In the Margins, Truth: Ani DiFranco’s Carnegie Hall 4-6-02 and Reprieve

By Daniel Garrett

Ani DiFranco, Carnegie Hall 4-6-02
Righteous Babe Records, 2006

Ani DiFranco, Reprieve
Righteous Babe Records, 2006

On Ani DiFranco’s live recording at Carnegie Hall, recorded months after the crashes at and crumbling of Manhattan’s World Trade Center—entitled simply Carnegie Hall 4-6-02—Ani DiFranco receives a thunderous welcome of applause before presenting herself as a humorous, foul-mouth, smart, and talented songwriter, singer, and guitar player. She has a relaxed intimacy with her audience. Ani DiFranco’s Carnegie concert songs include “God’s Country,” “Subdivision,” “Gratitude,” “Names and Dates and Times,” and “Out of Range,” and her subjects include false patriotism, class and race divisions, male sexual exploitation of female gratitude, and family trouble. Ani DiFranco does not immediately seem to be the kind of personality that I would find instantly ingratiating—her rhetorical bluntness and plentiful curse words are two reasons—but she is honest, fully present, has a historical sense of reality, and passion. She may be one of those people who intuited what she might become, and what other people might need, and became it: aware, critical, funny, funky, and intense. I can only guess whether she’s producing major texts or simply footnotes. The fact is that there’s not much consistently intelligent political comment in popular music, and I do like much of what I hear in her work. She remembers things that others forget, even though those things are very important. She reads her own poetry, which contain significant perceptions and well-known politically progressive ideas, and she also reads the poetry of Judy Grahn. Early in DiFranco’s Carnegie Hall concert, there’s a subtle mention of the World Trade Center collapse, and later her commentary about it is more predictable—ideological, sanctimonious—but it pleases me that she does not endorse retribution. Later she affirms the Palestinian people, the Iraqi people, Native Americans, doctors serving women’s needs, and imprisoned people. Does her voice—kind of big, low, and thick, though still feminine and not unpleasant—remind me of anyone? Maybe P.J. Harvey, whose fierce spirit is nearly without peer. DiFranco also has the disconcerting tendency to sound like Liza Minnelli when she gushes, and at one point she mentions Minnelli’s mother Judy Garland (I may be unfair but I tend to think of both Minnelli and Garland as dreadful: blatant, desperate, unctuous). Ani DiFranco is interesting: music performer and heroine.

“And you were no picnic, you were no prize, but you had just enough pathos to keep me hypnotized,” sings Ani DiFranco in “Hypnotized,” the first song in her song collection Reprieve. The song, about difficult friends or lovers in an alienating world, has a lovely beginning, with solitary notes on a guitar and piano. In the next song, “Subconscious,” the narrator supposes her subconscious life is the more real and says “I know where I’m going, and it ain’t where I’ve been.” On Reprieve, Ani DiFranco sings her songs and performs various instruments, with support from Todd Sickafoose on bass guitar, piano, and other instruments, and Saint Claude for sound effects and Mike Napolitano performing the duties of recordist and mix doctor.

“Sometimes I see myself/ through the eyes of a stray dog/ from an alley across the street/ and my whole mission just seems so finite/ my whole saga just seems so cheap,” she sings on “In the Margins.” The song contains the appearance of nature as a constant in a world of uncertain meaning, and that is significant in itself, but I’m intrigued, and pleased, by the fact that the lyrics—for all their lack of obvious formality—remind me of both Rilke and Adrienne Rich, who have poems in which they imagine seeing through the eyes of animals.

There is a love/hate relationship in “Nicotine,” and it could be between two people, or performer and audience, or a person and a drug. The song has an insinuating rhythm and a sultry vocal: seduction as the promise to wound.

“Decree” is a political song: about celebrity, public institutions, the management of news, the connection between manufacturing and illness, the misuse of science, patriarchy, and the national security state: “the stars are going out, and the stripes are getting bent.” I do not think that she has left anything out.

The attraction to water and the reminder that the human body is largely water, as the narrator responds to an unhappy person, is the subject of “78% H2O,” and now thinking of it the song does remind me of a film. (I wonder if the similarity occurred to the songwriter; or if it just occurs to me as a result of the ubiquity of film.)

“Millennium Theater” presents an allusive narrative mentioning markers from the era of Clinton to that of Bush, including security threats, high technology, Halliburton, Enron, environmental degradation, and the flooding of New Orleans. In “Half-Assed,” the singer sings, “Just show me a moment that is mine/ its beauty blinding and unsurpassed./ Make me forget every moment that went by/ and left me so half-hearted/ cuz I felt it so half-assed.” The piece “Reprieve” is commentary—not a song—about Manhattan and the atomic bomb and Hiroshima, and about being a woman and conscious: “feminism ain’t about equality, it’s about reprieve.”

“The answer is in the intention that lies behind the question,” sings Ani DiFranco in “A Space.” Consciousness is the true subject. Commitment its attendant. “Dear friends, women and men,/ what better time to face/ that we’ve been looking for/ the answer to war/ in the wrong place.”

“Unrequited” is a ballad, intelligent, and poetic, about the trouble two people have making a relationship, reconciling different perspectives. “Shroud” is about the various houses that constrain vision—houses of fashion, god, privilege, television, conformity, fear, and self-importance. It’s a very rhetorical song (obviously)—but that may be inevitable when one is trying to transform ideas and values. It’s also poetic and true. Ani DiFranco sings “It’s amazing the stuff you see/ when you finally shed that shroud” and “Ain’t the power of transcendence/ the greatest one we can employ.” The last song, “Reprise,” is an instrumental piece.

About the reviewer: Daniel Garrett has written about music for AllAboutJazz.com, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Option, and PopMatters.com; and his commentaries on Lizz Wright, Sinead O’Connor and Al Green have appeared on the web pages of The Compulsive Reader. Daniel Garrett has also written about art, books, business, film, and politics, and his work has appeared inThe African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, Offscreen, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today.

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