The First Time I Heard “Not a Pretty Girl”: Author Miriam Parker on Ani DiFranco

Music Features Ani DiFranco
The First Time I Heard “Not a Pretty Girl”: Author Miriam Parker on Ani DiFranco

People born in the late 1970s and early 1980s don’t really have a generation label. A little too young to be a Gen X-er, a little too old to be a Millennial. We’re between. There have been a few essays written about this trying to name us—Generation Catalano. Generation Y. Xennials. The Oregon Trail Generation. The Between Generation. But one thing that defines most of the women that I know from this era is a shared love of Ani DiFranco. Yes, you have to be a certain type of woman born in these years, probably middle to upper-middle class, with liberal parents and access to music not normally played on the radio. You considered yourself a feminist, but were a little bit appalled by Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan. Maybe you were gay, maybe you weren’t. (Ani kind of was and kind of wasn’t.)

But we were connected by a love of Ani. When the lyrics “I am not a pretty girl/ That is not what I do” exploded out of your CD player, it struck a chord in your heart more than any other lyric that had been sung to you in all your life. Ani DiFranco spoke to women of The DiFranco Generation in a way that nobody ever had or would again.

I learned about Ani Difranco when a new girl moved to town sophomore year of high school. Megan brought with her the ethos of New York City and a huge collection of feminist music, most notably Ani’s Out of Range. We were friends immediately and collaborated on ladymixes featuring songs from that album, as well as Liz Phair, Sarah McLachlan and Bikini Kill. My Nirvana and Red Hot Chili Peppers CDs collected dust in the back of my closet. I suddenly owned a pair of overalls and brown Doc Martens. Not a Pretty Girl came out in 1995, when I was about to start my senior year. I was hooked.

I had never been a true devotee or fan of anything in my life. But I went her concerts, bought the merch; I even volunteered at an outdoor folk festival and slept in a tent so that I could see her for free. (Sleeping in a tent is not exactly my M.O. but I would do anything for Ani.)

Ani DiFranco was a hero to me—she was an independent businesswoman. She had her own record label, Righteous Babe Records, and she was in control of everything: her records, her merch, her tours. She was funny and hip and played guitar with a ferocity that I had never heard before. She was the boss.

When I got to college in 1996, I ended up taking a computer science class for humanities majors and learning how to code HTML. One of the assignments was building a website, and, still addicted to Ani, it was only natural that I built an Ani DiFranco Fan Site. I was very devoted to its upkeep and it became one of the top Ani fan sites in the nascent internet. It got me quoted in the New York Times. The site transcribed the lyrics from all of her albums, posted links to news, and offered to trade tapes (something we did before Spotify playlists!). Trading tapes connected me with women across the U.S. in a meaningful way—we emailed about the songs, talked about which Ani live shows were the best and why, put other fun things in the packages like stickers and pencils. It felt like we were a part of an underground army of smart women who just weren’t satisfied enough by the world we were given. People even sometimes thought that I was Ani DiFranco, addressing me as Ani when they wrote to me, even though it was very clear on the site that I was just a fan. But I liked that too.

By then, it was about so much more than Ani. It was about managing a website which was growing ever-larger. It was also about the other people that I knew in the world, the other women on the listservs, the other women with fan websites, the community that grew up around Ani. That group spent obsessive amounts of time talking about Ani. About what she was doing, what she was wearing, who she was dating. We loved her, but we also often (as the truly devoted so often do) found fault with her.

I also remember when copying those tapes that originally connected us became more irritating than fun. I couldn’t stand to listen to the ones that were the most sought after, and due to my lack of technology, they couldn’t be high-speed dubbed, so I would only copy them when I wasn’t home. The concerts became annoying too. They had gotten too big and the fans were new, and, we felt, not “true” fans. You couldn’t even hear Ani singing because the crowd sang louder—it’s like they weren’t there for her anymore, they were there for themselves. I stopped going to shows.

The last Ani record that I bought was called Little Plastic Castle which came out in 1998. The title song has a lyric that says, “People talk/ About my image/ Like I come in two dimensions/ Like lipstick is a sign of my declining mind/ Like what I happen to be wearing/ The day that someone takes a picture/ Is my new statement for all of womankind.”

And that was when I realized that she might have started resenting her fans as much as we were starting to turn on her. She disliked being famous, being known, being observed. We could feel her pulling away from us, the true fans.

Being a fan is a life cycle. It starts with innocence, amazement, love, devotion, and then it starts to fade. Your hero disappoints you in small ways. The people around them disappoint you, too. You don’t feel as special for knowing someone edgy and underground when they hit the mainstream. Even though you want your hero to be the most famous person ever, you also want to preserve them for yourself. That is how me, and maybe many other women of Generation DiFranco felt. We were fans until we were disillusioned. We loved until we were betrayed. We were Righteous Babes.

But maybe just a little, we still believe that every tool is a weapon if you hold it right and that we are 32 flavors and then some. Which is totally, totally okay.

Miriam Parker is the author of the novel The Shortest Way Home, out July 31 on Dutton.

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