Ani DiFranco is a legend. She’s a songwriter, a poet, a feminist, an activist, she has her own record label (Righteous Babe) and can fingerpick a guitar like no other (not to mention she’s created over eighteen albums). Although this was extremely hard to narrow down, here are five songs by Ani DiFranco that are worth checking out. (FYI: tracks that were close to making this list include “Buildings and Bridges,” “Untouchable Face,” “Glass House” and “Napoleon”). Also included are my attempts at deciphering her poetic riddles, if applicable.
Number Five: “32 Flavors.” “32 Flavors” is a song off of DiFranco’s 1995 album, Not a Pretty Girl. This song perfectly describes a girl/woman who is trying to break away from the labels placed on her by society. This can be seen within the lyrics, “I am a poster girl with no poster / I am thirty-two flavors and then some.” She goes on to explain “the kindness (she) lavished on strangers,” while also stating “I will never be a saint.” This is a woman who doesn’t want to be put in a box. She’s neither a Madonna nor a whore. The narrator also speaks about how pretty and ugly girls both have it bad. Personal favorite lyrics of mine are, “God help you if you are a phoenix / and you dare to rise up from the ash / a thousand eyes will smolder with jealousy / while you are just flying past.”
Number Four: “School Night.” “School Night” is a track off of DiFranco’s album, Revelling/Reckoning (2001.) This song essentially tells two stories. The first is about a relationship between lovers; the second is about a mother and her children- but both have in common the theme of having to choose between two loves and how, in reality, this is a hapless fact of life that we all must face. The lines repeated throughout the song are, “I stand committed / to a love that came before you / and the fact that I adore you / is but one of my truths.” In the relationship scenario, this can be seen as the woman making the choice to leave her lover because she’s still in love with someone else, or perhaps the ‘love that came before’ is not another person, but herself. The second scenario, reminiscent of Sophie’s Choice, presents the same conundrum: having to choose between two children that you love.
This song is beautifully poetic in every way. Here are some of my favorite lyrics: “She built a skyscraper of procrastination / and then she leaned out the twenty-fifth-floor window of her reply.” “You are a miracle, but that is not all / you are also a stiff drink and I am on call / you are a party and I am a school night / and I’m looking for my door key / but you are my porch light.” “What kind of scale / compares the weight of two beauties / the gravity of duties / or the ground speed of joy / tell me what kind of gauge / can quantify elation? / what kind of equation / could I possibly employ?”
Number Three: “Grey.” “Grey” is a song off of DiFranco’s 2001 album, evelling/Reckoning. Specifically, this song is on the “Reckoning” side. This is one of Ani’s more somber songs, however, it paints a tragically beautiful portrait of someone who feels incomplete no matter how much material things they attain. ‘Grey’ is a color between white and black or light and dark; the narrator feels like she has no control, is numb to everything around her, and although she seems to have it all (in terms of possessions and relationships), she still feels empty. The lyrics, “but as bad as I am / I’m proud of the fact / that I’m worse than I seem,” portray a person who has more than one side to them; however, they would never admit their flaws or expose themselves as vulnerable. The ‘key’ mentioned in the song perhaps represents the small glimmer of hope that the narrator yearns for but is always out of reach; from a different perspective, the key could be a metaphorical yet still material thing that the narrator feels she needs to be complete.
Number Two: “Both Hands.” “Both Hands” is the first track off of DiFranco’s 1990 self-titled debut album. This is one of Ani’s most popular songs, and rightfully so. The narrator seems to be describing a relationship that is about to end, while reminiscing on the one last time the couple made love. This latter element can be seen within the poetic lyrics, “I am writing graffiti all over your body / I am drawing the story of how hard we tried.” The narrator feels like this person is as close to her as her own skin, seen within lyrics like, “your bones have been my bed frame / and your flesh has been my pillow.” In one verse she explains to the listener why the relationship wasn’t working despite all the good things (“in each other’s shadows / we’ve grown less and less tall”). Essentially the relationship is withering away because both people weren’t growing (no matter how good the sexual aspect of the relationship may have been.)
The narrator even mentions a voyeur in the form of an old woman “listening to the air shaft / to see how long our swan song will last.” The title is used in the song to reference making love, as well as in the lyrics, “I’ve been waiting for sleep / to offer up the deep / with both hands.” Personally, ‘both hands’ reminded me of when you put both hands together to pray, while in the song, using both hands could be part of a sexual act. In this way, this song could be about the sacredness of passionate sex, no matter how fleeting this passion can be.
Number One: “Fuel.” “Fuel” is a song off of DiFranco’s 1998 album, Little Plastic Castle. This folk track with a funk beat could easily be seen as a protest song, or at the very least, a criticism of society (with Manhattan as the backdrop). In the song, DiFranco discusses issues like capitol punishment, the idiocy of most presidents and the phoniness of mainstream media- in particular, the phoniness of the music industry. Highlights of this track include Ani’s frustrated laugh when she sings, “and I keep hearing that same damn song everywhere I go,” as well as poetic lines and references to New York culture like “the screeching of kamikaze cab wheels.” Personal favorite lines of mine are when she shows sparks of humor, such as when she states, “And they say that alcoholics are always alcoholics / even when they’re dry as my lips for years / even when they’re stranded on a small desert island / with no place in 2,000 miles to buy beer.”
For many, the most enigmatic lyrics in the song are the following: “And you can choose between the colors / of the lipstick on the whores / cause we know the difference between / the font of 20% more / and the font of teriyaki / you tell me, how does it make you feel? / You tell me what’s real.” From examining the song as a whole, my guess is that the narrator feels like every lifestyle is now cliché; there is no individuality left in society no matter how much variety the media sticks in front of our faces. This song is the perfect example of a stream-of-consciousness or spoken-word style song, as it contains a flow of ideas about society that may seem random, yet still somehow make a statement.