Ani DiFranco’s Overlooked Classic
Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill is considered by many to be something of a cultural artefact or even a joke, but there’s no denying that it was a huge-selling record. So it’s a source of some irritation to me that there was a much better album released within a month of it that very few people have heard of: Ani DiFranco’s Not a Pretty Girl.
I make the comparison between the two records not simply because both were recorded by forthright North American women, but because they have a similar sound and tone. But I think DiFranco’s songs have much more depth than Alanis’s straightforward tunes. Basically, if Jagged Little Pill is music for Starbucks then this album is music for that cool coffee independent coffee shop that has a name like “Foam.”
It’s always tempting to write about the artist rather than the music they produce, but in this case I think it’s appropriate. When she started out in the early 1990s, DiFranco didn’t want to become a record industry puppet. So she formed Righteous Babe Records, a label to distribute her albums. Launching a career without record label support is common now; many successful artists have done it. I’m looking at you Macklemore (but not listening to you though). But in the early 1990s, this was much rarer thing, because the big record companies ruled the music world like the Five Families once ruled New York.
Her DIY-aesthetic extended to the studio, too. There is only one other performer on the album: drummer/percussionist Andy Stochansky, but at no point does the musical side seem sparse or lacking. She’s a fierce acoustic guitarist and makes the instrument sound percussive but can also use delicate finger plucking. All in all, she makes the use of electric guitars seem like a performance-enhancing drug.
Lyrically, she’s also very skilled. Her lyrics deal with lost love, but they rarely descend into musical rants. There’s only one song where she really gets into Morissette-like resentment: “The Million You Never Made” seems to be taking aim at record company types. Possibly the biggest misstep is the inclusion a brief spoken-word track. It’s clearly influenced by the Beat Poets, but ends up becoming a bit Portlandia-esque.
Possibly the best song is the album’s title track:
I am not a pretty girl
That is not what I do
I ain’t no damsel in distress
And I don’t need to be rescued
So put me down, punk
Maybe you’d prefer a maiden fair
Isn’t there a kitten stuck up a tree somewhere?
By rights, this song should have been a rallying cry for young women in the 1990s. So why wasn’t it? It wasn’t because the record got bad reviews; Robert Christgau, Rolling Stone and Slant all gave it very high marks. It wasn’t a distribution issue either; she had recently signed a deal with a major independent distributor, thereby ensuring that the album was stocked in many record stores. I can only put it down to the fact that without the push of a major label, she didn’t get much radio play. While it’s very admirable of her go down the independent route, Ani DiFranco really did have a message and it’s a shame that not enough people got to hear it. Now that music so easily available on the internet, maybe people will.