The legend of the righteous babe

Ani DiFranco couldn’t care less what you call her. Musician, feminist, bisexual — none of those labels comes anywhere close to summing up who she is or what she’s about.

The only label she seems comfortable with is the willfully amorphous folk singer — which, truth be told, doesn’t cut it, either.

As an energetic songwriter and performer who flirts with punk, trip-hop, jazz, gospel and — on her new CD, Little Plastic Castle (Righteous Babe, 1998) — takes us on a 14 minute Van Morrison-esque journey into the mystic, DiFranco has taken great pleasure in surpassing easy classification. But despite all its polite, even peaceful connotations, the folk-singer designation does have some pertinence: In the past, DiFranco has usually performed sans backing band; she’s a remarkably sensitive and inventive lyricist; and her songs remain rooted in a pleasantly politicized atmosphere of revolution and simple human dignity. She’s just not quite as folky as other folksingers.

Whatever you call her, though, DiFranco has become a bona-fide phenomenon — both musical and commercial. “The Li’l Folksinger,” as her friends call her, has emerged from her early-’90s, genre-bending indie status as a force to reckon with — a musician and entrepreneur who did it her way, all the way. In interviews, DiFranco often spends as much time describing the political philosophy of the record company she founded — the “people-friendly, sub-corporate, woman-informed, queer-happy small business” Righteous Babe Records — as she devotes to her own music.

In one playful but ornery letter she wrote to Ms. magazine (almost everything she does, for that matter, can be characterized as “playful but ornery”), she even enumerates her catalog sales and her personal profits per unit sold. Of course, the point was that, though she’s doing OK financially, she’s not making nearly as much money as most major-label acts; but the fact remains that DiFranco’s energies and passions are as tied up with Righteous Babe’s financial survival as they are with the next night’s gig.

In anyone else’s career, a public financial consideration of this sort would be ugly and offensive (can you imagine Jewel or Fiona Apple getting away with?). But in DiFranco’s case, it’s the joyful dance of a sexually ambiguous, street-punk David over a fallen corporate Goliath. The Li’l Folksinger has managed to do the impossible: She’s taken on the mostly white, patriarchal, multinational behemoth known as the music industry — and won, mainly because she’s besting the boys at their own game by rewriting the rules.

“I have no interest in fame and fortune,” she told Pulse magazine last year. “I’m more into social movements and making noise, stirring people up, traveling and communicating. I want to make a community and be based in the world, not within the corporate system of greed and amassing fame. That’s why I started my own company.”

That company is probably the best example of what would happen if DiFranco’s dreams for America ever came true. RBR’s small office, located in her hometown of Buffalo, N.Y., employs 15 people (including her mom). DiFranco makes sure her CDs are produced there, the CD jackets are printed there, and the T-shirts (carefully assembled from ecologically safe materials) are manufactured there. It’s a way, she says, to give something back to her community.

But all of that just gets us to the really interesting part: Now that DiFranco is becoming a public figure of the same magnitude as those whose position as media icons she initially set out to subvert, her fans (and, of course, the ever-slavering media) are wondering how she’ll handle her success — how she’ll deal with no longer being an underdog. If her latest CD, Little Plastic Castle, is any indication, she’s doing just fine. On this, her 11th disc, DiFranco has narrowed (or perhaps broadened) her gaze, to focus primarily on human relationships.

Could this be a kinder, gentler Ani DiFranco? Not unless you consider the continued presence of her trademark percussive guitar work, her trillingly melodic voice, and her compelling indictments of society’s faults and foibles to be signs of “kinder and gentler.” Admittedly, on earlier albums, her witty, cutting observations tended to have a certain edge. Yet her feminism and her social indictments — economic and otherwise — have always been essentially inclusive, as if she sought to use the the strength of her songwriting, her lyrical wit, and her mammoth good intentions to bring us all along.

The new disc continues that campaign. From the ebullient ska of the title song to the Chet Baker-esque late-night love musings on “Pulse,” Little Plastic Castle is exactly the kind of pop album DiFranco wanted and needed at this time in her career. And while it’s not the awesome, career-defining work she has yet to release (it’s too cheeky, too unfocused — and anyway, Living in Clip (Righteous Babe, 1997) fills The Great Ani DiFranco Album bill quite nicely, for now), it’s still a mesmerizing moment in an artist’s continuing journey of self-discovery.

Last summer, Billboard magazine asked DiFranco how she felt about sharing the stage for a few shows with Bob Dylan, another singer who knows a thing or two about becoming an icon. “Bob Dylan is a legend,” DiFranco told the reporter, “the greatest poet of his generation. But when I met him, I realized he’s just a folk singer who loves playing music, a folk singer like me.”

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