Blowin' in a New Wind
As with Dylan, the rawness that dominates DiFranco's more personal tunes about love and yearning, like "Grey," packs the immediacy that's one of her strengths: "What kind of paradise am I looking for/I've got everything I want and still I want more/Maybe some tiny shiny key will wash up on shore." Or, as she sings in "Dilate," "You always disappoint me.../I just want you to live up to the image of you I create." Her slacker sarcasm delivers plenty of good zingers, like "I live in New York New York, the city that never shuts up" on "Cradle and All," whose high-energy funk is laced with stop-time breaks and atonal curlicues. She shares that ironic-punk sensibility with a galaxy of her generation's alternative stars, from the late Kurt Cobain to David Rees. (In fact, Rees's online cartoons, popular after 9/11, have recently been published as Get Your War On by Soft Skull Press.)
On "Self Evident," her long exploration of 9/11, DiFranco, to her credit, once again wants to bite the hand that feeds her with a sometimes moving, sometimes naïve mix of the personal and the political. "Us people are just poems," she recites in the opening to background keyboard squiggles. "We're 90 percent metaphor...rushing down the long hallway...in a building so tall that it will always be there." She shifts from setting that "beatific" day to "the day that America fell to its knees after strutting around for a century without saying thank you or please." She scoffs equally at "hypocritical chants of freedom forever" and newscasters struck dumb watching the Twin Towers fall; throws down a countertribute to El Salvador, Mount Rushmore, inmates on death row and "all those nurses and doctors who daily provide women with a choice, who stand down a threat the size of Oklahoma City just to listen to a young woman's voice." These days in America, the cultural agendas linking Muslim, Christian and Jewish fundamentalism are usually blurred or submerged; when DiFranco makes the connection in concert with this song, fans scream in approval. She finishes by lamenting, "3,000-some poems disguised as people should be more than pawns in some asshole's passion play/so now it's your job and it's my job to make it that way.../Ssssh....listen."
In an interview, she described performing "Self Evident" at Carnegie Hall several months after the World Trade Center fell: "There was something very ritualized for me about going back to New York, where I was on September 11, and bearing witness before...all of the other witnesses.... About three seconds in, panic just hit me, like how dare I? Who knows who these people in this audience are, what happened to them that day, or whom they lost?" She found the experience cathartic and empowering. But listening to lines like "Keep each and every TV that's been trying to convince me to participate in some prep-school punk's plan to perpetuate retribution," I wondered what impact a pamphleteer can have on the language of opposition when official policy in America is routinely disguised as airless slogans. You can, for instance, revel in her Bush-bashing and still have trouble imagining how turning off CNN could transform Al Qaeda into reciprocal pacifists. Contrast her approach with Rees's: Arabs, Muslims, radical Islamists, whoever, the spectrum of millions actually involved in American policy don't much appear in DiFranco's political sallies, in sharp contrast to the shaded insights that enliven her depictions of gender and personal politics. Although she rejects what she sees as the media-framed "big picture," it can feel as if she's replacing one America-centered mode of seeing the world with another. Is this partly a consequence of her own brand of personal/political ahistoricism?
This is not a question that springs to mind with Guthrie or Seeger, Baez or Dylan. On the other hand, DiFranco's intractable opposition to All War All the Time has already had potentially significant ripple effects. Hearing "Self Evident" in concert fired Chuck D of Public Enemy to record and release the song before DiFranco's own version came out. This illustrates one of the more promising cultural undercurrents of the last decade-plus-- the linking of alternative rock and nongangsta hip-hop. (Prince, who's also tried this, is one of her biggest boosters.) Continuing to nurture those connections musically and politically may ultimately go down as one of DiFranco's most durable contributions to the emerging countercultures of the twenty-first century.
Meantime, there's her winning black humor and well-honed personal sensitivity and obvious talent to help spur her continuing artistic development. Just as in a Guthrie/Dylan talking blues, DiFranco's asides often fire her best barbed lines: "Take away our playstations, and we are a third world nation under the thumb of some blue blood royal son." And she wants to move her audience to action: "To the Teeth" begins, "Schoolkids keep trying to teach us what guns are all about" and ends with exhortations to besiege media and politicians with anti-gun messages. Will she be a torchbearer out of Reaganism's long twilight? Who knows what America these days will follow as it wanders its deepening chasms of alienation? But that's not really the point. Right now, it's enough that she's out there.