As the 2002 election results came in, I surfed through 100 cable channels with nothing on and hit an infomercial hosted by John Sebastian for a Time-Life eight-CD set of 1950s and ’60s folk and folk rock. For the nth time I thought, What hath O Brother, Where Art Thou wrought? Who would’ve guessed a hillbilly cross between Homer and Preston Sturges would make America friendly again to the idea of folk music, catalyze the latest generational revival that follows two earlier upsurges: the New Deal, which sent researchers and artists to delve into and chronicle and represent America’s myriad pasts, and the postwar McCarthy era, when the crust of American political and cultural monism hardened while, seething below, countercultural currents were flowing toward the mass reaction of the 1960s and ’70s?
Santayana’s adage about how those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it crossed my mind. Here in the lengthening shadow of the Reagan era, we seem to move outside history in a kind of projected nostalgia, like Plato’s fools in a cave of their own device. History textbooks have been dumbed down and decontextualized along the lines Frances FitzGerald drew at the dawn of Reaganism in America Revised; our mass media have no memory. The timeless imaginary space they help create allows opportunistic replays of the 1950s, Reaganism’s favorite era, when the need for a united front against our Great Satans (communism, sex, drugs, Big Government, taxes, Al Qaeda, Iraq) stifles dissent, opposition and even discussion by branding them anti-American–ploys recurrent in American history, right out of Richard Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Remember how, in 1984, a torrent of pundits mused that Orwell had imagined the future wrong? Guess they never imagined a contemporary day spent being ahistorically glared at by CNN and Fox and talk-radio: Haven’t we always been at war with Iraq?
The bedrock of Reagan’s legacy was the invention and spread of a language, from “tax and spend” to “partial-birth abortion,” that successfully banished opposition to the margins in near-total silence. Which is why one lesson from 1950s America seems pertinent: When opposition can find no voice within the government and public arenas, it runs underground to surface elsewhere, as it did in McCarthy’s heyday. So the question is: Since the governing classes can no longer manage their own opposition and the governed are fractured by slogans of ever-narrowing self-interest or bloody banners, or bored into passivity, or simply hiding out, who will open the possibility of debate?
Looking at history, you don’t have to be Shelley to think the answer will include artists. But cultural politics is a murky game. Artists, after all, aren’t politicians. They already have jobs: to represent their versions of reality, which either engage audiences or don’t, either work artistically or don’t. Political commitment doesn’t guarantee success at either effort, nor does it mean that politically engaged artists’ relationships with their audiences will yield more than mutually satisfying venting sessions. Their implicit hope, though, is that these circles open wider, as hootenannies, say, eventually did in McCarthyite America, where most of the opposition to cultural and political repression simmered below the country’s careful radar for years as it willy-nilly attracted the uneasy, the dissident, the angry, the lost, all seeking solace and reinforcement. Musicians from Harry Belafonte to Max Roach marched with Martin Luther King Jr. Jazz musicians issued works with titles like We Insist: The Freedom Now Suite. Folk musicians sang at rallies protesting nukes, racism, imperialism. Black humorists like Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller dared to parody the Greatest Generation’s war and sheltered with the Beats in cold-water lofts and bars in seedy parts of America’s thriving cities. They haphazardly mingled their versions of the personal and political rebellions that finally ignited in public.
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Art can help create a climate for a different individual awareness, but the Brechtian explosion between Eisenhower and Reagan was long in preparation and cobbled up many uneasy alliances. Without the gassing and beating and killing of civil-rights marchers and little black children, without the brush-fire battles and body bags of the Vietnam War on nightly TV, without the draft and student deferments and mounting body count, without the gathering winds of alienation and repression gusting across mass media, the seeds of unrest scattered across the culture may never have borne mainstream political fruit.
The Bush gang understands at least some of this. That brings me to Ani DiFranco, who says that for her, politics and art are inseparable.
As the 32-year-old tours the country in a return to her roots as a solo singer with an acoustic guitar, her recent live double CD, So Much Shouting, So Much Laughter (Righteous Babe), features the kinetic, musically polymorphous sounds of her now defunct band of the past two years and the growing sophistication of her vocal delivery. The two merge into generally enticing mixtures of jazz, r&b, funk, hip-hop, bossa nova and salsa that recall Gil Scott-Heron’s similar 1970s melanges like “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”
The album opens with the sound of DiFranco screwing up a guitar lick–an overt nod to her overall project’s resolutely homemade nature. Reviving the antique model that served musicians for centuries and the record industry for decades until the 1990s entertainment mega-mergers, DiFranco developed her audience via constant touring; she then graduated to packaging and selling her own product via her own label. (It’s worth noting that the last peaks for indie labels were the postwar era, during the rise of blues, rockabilly, r&b, rock and roll, country and soul, and the 1980s, when Reaganites began to dream America back to those glory days.) Like other early-adapting musicians, DiFranco started using her website as a combination marketing springboard/fan chatroom, thus updating the pre-web feedback loop: performers building fan lists so they could mail info about performances and recordings. And she’s set up a foundation funneling money to what she describes as “grassroots cultural and political organizations around the country.”
Americans still love Horatio Alger, which offers DiFranco her marketing opening into the mainstream–and like Dylan a generation ago, she’s savvy enough to use it. Then there are her attitudes and language: She gives her slacker fans an indisputably recognizable voice in her hip sarcasm, cutting put-downs and political alienation, as well as in her nuanced focus on relationships and power. Her audience, mainly college and postcollege women, has grown so large that she routinely nets mainstream-media headlines and big-hall dates despite, and often because of, her outspoken political beliefs and sexual preferences. For Big Media, controversy is raw meat. How far controversial ideas are neutered or proliferated in this process is a conundrum that recalls the arguments about mass culture rampant among postwar public intellectuals like Dwight Macdonald.
What is certain is that DiFranco has come a long way from her early neo-folkie outsider days, when she was scuffling around Buffalo and clubs in other Rustbelt cities with an acoustic guitar, passing the hat and looking for crash pads. And thanks to the way she’s built her career, her fans adore her not just for what she says but what she represents to them–which is down-the-line opposition to official America, outsidership in political and personal terms.
Recorded on the band’s last tour, So Much Shouting, So Much Laughter showcases DiFranco in the round as an artist, with often stunning singing backed by abstractly conceptual as well as hard-driving music. “Swandive,” the opener with her flubs, catches her at her damn-the-torpedoes, Romantic-with-a-capital-R best: “There’s got to be more than this boat I’m in/’Cause they can call me crazy if I fail/All the chance that I need/Is one in a million and they can call me brilliant/If I succeed/…I’m gonna do my best to swan dive in the shark-infested waters/I’m gonna pull out my tampon and start splashing round/cause I don’t care if they eat me alive/I’ve got better things here to do than survive…I’ve got a vision of blue sky and dry land.” The bridge’s odd-meter horn licks wind and curl around her increasingly elastic phrasing, her palpably maturing confidence, to head back into the verse’s rhythmically layered, edgily staccato funk. As she told one interviewer, “I’m slowly learning, as my life whizzes by me, how to sing them [her songs]–maybe in a slightly calmer voice, maybe with a little bit more self-possession.”
Most of the songs revamped by this jazzy sextet will be familiar to fans. Take “Letter to a John”: A lapdancer’s dismissively sarcastic refrain, “I’m gonna take the money I make,” unfolds into a hurt and angry admission that she was a molested child, and offhanded observations about how social mores have set back women (and simultaneously imprison men) now more than at any time since the 1950s. The pumping rhythm section and sinuously suggestive horns, the well-paced and spiky dynamics, DiFranco’s free and easy rhythmic phrasing that rides across as well as on the beats, all underline her artistic growth. She’s learned a lot from Dylan; still, even in her most “poetic” forays she generally forgoes his surrealistic leaps for realism.
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.