For most music aficionados, the terms "punk" and "folk" exist at opposite ends of the musical spectrum. But for self-described punk folksinger Ani DiFranco, the two genres are practically one and the same. "In my mind, they aren't all that different," insists the 24-year-old New Yorker. "I mean, the whole appeal of folk music is that it exists at this subcorporate level. And so does punk music--at least traditionally. They're both music of the people, for the people and by the people, made on a subcorporate level, and neither one is really mass-marketed. There's just not mass money in them."
Of course, this situation is changing for many punk-rockers, who've found that you can make a nice living being an MTV darling. But DiFranco is too staunchly independent to take a similar path. A singer-songwriter since the age of fifteen, she's recorded, marketed and distributed six albums on her own Righteous Babe label over the past five years (her seventh disc, titled Not a Pretty Girl, is scheduled to hit stores June 15). During that period, she's sold upwards of 100,000 pressings--a drop in the bucket for most multinational corporations. Nevertheless, DiFranco claims that her artistic integrity is more important than a gold record. She explains her position quite succinctly when she says, "If you want to challenge the system, don't go to bed with it."
"Challenging" is a word that's often used to describe DiFranco's unique approach to songwriting. On the surface, her vigorous acoustic ballads evoke the carefree sensibility associated with mainstream performers such as Ricki Lee Jones and Suzanne Vega. Listen a little closer, though, and you'll discover a lyrical world seething with rage and rapier wit. A case in point is "Tiptoe," a neo-folk rap from Pretty that explores the mindset of a woman preparing herself for a trip to the abortion clinic. "I could step off the end of this pier," chides DiFranco in a scattershot hip-hop tone, "but I got shit to do/And I've got an appointment on Tuesday/To shed uninvited blood and tissue/I'll miss you." In the hands of a more self-important performer, such sentiments could easily be written off as melodramatic or even inflammatory. Yet DiFranco's gutsy delivery gives the lines sustenance; you get the feeling she's just calling things the way she sees them.
DiFranco admits that she's fascinated by all subjects taboo. "There's all these things we don't say to each other," she notes. "Not because they aren't real or because we don't all share them. They just make us feel uncomfortable, because we can't bring ourselves to say them. Which is just sort of silly. To me, there's nothing that's too private or too personal. It's all universal. There's no one experience that any one of us has had."
In an effort to prove this theory, DiFranco refuses to limit herself to a specific audience. As a result, her emotionally charged protest songs have managed to win over fans of practically every description, sometimes in the same evening. After ten years, DiFranco has grown accustomed to the cultural disparities that distinguish her followers. "I'm used to playing to lots of different types of scenes," she remarks. "Because I have an acoustic guitar, I end up playing at a lot of folk festivals, where I end up being the freak. Then, for other reasons, I end up playing a lot of rock festivals. And I'm the freak there, too! I'm, you know, the little girl with the little acoustic guitar. So I guess I do end up straddling different worlds."
Still, DiFranco's unique style often risks becoming lost on less open-minded sorts--particularly the self-conscious rock militants who tend to thumb their noses at anything that isn't loud and fast. But that doesn't mean she thinks she should change. "One of the things that appeals to me about the people at folk festivals is that they're so unpretentious," DiFranco says. "It's beautiful. They all just go out and square dance and talk to each other. If you go to a rock festival, everyone is so fucking scared of each other that nobody even fucking smiles. It's just so fucked up. At folk festivals, if somebody loses their wallet--shit!--people actually return it.
"But then you get all this music that is all just so...folkie-sounding," she adds, chuckling. "Which is disturbing for me. That's where it sort of starts to get lost on me."
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So how does the "This Land Is Your Land" sect react when DiFranco hits the stage?
"Well, some people just kind of look at me sideways and cover up the ears of their children," she concedes. "But overall, it's pretty amazing what you can get away with saying and doing if you just have a smile on your face and you're having a good time."
The 1995 Telluride Bluegrass Festival, with Salt Licks, High Strung, Iris Dement, Chesapeake, Ralph Stanley, Ani DiFranco and Wolfstone. Noon-11:30 p.m. Thursday, June 15, $25, 449-6027.