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A Femme Fourth

[whitespace] Ani DiFranco
Photos by Erin Darby.

Ani DiFranco lit up the sky at Spartan Stadium

By Michelle Goldberg

Fireworks from neighboring celebrations bloomed in the sky around Spartan Stadium Fields on July 4 as Ani DiFranco launched into "Independence Day," an impossibly poignant song from her newest album, Little Plastic Castles. You could feel the shivers going up a thousand spines as the baby dykes and neo-hippies and punk girls crowded at the front of the stage closed their eyes, hugged each other, swayed and screamed.

The Ani DiFranco show on the Fourth of July was charged with a delectable spark of blasphemy. Instead of enduring the rah-rah patriotism of traditional festivities, concertgoers were riled by DiFranco's rants against venal capitalists, racist cops and sexists of all stripes. She laughingly began one of the new tunes she unveiled at the concert, "This is a dire little song about how we're all doomed and the country's going to hell." The refrain was, "My country 'tis of thee, we take swings at each other on talk show TV."

In another sense, though, Ani DiFranco is the poster girl for Independence Day, and not only because of her celebrated refusal to be wooed by the music industry. Even though she's been splashed across the covers of magazines like Ms., Spin and CMJ, DiFranco has stayed true to her DIY roots, releasing all of her 12 albums on her own label, Righteous Babe Records. Beyond that, she's unbound by any subculture or genre. In the concert's opening song, the title cut from Little Plastic Castle, she announced to delighted cheers, "People talk about my image/ Like I come in two dimensions/ Like lipstick is a sign of my declining mind/ Like what I happen to be wearing/ the Day that someone takes a picture/ Is my new statement for all of womankind."

Such self-reference is what DiFranco's critics most abhor in her, but her fans adore it. There isn't a single other living performer that inspires the kind of visceral, achingly passionate devotion that DiFranco does. Her admirers are deeply involved in the narrative of DiFranco's against-all-odds career, her girl-against-the-world mythology. During one particularly rousing number, a version of Not a Pretty Girl's "Shy" that segued into "Pulse" from the new album, she handed her guitar to a roadie and started dancing around the microphone. "I'm not going to break my guitar, I'm not going to break my guitar," she chanted. "Folk singers love their guitars, and besides, I ain't got no record company to buy me another one." The mostly young, female audience screamed with the kind of insane love rarely seen outside of old Beatles films, but unlike the infatuated victims of Beatlemania, the crowd's adoration combined lust with identification. Undoubtedly, some girls wanted Ani DiFranco, but just as many wanted to be her.

Ani fan Tiny and muscular, dressed in sleeveless mechanic's overalls, a kerchief over her long blue ponytail, DiFranco soaked up the crowd's admiration and reflected it back, doing everything she could to demystify herself. "I'm having that little problem of my titties moving the tone control," she declared at one point. Later, she said, "I made the mistake of blowing my nose between soundcheck and the show and now everything sounds totally different. I'm just a little ball of phlegm on legs. I look like one of the beautiful people up here on the stage, but don't be fooled."

DiFranco creates a sense of girlie intimacy that far exceeds estrogen-fests like the Lilith Fair, but she also liberates female folk music from its quaint pastel ghetto. Many of DiFranco's best songs are tender, ethereal and confessional, but others are twangy rockers, or sexy, funky dance songs, or cool, beatniky spoken-word pieces. She played almost every song on Little Plastic Castle, her most diverse album so far, as well as several new, harder rock songs. She performed only a handful of older tunes, and though the new songs were largely excellent, it was a bit of disappointment that she left out classic Ani anthems like "Not a Pretty Girl" and "Out of Range."

Her eclecticism was also evident in her choice of opening bands -- instead of another acoustic-guitar-playing folky, the show started with the rousing Rebirth Brass Band, an eight-piece outfit from New Orleans that combines freewheeling Dixieland jazz with shake-your-booty bass and hip-hop vocals. Several songs on Little Plastic Castle have swinging horn sections, and four members of the Rebirth Brass Band members joined DiFranco on stage for the end of her set. She ended the concert with an exhilarating Stevie Wonder cover that was as much a showcase for the horn players as for herself.

DiFranco's only encore was a short poem that she recited while pounding a drum held between her thighs, though the crowd spent at least ten minutes clapping, cheering and chanting for more. Finally, though, the crew started dismantling the gear on stage. Reluctantly, the crowd dispersed and walked to their cars, many holding hands, dazed, giddy, satisfied, and, perhaps, a tiny bit more liberated than they were before.

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Web extra to the July 9-15, 1998 issue of Metro.

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