When You’re A Big Star, Will You Miss The Earth
It was the late 90’s, before Spotify and iTunes, Napster and MP3s. Albums didn’t drop onto streaming services and immediately upload onto our phones. Corporate-run radio stations dictated who heard what, when. Rebellious youth tried to fight the system. Grunge bands sued the conglomerate Ticketmaster for their concert-tour monopoly. Women in babydoll dresses and Doc Marten boots kicked and elbowed their way to the top of the charts by singing about something other than love, marriage, and men. But it was still a pretty-patriarchal game. That is, until a feisty singer-songwriter arrived on the scene.
Out Of Habit
Today we celebrate 25 years of Ani DiFranco’s Living in Clip. An album that not only empowered millions of women, but rewrote the record industry playbook.
The story starts in the 1970’s in Buffalo, New York – a once bustling steel city, famous for the Erie Canal. There, a nine-year-old Ani DiFranco got her first acoustic guitar. She met a guy named Mike, who she describes as, “a local songwriter, troubadour, gigging, barfly kind of poetry and philosophy reading, sort of an intellectual, but also an alcoholic, and real character. Like the unofficial mayor of Buffalo. Everybody knew him. He took me under his wing, and he started bringing me to his shows. And I was playing with him when I was a little kid in bars.”
At 18 Ani moved to New York City for a stretch. “I was walking down 12th Street; I saw this sign that said, ‘The New School for Social Research,’ and I was like, ‘What’s that’? I signed up for Feminism 101 right away, and I encountered all of these amazing thinkers who taught me to question all my presumptions, and things that I was accepting, to really start honing in on, ‘Why do I feel bad all the time?’, disconnected, not sure if I even exist in many ways. It’s because all of my ways of thinking are coming from outside of me, and even the language that I use to process is a patriarchal design. So really starting to unpack all of that, by reading these second-wave feminists Audre Lorde and bell hooks, Carol Gilligan and Alice Walker, the list goes on and on…”
The unpacking happened out loud, over a guitar, on bar and club stages. DiFranco openly examined where all the rules came from; who they benefitted, who they oppressed and how they informed her direct experience. Ani recounts, “I made a record like a two-track recording, voice and guitar, straight to two-track tape, just DAT tapes. I did it in a couple hours and there’s my first album, and the second one was like that. But right in the beginning, I wrote ‘Righteous Records.’ Just as a sort of, it was a joke with myself, [She makes a funny voice] ‘Like yes, I got a record company, you’re talking to the CEO.’ I put an address on that cassette and letters started coming in. You remember those days, right? Talk about pre-internet. Letters would come into that P.O. Box and say, ‘Can Ani come play? We have $150 from the women’s center at whatever college, and can she come play the take back the night parade?’ My answer was ‘f*ck yes,’ every time. It was organically through that first cassette really that I started touring.”
Over the next decade DiFranco would evolve into a fixture of college towns, folk festivals, feminist marches, reproductive rights rallies, as well as environmental and political cause events. She and band members Andy Stochansky and Sara Lee traveled by a beat-up van, and then eventually a bus. They felt like real pros when they could finally afford a front-of-house soundman. An essential member of any touring act.
Sounds Like A Whole New Show
The group recorded their performances throughout 1995-1996. They strung them together onto a two CD set, complete with tour photos, liner notes and lyrics; an immersive experience in the days when you could hold art in your hands. Living in Clip – the seemingly autobiographical album (affectionately named for the road amps that were always about to blow) ushered in a new era of folk rock. Ani’s bare-it-all honesty transported listeners out of their suburban bedrooms and college dorms into a new paradigm where “business as usual” was no longer welcome. She offered differing lenses from which to view social politics, the emotional aftermath of the sexual revolution, the collateral damage of casual relationships, the perception of strong women, vulnerable women and the stigma they had to be one of the other. She was one of the first to openly sing about bisexuality, abortions, one-night stands, and the like. Each song was (and is) an anthem, giving voice to a new generation desperately seeking an updated vocabulary.
The Living in Clip groundswell began in independent record stores in the North-East. Soon Indys and the big chains across the country sought the double-disc. The words the [she said in the funny voice]) CEO had scribbled on an old cassette evolved into an independent record label, “Righteous Babes Records.” “I didn’t have a grand plan, nor did anyone I hired. We were garbage picking our furniture in the office, this little one room in downtown Buffalo… All I knew was what I didn’t want to do. I got interest from record labels and I had lunches and dinners and meetings, and I just felt like ‘eww’ every time. Not that they’re bad people, but it’s like these are not my people, these are not my revolutionary people. So I knew I didn’t want to go there, because I felt like that would change everything.”
Press from major magazines wanted a glimpse of the musical-activist who remembers, “They would hardly say anything, but they would come to take my picture, that’s how it starts. And every photo shoot, I felt like a soulless corpse afterwards. It would take one photo shoot in that world for me to question my existence.” Although she stayed true to herself, and her audience, the “machine” did continue to come calling, the track “Shy” was nominated Grammy for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance and Rolling Stone magazine called Living in Clip “One of the most important recordings of the ‘90s.”
And It Helps Her Through Her Day
Over the last 25 years, thousands of women have shared anecdotes with Ani of how the album changed their life, “The stories that have come back over the years are just all really specific and beautiful. Some of them are more like, ‘You saved me. I didn’t kill myself, because I had your music to know that I existed.’ Certainly saving somebody from annihilation, from doom, is a great feeling. But I think some of my favorite letters and reflections are,‘I started off somewhat okay, I got your music and then I f*cking x, y, z I slayed. I came into my own power, I started doing my own thing, which is this, and here’s what I’ve been doing.’ Which so many inspirational people doing cool ass shit….”
When a now-40-something fan recently gushed about how much this album changed her teenage life, Ani simply stated, “Well they (second-wave feminists) did that for me, I did that for you, you’ll do that for somebody, and that’s how women become themselves I think…”
Living in Clip
To join the many thousands who have been changed by this album, see Ani on tour this summer; AniDiFranco.com
Living In Clip Vinyl 25th anniversary re-Issue is now available at Righteous Babe Records here.