Take This Media...Please!
Ani DiFranco is a singer, songwriter, guitarist and founder of the Buffalo, New York-based independent label Righteous Babe Records. Her latest album is the two-disc set Revelling/Reckoning.
For the longest time my only mainstream media coverage was the occasional local daily preview of an upcoming performance or, even more rarely, a local album review. Features were very few and far between because I had no major-label backing (read: corporate backing), and they were always the impetus of a genuine ally: a like-minded reporter with an ear to the underground. But by and large, I remember that back in the day, one story dominated Joe Newspaper's portrayal of me as I putt-putted through town with my feminist songs and my incessant smile: I was an angry, angry girl.
My problem with the mainstream media is a personal one. They generally ignored me for seven years (save for the reactionary sexist stereotyping) until my audience was too big to ignore, and then finally, about five years ago, I sprang full-grown from the major media brow as the next great indie phenomenon.
"How did she get here without us?" the corporate media monolith asked itself. "Why, it must be her business savvy," it answered.
Of course, we all know that in the political arena, anti-corporate sentiment is the first casualty of the corporate-controlled media. But what of the remaining fodder available to us? What about the dumb, easy stuff like music criticism or celebrity interviews? Where does the capitalist agenda end and personal interest begin? I don't rightly know, but I have a personal interest in the intersection of culture, capitalism and media, because I am often standing at that crossroads with my guitar.
It's daunting to have a force much bigger than yourself misshaping opinion about you at every turn, but it's also instructive. I have learned the hard way about the fallacy of objectivity. Even a Q&A can be a funhouse mirror, as I have learned from one oversimplified, paraphrased, out-of-context interview after another: If you're not asking the right questions, there are no right answers.
Ever a slave to my mother's smile-and-be-sweet upbringing, I spent years trying to assimilate myself to the interviewers' culture long enough to answer their questions politely. And for years I was left feeling compromised and icky. For example, a semirhetorical icebreaker such as, "So, you're on tour supporting your new record?" could stun me at the outset. "Uh...yeah," I replied, until I developed the courage and composure to say things like, "Well, no. I am on tour...because that's my job as a working musician. In contrast to the commonplace industry model of: make an album then go on tour to sell the album, I do not play live music for the purpose of marketing a commodity. I see touring as an end in itself, as all folksingers do. Live performance is activism, exorcism and music school for me. Albums are peripheral. In fact, the scheduling of my touring itineraries and my periodic documenting of songs on albums is so disconnected that I have repeatedly found myself touring right up to album release and then taking an unstrategic but much-needed vacation."
You can see how this could make for some cumbersome conversations. Try this one on for size: "How is your life different now that you are successful?" A simple question, right? I answered it straight a few times, before a light went off in my head that helped illuminate why it made me so uncomfortable.
"What do you mean by 'success'?" I replied on that day. "The fact that I am appearing in your magazine? Because I think I was successful when I was 19 years old and could sell twenty tapes in one night to an audience of fifty people. I was successful when I quit my last day job at age 21 and supported myself through music without starving. I felt successful when I would show up at some student-union cafeteria, stand under the fluorescent lights and give people songs that would make them cry and stomp their feet and laugh out loud. In fact, it was the very idea that neither fame nor fortune could make you a success in life, but something deeper, that gave me the patience to remain independent all those hard years and not reach for the corporate carrot."
I have spent too much of my life accommodating the (often subtle) sexist or capitalist subtext of my dialogue with the mainstream media. I've since grown the will to amend that situation, but damn--if I think outside the box, does it mean that I have to spend my fifteen minutes pointing at the box? For a girl whose very nature compels her to speed headlong into a world of her own invention, these arduous attempts at questioning the question can feel like so many wheels spinning.
When writer and subject share an ideological or cultural perspective, the conversations can begin to stretch and sing in a way that is indigenous to the subject. Otherwise, most of the movement in an interview can feel like a slow, jostling journey to square one.
Engaging the major media sources and entering into hand-to-hand combat with my stereotype has had its effect, though, I must say. Twelve years and fifteen albums have gone by, and I've noted an improvement in the terms of the discussions and the level of understanding that surrounds little me and my work. My optimist's heart insists that I am not an aberration, either, but an example of the possibilities that exist for radical subculture to trickle into the mainstream.
Even in this age of corporate mega-mergers and media hegemony I have to believe that slowly...slowly...the truth will out.