not invent this game, I did not name the stakes, I just happen to like apples, and I’m not afraid of snakes” made a lasting impression.
My best friend couldn’t get enough of Ani Difranco either. The lines blurred between my playing her music for the first time and the immediate ignition of her obsession: she went on to catch multiple live shows, in several different cities, while amassing an album collection that, I was ashamed to say, far outnumbered the portion of her ouvre that I owned. Still, we obsessed together, and, on our annual visits, alternated between dancing and sheer awestruck sighing. Difranco was the first woman my best friend ever expressed real sexual attraction toward, and that was…well…what was that exactly?
I was sixteen and living in Chicago when she decided to come visit me for the extra benefit of seeing Ani together at the Aragon ballroom. All weekend we spoke with surprising flippancy about the possibility of finding a girl at the concert to make out with, so we would know what it was like, and all weekend, I wondered. But I didn’t like to tell myself just what I was wondering.
The Aragon Ballroom is a majestic venue — one of Chicago’s most beautifully preserved examples of architecture from the1920’s. Ornate and mesmerizing stone faces adorn the façade, and the inside, with its marble columns and celestially high ceilings, is no less impressive. Ani permitted us to join her in singing one of her oldest and most beloved songs, “Both Hands,” and the chorus had all the sweet melodic reverence of a church choir; we weren’t going to mess up this chance!
More raucous was the encore, and, during “Shameless,” my best friend danced her heart out, beautiful legs as radiant as ever in her adventurously short black-and-white mod dress. Difranco pounded a hand-drum as she bounced around the stage, holding it between her thighs as she kept the beat. “I wish I was that drum!” my best friend said to me. Whooooooah. Just how gay had Ani turned her?
Not gay enough to excite the gaydar of any of the girls around us. Was she disappointed? When we got home, we were too excited to sleep, so we decided to watch a movie. I think I just blurted it out, telling myself that everything that takes place after midnight qualifies as a dream. “Would you ever kiss me?”
“Awwwwwww!” I still remember the tone; I’m guessing that many a teenaged boy has been simultaneously endeared and frustrated by such surprise, such flattery that you’ve been thinking about something that the person you’re talking to has never considered.
“Yes, I would kiss you,” she said at last. “You’re cute.”
“Well…like…maybe…I mean, since, you know, this was supposed to be the weekend we did that, with someone, and we didn’t…so…maybe we should? Like, just so we could say that it happened?”
There was a pause, surprisingly void of tension, though my stomach twisted anyway.
“The only reason it would be too weird is because we’re such good friends,” she said.
And the movie began. (I can’t say the Miramax logo doesn’t still make me just a teensy bit nervous.) But I remember the ride to the airport when she left, that we locked hands in a way we never had before, making gratuitous and comfortable physical contact that helped us declare the miraculous. Nothing has been made weird by this. We parted on a note of such ease and love, it’s a wonder I ever feared honesty again.