Art that’s smarter than its artist

Nottoway plantation music room

Who says I like right angles? These are not my laws, these are not my rules

I am a longtime fan of Ani DiFranco, the feminist singer-songwriter who has inspired countless young women to declare themselves one-woman armies and who used “Fuck you” as a chorus 15 years before Cee-Lo. Her music has been in my life since I was 15 or 16, and it was especially important to me as a nascent feminist, queer teenager who didn’t yet have the internet to tell her that she wasn’t alone in her world. “I know I can’t be the only whatever-I-am in the room” was basically the motto of my internal monologue from 16-21. I stopped keeping up with her new music in the early 2000s, but there is a part of my brain dedicated to Living in Clip, and I suspect that will always be the case.

I say all this because this week, Ani fucked up so, so hard, and then she fucked up worse in apologizing for the fuckup. The short version: Ani announces a feminist songwriting retreat to be held in Louisiana… at a former plantation that’s now some kind of luxury hotel. A plantation that, in its own PR materials, says this kind of thing:

Considering his slaves to be valuable tools in the operation of his business, Randolph provided the necessary care to keep them in good health. He understood the importance of hygiene in controlling the spread of illnesses and disease, so he provided a bathhouse where slaves could bathe daily if they wished. He also had a slave hospital; he paid a local physician to make weekly visits and trained one of the slaves as a nurse to care for his slaves.

Ever the astute businessman, Randolph knew that in order to maintain a willing workforce, it was necessary to provide not only for his slaves’ basic needs for housing, food and medicine, but to also offer additional compensation and rewards when their work was especially productive. Every New Year’s Day, John Randolph would give the field slaves a hog to cook and the Randolph family would eat with them in The Quarters. There would be music and dancing, and the Randolphs would give the slaves gifts of clothing, small toys and fruit, as well as a sum of money for each family. In addition, the workers received an annual bonus based on their production.

 It is difficult to accurately assess the treatment of Randolph’s slaves; however, various records indicate that they were probably well treated for the time.

Honest to god, that’s what they say in their cheerful “about our historical atrocity” page. John Randolph was so great, he let his slaves see a doctor! He gave them food! Huzzah!

So: a very loud and very righteous protest, led by women of color, hits the feminist internet as soon as people figure out that this shit is going on. Fans like me are completely boggled and horrified that Ani could be so clueless, only to be more horrified when she cancels the retreat (good) and issues a classic fauxpology (bad) for the whole debacle. Her apology is so bad, I would rather you read Mallory Ortberg’s parody of it. It’s spot-on.

As a fan, I am tremendously disappointed right now. I also can’t get her damn music out of my head, because every time I look at Twitter I see her name come up — and I still love her songs, I just do. And what I keep circling around in my head is that her songs are part of what steered my worldview into caring about social justice and historical discourse, to question why we are told Official Versions of histories when it is outrageously obvious that there are other histories running beneath any official story. In other words, I keep thinking this: Ani’s songs are smarter than Ani is.

Take “Hello Birmingham,” which links racial violence, sexual violence, and anti-choice domestic terrorism to portray the helpless yet urgent duty to vote.

Even more to the point, in my opinion, is my favorite verse from “Not a Pretty Girl” — a verse that got me through the vicious trolldom that came in my former incarnation as a feminist body acceptance blogger.

i am not an angry girl
but it seems like i’ve got everyone fooled
every time i say something they find hard to hear
they chalk it up to my anger
and never to their own fear
and imagine you’re a girl
just trying to finally come clean
knowing full well they’d prefer you
were dirty and smiling

I can’t make the woman who wrote that (nearly 20 years ago, christ) with the woman who wrote this yesterday:

i know that the pain of slavery is real and runs very deep and wide. however, in this incident i think is very unfortunate what many have chosen to do with that pain. i cancel the retreat now because i wish to restore peace and respectful discourse between people as quickly as possible. i entreat you to refocus your concerns and comments on this matter with positive energy and allow us now to work together towards common ground and healing.

For god’s sake, Ani, it’s not about their anger! It’s about your own fear! Listen to your songs!

The messy divide between artist and artistic persona is one of the things that most fascinates me about poetry, which has fought this battle many times. Should Ezra Pound receive an award for his poetry when he’s imprisoned for treason? Should the only slightly hidden anti-Semitism of “The Waste Land” read louder when we know more about T. S. Eliot’s personal views? Should Sharon Olds shut up and keep her family out of her work? That said, I don’t know of many instances in which an artist creates a piece of art that says the exact opposite of what comes out of her mouth in her “real” persona. Maybe I’m not thinking broadly enough. Maybe “Untouchable Face” is going through my head too strongly to allow me to be less angry at Ani DiFranco and more contemplative about writers in general.

It’s hard to watch a personal hero self-destruct, whether permanently or not. So many times, when you learn something about an artist or a celebrity you like, it diminishes your admiration of the person. In Ani’s case, her apparent commitment to authenticity and truth-telling in her music makes it nearly impossible to separate the “I” who sings “If you’re not angry, then you’re just stupid and you don’t care” from the “I” that says “i entreat you to refocus your concerns and comments on this matter with positive energy.” Ani, we are not stupid and we do care. You gave some of us the words we are now using to tell you about our anger. Here’s a suggestion for what to do rather than writing more flailing blog posts: maybe listen to Living in Clip a hundred times in a row. It might change your life.

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One response to “Art that’s smarter than its artist

  1. Lady Gaga’s a pretty mainstream example of an artist who says one thing but does another. Her “Born This Way” song is about self-acceptance, but then proceeds to describes minorities as “Orient-made”, “Orient”, and “Chola-descent” with little self-reflection of her own ignorance in using these terms as a white, wealthy-born woman. She speaks about her incredible direct social media connection with her fans, but when her fans begin fat-shaming Adele in droves for having an album that could potentially out-sell hers, she goes radio silent on her platitudes about universal love and non-bullying. Or her utilization of a wheelchair in her show and claims that she is “representing” handicapped individuals in her work.

    My one caveat would be that Gaga’s work and message are nowhere near as deep an examination of social justice themes as Ani’s, and this is likely more to do with the intentional fraudulence of her larger theme of “fame whore” celebrity: say and do whatever will make you the most famous.

    Potentially, Ani’s longer history and more complex examinations of social justice themes make this self-destruction seem more juxtaposed, whereas artists like Gaga (re: Born This Way, Adele, wheelchairs as accessories) or Katy Perry (geisha “costuming”) benefit from the superficiality of their work to be able to engage in the same dismissiveness on an constant and casual basis.

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