Search This Blog

Friday, May 28, 2010

Punk for the Poetry Crowd

I have a confession:

I love Ani DiFranco. I have loved Ani DiFranco ever since my dad (blindly following a record store clerk's suggestion) gave me her live album, So Much Shouting So Much Laughter, for my fourteenth birthday.

Most of DiFranco's negative media attention has come from an unfair labelling of DiFranco as a “lesbian feminazi" -- in spite of her 1998 marriage to a man. One thing is for sure: you will have a strong reaction, in one way or another, to her provocative lyrics, powerfully percussive guitar-playing, and melange of old-school folk, punk, and rock. DiFranco's cult following has formed in spite of (or perhaps because of) her controversial left-wing political views and frankness about her (bi)sexuality. DiFranco has released more than twenty albums in her twenty-year career—which is impressive for its sheer volume, but even more impressive for the fact that she has done it all without the help of a major record company.

DiFranco's sound could be described as folk you can dance to, or maybe punk for the poetry crowd”

-Lori Leibovich (

Over the years, DiFranco's signature sound has evolved and thickened from experimentation with many different instruments. Her fast tempo, slap-tap-bend acoustic style of playing is frequently done with unusual tuning, which varies from song to song (Ouellette 34). As she says, The acoustic is more dynamic. . .The dynamics of an electric guitar is turning the volume knob from one to ten. . . [but] with the acoustic guitar, you can go from a whisper to a scream at the ends of your fingers” (Ouellette 35).

Although well-known for her distinct musical style, DiFranco's lyrics are infamous. Her songs are provocative in a wide range of controversial issues, including sexuality, commercialism, capitalism, abortion, sprawling suburbia, and social consciousness. Describing her agenda, she says,“I think political work comes in all sorts of forms, and one of the least impressive is that of the politician” (Havranek 98).

DiFranco is also well-known for the intimacy of her live performances. Her emotive singing style is every bit as present on the stage as on her albums, ranging from “biting the ends off all the words” to swaying through tender melodies (Stovall 133). In concert, DiFranco has a jocular stage persona, and her self-deprecating sense of humor conveys a humility that one wouldn't expect from such a highly-revered figure (Havranek 96).

It was not like she was an entertainer. She was a person who changed your life. And people really did feel empowered listening to her music”

rock critic Dale Anderson

Despite having seen very little mainstream success, DiFranco has long enjoyed a loyal following – listeners who follow the folksinger so religiously that she has acquired the nickname, the “Ani Lama” (Zimmerman 35). In spite of being reduced to a negative stereotype by the media, she has been innovative in regards to tuning, production, and the marriage of different musical genres. Her contribution, then, is a unique blend of folk, punk, and rock music, thoroughly laced with political discourse and a deeply-rooted philosophy of creativity over commercial exploitation. Love her or hate her, but don't make the mistake of discounting the prolific Ani DiFranco for being “girl music.”

Listen to: “Lag Time” - Ani DiFranco (Knuckle Down)

Ali, Lorraine. "Ani DiFranco." Rolling Stone. 753. (1995): 22. Print.

Havranek, Carrie. Women Icons of Popular Music: The Rebels, Rockers, and Renegades. Portsmouth, NH: Heinema Educational Books, 2008. Print.

Ouellette, Dan. "No Lag Time: Prolific Singer-Songwriter Ani DiFranco Deepens her Relationship with the Guitar." Acoustic Guitar. 15.11 (2005): 34-36, 40-43. Print.

Stovall, Natasha. "Private Babe." Village Voice. 43.8 (1998): 133. Print.

Zimmerman, Lee. "New Releases: Ani DiFranco - "Knuckle Down"." Goldmine. 31.15 (2005): 35. Print.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

A Kid Cudi Conversion

Irish trad music, house music, and the occasional club rendition of Flo-Rida songs are all great things in their own right; but this week, I needed something that was distinctly, unabashedly, unadulteratedly American. In this dark hour, I turned to my usual “Crunk-Up Jams” iTunes playlist, but it wasn't enough—I treated myself to browsing the iTunes store.

That's when I bought Kid Cudi's Man on the MoonThe End of Day, and my cold dorm room in Northern Ireland warmed up.

I realize that Cudi's debut studio album has been in circulation since September of last year, and I confess that his Lady Gaga-sampling, chart-topping single “Make Her Say” made me skeptical of Cudi's legitimacy. Sure, it was a great anthem for a Vanderbilt tailgate, but when I heard the line, “A stripper from the south lookin' for a payday/said b**** you should do it for the love like Ray-J,” I initially dismissed Cudi with the eye roll that I usually reserve for rims-and-hoes rappers.

Turns out Cudi is not even remotely related to the rims-and-hoes rappers. There is the occasional line (as above) that is reminiscent of Snoop Dogg lines, but within the context of the entirity of Man on the Moon, it becomes clear that these rhymes are probably meant to be more ironic than serious.

By the end of 2009, Cudi had a predictable appearance on many Top Albums lists. It's unfortunate (albeit not surprising) that his radio hits have been those perhaps least representative of the album as a whole, which tackles some mature themes. Cudi's songs reflect fears of abandonment, the use of drugs to “see the universe” (“Soundtrack 2 My Life”), the residue of the frustration of being a teenage loner; generally being someone who exists very much inside his head, while he exists physically in the most public sphere possible.

With all of rappers' talk about being “raw,” it seems like Cudi is one of the few who actually achieves this (no hard feelings, T.I. and Lil Wayne). This rawness, too, is realized not through talking about glocks and slingin' weed, but by giving voice to the “so many issues that nobody can see” (“Soundtrack 2 My Life”). Cudi may not be the first to put real emotional content into rap – but it is impressive that his music has attained such commercial success, considering some of the most respectable rappers wouldn't be able to touch the pop charts with a ten foot pole.

What sets Cudi apart is that he's Everyman. His self-effacing lyrics are in sharp contrast to the “bling-bling” culture of popular hip-hop. Millions of Top 40 listeners have heard “Make Her Say” or “Day 'n' Nite,” but only a small percentage of them realize that they're listening to one sample from an album that contains not only addictive beats, but also a heartbreakingly vulnerable invitation into the mind of Cudi.

In “Soundtrack 2 My Life” he laments, “'I am happy', that's just the saddest lie”--not that we wish misery on Cudi, but we hope he stays down-to-earth enough to continue to be able to to “show the kids they ain't the only ones who up at night.” Looking forward to his next album, Man on the Moon 2: The Legend of Mr Rager, due out later this year.

Listen To: "Simple As . . ." - Kid Cudi, Man on the Moon - The End of Day