I recently read Ani Difranco’s memoir “No Walls and the Recurring Dream.” I devoured it one sitting — it was surreal to read about what Ani Difranco was going through at the exact moment I was listening to her music all day in my head on repeat as an adolescent. It got me thinking about the first time my ears were set ablaze to the fiery, prolific songstress herself.
It was the summer between sixth and seventh grade and I was sitting cross-legged on the hardwood floors of my friend Joanna’s bedroom, smack dead-center in the white-washed suburb of Westport, CT. Joanna and I, clad respectfully in halter tops and mega-bell-bottoms were bored and restlessly shoving Twinkies into our 12-year-old mouths — when suddenly Jo sprung up from the floor like a little meerkat.
“I have to play you this song. My cousin Jenny introduced to me to this artist Ani Difranco. You’ll love her.” I had met her cousin Jenny and thought she was the coolest girl I’d ever seen. She was a couple of years older, bore a shaved head alla ’90s dyke and smoked cigarettes. I was sort of obsessed with her even though we’d only hung out once (Oh the days when we confused obsession with attraction!).
Joanna hungrily pressed play on the stereo and my life as I knew it was forever changed.
We listened to the entire album of “Puddle Dive” and I feverishly clutched onto every single word Ani sang. All of a sudden there were words and rhythms that perfectly expressed this visceral rage I harbored over the injustice in the world. In a tween girl’s bedroom in a colonial house with a sprawling green lawn, I learned about feminism. I learned about unrequited love and white privilege and sexual fluidity.
It was as if I had been trapped inside of a dismal basement my entire life and had suddenly been set free, eyes opened wide to a whole different world. A world with the nuances and the grit and the openness I had dreamt about since I was a little girl — but wasn’t quite sure actually even existed.
As soon as my dad picked me up from Jo’s house I made him stop and take me to our local Sam Goody (a chain record store for you youngins’).
“Please, dad! Please! I found this amazing female artist, you’ll love her!” I begged. My dad, like me, is a deeply musical soul and could intrinsically sense I wasn’t being just a melodramatic adolescent. I needed Ani Difranco in my life or I would DIE.
My dad — because he’s the coolest, bought me not one but three Ani albums that afternoon. We blasted her self-titled debut album all the way home, even taking an extra whirl around the neighborhood because we were both so taken with what we were hearing.
I spent the following decade worshipping at the altar of Ani Difranco. Not in some teen-boy-band kind of way — she was more than that. She was my guru, my teacher, my mentor. She set a foundation of ethics for me in the most impressionable time of my life. She provided me with profound life lessons that I forever keep in my back pocket and pull out whenever I need them, which is often.
Here are thirteen of the greatest lessons I learned from the one and only Ms. Difranco.
1. My body has nothing to do with my gratitude.
Like most young women, I grew up with the notion that you had to “reward” men who bestowed you with favors — with your body and sexuality. Say yes to the date with the skeezy producer who claimed he scored you the gig. Wear something revealing to the party that the “cool” promotor boy got you into for free. Sleep with the person who is letting you crash at their house for the night.
The song “Gratitude” taught me that my BODY is entirely disconnected from my gratefulness. Yes, I am grateful for your kind favor. But my body is not compensation for you going out of your way for me.
2. I am not a pretty girl. That is not what I do.
Where I come from, being called “pretty” is the *ultimate* compliment. I was never described as “pretty” likely because I was loud, opinionated, goofy, had a weird clothing style, and quirky personality. I always felt deeply ashamed that I wasn’t more like the girls I sat at lunch with. They were all described as “pretty “and were demure and sweet and laughed at goofy boys but never acted goofy themselves. I wanted to be like them, but it was so against my core nature. “Pretty” felt like a battle I couldn’t win.
In the Ani Difranco song “Not A Pretty Girl” I finally felt empowered by not being one of those “pretty girls.” Ani wasn’t a “pretty girl” either and she didn’t want to be one. She wanted to be more than a “pretty girl.” And suddenly so did I.
What a vitally important lesson to learn at a meek thirteen years old. To this day whenever I find myself jealous over the “pretty” girls who seem so lady-like and perfect and are always being helped out of cars and such, I sing “I am not a pretty girl/That is not what I do/I ain’t no damsel in distress/And I don’t need to be rescued/So put me down, punk” in my head.
3. Art is why I get up in the morning. But my definition ends there.
“What do you want to do with your life, Zara? You’re so distracted!” my school teachers would scold me.
I didn’t know what to say.
I mean — I wanted to create things! I wanted to write and act and direct and perform! These wildly creative endeavors are what got me out of bed in the morning! Scrawling poetry in my notebooks is what got me through all those boring classes!
In the song “Out Of Habit” Ani explains that she knows she’s dedicated to art, it’s her driving force in life, but she doesn’t need to define her art or put it in a box. Just understand that it’s what fuels you and you don’t need to explain it to anyone — not even yourself. I swear I had this quote written in marker on the walls of my childhood bedroom, as a sort of “F*CK YOU” to the teachers that didn’t get my creativity. My mother wasn’t pleased.
4. Silence is Violence.
In Ani’s LIFE-CHANGING poem “My IQ” there is one line that shook my entire world: “I sing sometimes like my life is at stake ’cause you’re only as loud
as the noises you make/I’m learning to laugh as hard as I can listen/’cause silence is violence in women and poor people/if more people were screaming then I could relax.”
This line is what inspired me to always speak up against injustice (regardless of the push-back), to always scream my heart out (regardless of who I disturb) and encourage others (especially marginalized people) to do the same.
The most violent thing we can do is stay silent. Staying silent isn’t just destructive to the world, it’s destructive to ourselves.
5. Bisexuality is real.
When I heard Ani sing: “I’ve got no criteria for sex or race/I just want to hear your voice/I just want to see your face” I felt like someone had knocked the wind out of me! While I don’t identify as bisexual, this song taught me that bisexuality is one hundred percent valid long before the internet was flooded with think pieces about sexuality. This was in the ’90s, bisexuality wasn’t even a part of my peers’ vocabulary.
This song made me always advocate for bisexuals who are largely disregarded in the LGBTQ+ community.
6. God help you if you are a Phoenix and you dare to rise up from the ash.
In the classic coming of age anthem for alienated teens around the world, “32 Flavors,” the line that struck me the most was this: And 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…
Here’s what yours truly learned: Whenever you do something outside of the box, or against the grain, or embark on a wild, fabulous risk — people will bully you. They will talk shit about you. They will try and bring you back to the earth with their cruelty. But that negativity is rooted in their own fear and self-doubt. So don’t pay a morsel of attention to it. Continue to fly high past the hate and keep being the beautiful f*cking Pheonix you are.
7. If you don’t live what you sing about your mirror is going to find out.
This line is from the song “The Million That You Never Made” which to me is about being authentic in your creative work. Even if you betray your own ethics and sell out and make millions — your bathroom mirror will always know you’re a fraud, babe. Your words mean nothing if they aren’t backed up by the truthfulness of your life.
And no amount of money in this cruel, cold world is worth deceiving your spirit because you’ve presented yourself as someone you are not.
This life lesson helped me so, so much when it came down to writing about my sexuality. I was terrified when I scored a feature writing job in mainstream media. I was terrified that using “her” pronouns in dating articles would alienate the audience.
But as always, I remembered wise Ani’s words; and became the first staff writer on a giant millennial publication to incessantly write lesbian articles. I don’t care if I lost a few followers. I gained a deep-rooted sense of integrity and attained a raw honesty in my work that I would never forsake for all the clicks in the world.
8. Everything is run by MEN. But we can sing like a sonofabitch.
In the song “Make Them Apologize” Ani candidly expresses this realness: Men might currently be running far too much of the world at large, but no one can sing/write/create/scream like a wonderful sonofabitch like us women can! So screw ’em, don’t let them get away with anything. ‘Cause we have a power no man could ever tap into. As Ani says in “Blood in the Boardroom”: “These businessmen got the money/They got the instruments of death/But I can make life/I can make breath.”
9. Lipstick is NOT a sign of my declining mind.
The quote “as if lipstick is a sign of my declining mind” is from the song Little Plastic Castle, and I always think about it when I saunter into dyke bars and feel undermined by more masculine-presenting women because I’m femme as f*ck. I want to yell: “Listen up assholes! Lipstick isn’t a sign of my declining mother-f*cking mind. It’s self-expression. Your mind is declining if you think lipstick equals bimbo!”
10. If you’re born a lion don’t even bother trying to act tame.
In the song “Born a Lion” I finally realized this mega lesson: If you were born wild, free-spirited, dropped out of college to see the world, complicated, outspoken, “different,” queer as a three dollar bill, adventurous, easily bored, startlingly loud or hyper-opinionated — you were born a lion. Purr. Roar. Don’t try to silence or suppress what society shames you for. Those are your gifts.
Don’t tame the beast, be the beast, babe.
11. We are made to bleed, and scab, and heal and bleed again and turn every scar into a joke.
Every single time I feel like my life is over I think of the song “Building and Bridges.” Every time I convince myself that I’ll never, ever recover because I’ve been devastated by a lover or rejected from a career big opportunity or am in a mere depressive episode; I remember this is what life is. We bleed. We scab. We heal. And bleed again.
And if we want to turn the leftover scars into jokes that add light to those haunting dark memories — that’s OK, too.
12. He took something from me I didn’t know that I had.
In the song “Letter To A John” one line struck me deep in my bones, crawling into my spine, as a teenager. I was eleven years old/He was as old as my dad/And he took something from me/I didn’t even know that I had.” Nothing has ever encapsulated the visceral feeling of the sexual trauma I experienced in my early twenties like that one line. While my experience was vastly different from that of the song; that one simple line made me feel understood and seen in a time when I felt so disconnected from myself I couldn’t even piece the truth together.
13. I can do this on my own.
The most profound lessons of all the life-changing, world-altering lessons I garnered from Ani is this: I can do this on my own.
Ani started her own label “Righteous Babe Records” because she realized she didn’t need some big corporate label to micromanage her career. She could create a business that matched her ethics of “music before rock stardom and ideology before profit.”
I think about Ani’s independence anytime a talent-manager rejects me or a publishing company says they “like my voice” but thinks “I’m not marketable enough” or a casting director thinks I’m “too expressive” in my eyes or a media company thinks my work isn’t “clickable enough.”
You know what? Maybe I don’t, like, need them? Like, at all? Maybe I’m like my idol Ms. Ani Difranco and my destiny is to do this shit on my own. Maybe I’m made to publish my own books and cultivate my own ideas and create my own path and set my own rules. Maybe I’m a righteous babe who isn’t made to answer to anyone. Maybe you are too.
I’m actually crying as I write this– that’s how hard this lesson hits me, right in the crux of my gut. Ani taught me that I don’t need to wait for anyone’s approval (which is great because I never get it anyway) in order to move forward. And that notion of autonomy has held me through every painful rejection or sexist note I’ve received about my work. As creators, we always feel like our lives are in the hands of “the man.” The big bad producers. The big corporations with pockets teeming with cash.
Maybe it’s not.
Look: no one knows our audiences as well as we do, no one else can write the words we write or make the art we create. So who’s to say these “suits” instincts are sharper than our own? Ani doesn’t think so. And I don’t either.