Do you remember listening to cassette tapes? Do you remember how the tape itself would sometimes unwind in the player when you listened to it too many times? How you’d have to use a pencil to spin the little cassette gears backwards, trying to untangle the tape gently so as not to break it? When I try to retrace how Ani DiFranco came to be in my personal pantheon of women, that delicate tape, unspooled and tangled is what comes to mind.
It was 1992, and I was a 19 year-old girl who'd fled Texas to follow ill-defined artistic dreams in San Francisco when a housemate introduced me to Ani's music. Dear Reader, I thought of myself as so worldly! I was a baby feminist, vehemently pro-choice, and vaguely interested in the idea of having a girlfriend. But I was still just a little girl from Texas who’d lived a relatively sheltered life. Nothing could have prepared me for the audacity of Ani DiFranco, with her thundering guitar, her hell-raising, political af lyrics, and her unapologetic and very sexy androgyny.
Ani’s two years older than me, so at that time was only 21, but she’d already started her record label, Righteous Babe, so as to have complete creative control over her music. She was from Buffalo, New York, but had moved to NYC to create a new life for herself and to become an icon for misfit kids like me.
Before Ani, I thought of women entertainers as soft and pretty, an alternative to the hard rocking men to whom they took a back seat. Like Dolly Parton, they sang about loving a cheating man so much they’d do anything to get him back. They smiled a lot and were gracious and glamorous. Ani showed me that wasn’t the only option for an artist. And if it wasn’t the only option for an artist, then it wasn’t the only option for any other kind of woman - even a confused, teenage wannabe writer from Texas.
Ani’s lyrics talked about being torn between great loves - usually women, but sometimes men - which she endeavored to hold onto with both hands. She sang about sitting in an abortion clinic with a boy she wishes had never come near her, she sang about nobody being able to make her sacrifice her freedom of choice. And she played the guitar with a ferocity I’d not dreamed a woman to be capable of.
That summer in San Francisco was challenging, and I learned a lot about the world and about myself - both what I wanted and what I definitely knew I didn't. I don’t think it quite set in that I couldn’t outrun my depression, but I knew I missed my mama, and I knew I wanted to go to college. So, I returned to Texas, but this time to Austin. I told myself I’d finish school, then go back to California the right way. You know what they say - life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.
It was a couple of years later that I met Kate, and I relish the memory of introducing her to Ani’s music. We cried together, overwhelmed by the feeling that someone understood these things we didn’t even have a name for, that someone was articulating this grand tangle of emotions and convictions so precisely. We felt seen.
A few years after that, Kate and I discovered that Ani was recording an album at a studio in the Hill Country near Austin, so we did what any fangirl would do. We each wrote her a love letter and bought her flowers, which we drove out to the studio and left on the steps. I half expected Ani to call Kate (because who wouldn’t want to be with Kate?), but she didn’t. Of course, she didn’t call me, either. I’ve managed to get past the slight.
I’m so grateful to Ani DiFranco - for her music, her courage, and for being a righteous babe. Almost three decades ago, she showed me it was possible, and so much more than ok, to be “32 flavors and then some.”