Sophomore year, 1991. The darkness outside presses like ears up against the windows of a coffeehouse in the woods. I am sitting about three feet away from her as she stands at the microphone, guitar in hand and each of her fingers taped like a boxer. The strings of her guitar vibrate with a neurotic tremor; her voice shakes the chairs beneath; earthquakes are possible in upstate New York.
DiFranco is a perfect stone, rough and smooth in all the right places, sloughing away the excess of skin and words, caressing some inner bone. At one point she even admonishes inattentive audience members: "I'm not your stereo. Stop doing your homework and listen to what I'm saying." And what she is saying is a lot. Her lyrics detonate our apathy: "Freedom and democracy/That's the word from Washington every day/Put America to sleep with warm milk and a cliché/Some people are expendable along the way."
After her show the petite feminist with shaved head and large eyes strides out the door to sell a packaged thunderstorm of emotion, wry wit, and ideological warfare out of the back of her little Volkswagen in the shadowy parking lot of this cozy liberal-arts college. As she drives away, I scribble her license plate number on a scrap of paper, sensing beyond reason that I must keep track of this person. I should have known someone like her doesn't vanish. The powerful musk of her strength trails behind her, disguised in exhaust fumes.
Cult hero of lesbians, poster child of riot grrrls, modern-day Joan of Arc with a guitar, entrepreneur. But before she was "matching the big boys one for one" with her do-it-yourself indie label Righteous Babe Records, DiFranco was nineteen years old and moving from her native Buffalo to New York City with a parcel of unrecorded songs and borrowed money for studio time.
Twelve years, almost twice as many albums, and countless touring miles later, DiFranco's recent unconventional bookend release, Revelling/Reckoning, bestows on strangers the same illusion of intimacy I felt that night in the woods. She is still the wide-eyed warrior who could change the world with her voice and her message: Time tests our courage continuously.
On the cover of Revelling/Reckoning, DiFranco is caught midrun in a stark field of snow -- a picture of youth and innocence. In the image of DiFranco at 31, the air is a little colder, and there is no telling what is buried beneath these layers of ice and powder; there is silence and serenity to be found outside the urban sprawl of DiFranco's previous records.
The music in Revelling/Reckoning is as obscuring and revealing as this image itself. Her music has become increasingly layered, bolstered by her talented backing band; the breathless bolt of words, the quiet aching fervor more subdued, controlled even, given over to more complex rhythms and enticing instrumentation. Her narratives are more circuitous now, though the themes of justice, poverty, racism, power, sex, love, and greed are the same, if more complicated, at times even defeated. The rebellious "fuck this time and place" of her youth gives way to sitting "at my kitchen table doing shots of resignation." A decade in, she admits, "Now it's so hard to have faith in anything/Especially your next bold move."
However cautious, DiFranco is still making music, asking tough questions, prodding problems: "I'm wondering what it will take/for my country to rise/First we admit our mistakes/Then we open our eyes." She has never spared herself or her society from scrutiny. "Did you?/Did you do?" asks DiFranco as always. "Did you do all you could?"
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