Lyrically, the new CD finds DiFranco looking at herself from a wide range of viewpoints. Sometimes she's on the outside of the fish bowl, trying to get a handle on her persona: In "Little Plastic Castle," she sings, "People talk about my image/Like I come in two dimensions/Like lipstick is a sign of declining mind/Like what I happen to be wearing/The day that someone takes a picture/Is my new statement for all of womankind." On other occasions she celebrates lust: "Independence Day" includes the lines "I got a big cherry bomb/And I wanna slip it through the mail slot/Of your front door." But she's also capable of incisive character portraits such as "Two Little Girls," in which she watches a junkie racing headlong toward oblivion. The conclusion is particularly cinematic and wrenchingly effective: "I guess I'll just stand here with my back against the wall/While you distill your whole life down to a 911 call."
This rhyme, like all the choicest DiFranco couplets, are poetic but not pretentious, and so, too, is the woman who wrote them. As soon as she thinks she's sounding even slightly pompous, she zings herself before anyone else gets the chance. She grants that "I've always written very naturally. I've always written the way that I talk--and hopefully, I'm getting better at it." But rather than expand upon this point, she says simply, "Here's hoping. Otherwise, take me out behind the barn and shoot me." Likewise, she undercuts a discussion about her studio technique by claiming, "I've made some crazy-sounding records, many of which I'm mortally embarrassed about." When asked to name some names, she replies, "How about the first ten?"
In fact, the only thing wrong with DiFranco's initial albums is that they're less singular than her subsequent efforts. Ani DiFranco, from 1990, has plenty of thematically daring material--"Lost Woman Song," for instance, is a smart narrative about a young girl getting an abortion--but its music only occasionally rises to the level of her ideas. On Imperfectly, which arrived two years later, she begins the process of mythologizing herself on several cuts: "In or Out" finds her teasing listeners about her sexual preferences (she's been in relationships with both men and women), and "Make Them Apologize" dares male peers with the declaration "I'm not on the rag/But I'm not on the run/I am matching the big boys one for one/And I must admit I am having myself some fun."
Boisterous sentiments like this one pop up again and again in DiFranco's work from this period, but most critics missed them somehow. Instead, she was defined by her appearance--short-cropped hair, nose ring, tattoos--and her willingness to lose her temper in song when the subject required it. "Angry--that word used to be the adjective that I'd hear over and over," she recalls. "And to anybody who knows me, it's always been unbelievably ridiculous. I just think the fact that I've always had a real political bent to my life and to my music translates in the press as anger. And the pierced-and-tattooed thing is just as silly. I have a hole in each ear and one in my nose, but I'm probably less pierced than most urban people under the age of thirty, and I'm hardly the tattooed woman in the circus. It's all part of the stereotype. Talking about that stuff is another way of getting around what I'm actually about."
Not a Pretty Girl, from 1995, did a better job of revealing DiFranco's character than any of her previous discs; it proved that she could make an album as fascinating as she is from start to finish. But it took 1996's Dilate, a pitiless dissection of love lost that's still her finest moment on disc, Living in Clip, a sprawling double live package, and Little Plastic Castle to finally underscore her potential. So clear has it become that she's built to last that Work, a subsidiary of the Sony juggernaut, took the unusual step of asking DiFranco to produce Fifty Eggs, an album by one of its signees, singer-songwriter Dan Bern (see "Let It Bern," April 17, 1997). For DiFranco, who's spent her career railing against the evils of big labels, climbing into the jaws of the beast was unnerving.