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Music: Jagged little souls

Music | What are feminist rockers Ani DiFranco and Alanis Morissette so angry about?

Issue: "Passing of a peacemaker," Feb. 20, 1999

It's tempting to see Ani DiFranco and Alanis Morissette as nothing more than rock-and-roll embodiments of Angry Young Feminism, especially since both of them are, in fact, rock-and-rolling Angry Young Feminists. From the war against taste implicit in their fashion sense (Miss DiFranco often wears tank tops, the better to reveal her tattoos and unshaven armpits; Miss Morissette often wears nothing) to the emotional insecurity explicit in their self-absorbed, anti-patriarchal rantings, they seem intent on having their alienation and wielding it too. And alienated they are-sometimes from reality itself. In "'Tis of Thee," for instance, the opening selection on her latest album Up Up Up Up Up Up, Miss DiFranco equates anti-vagrancy laws with "criminalizing the symptoms" as if one man's symptoms weren't a wiser man's disease. In "Trickle Down" she blames the lay-offs at the local factory on Reaganomics as if Bill Clinton hadn't been president for the last seven years and George Bush for four years before that. Miss Morissette appears to be alienated not only from Republican legislation, but from everyone she's ever known. In "Unsent," the latest single from her second album, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, she bids adieu to no fewer than five former lovers and gives no impression of having learned how to make her sixth man her last. Her persona in many of the album's other songs bears the imprint of the psychiatrist's couch as well. One is even called "The Couch." Still, for all of their archness, both women evince a vulnerability. Yes, they overreact to the hurt they've suffered in their relatively brief lives (both women are under 30) and use it to justify musical and stylistic excess. And, yes, they flat-out overdo what they do (Up Up Up Up Up Up is Miss DiFranco's 13th album since 1990, and it is, at 17 songs, at least half-a-dozen songs too long). But, in part because of the music along which they're borne, even their least circumspect outpourings sound sincere if not grounded. And although sincerity, especially in the hands of Angry Young Feminists, is sometimes just another word for nothing left to lose, one hesitates to stay angry at either young feminist for long. Both really seem to be doing the best with what they have to put a shattered world back together, even going so far as to refer positively, if cryptically, to church-going, holiness, and the like. Ultimately, alas, neither woman's best is enough. Miss Morissette's dense, Middle-East-inflected electro-rock never turns graceful. Instead, it becomes a bludgeon, opening wounds into which her affected enunciation pours like so much salt. And too often Miss DiFranco's eccentrically structured, largely acoustic folk-rock fails to provide her lyrics with a structure that makes them accessible. But both women have coherent moments. Miss DiFranco even manages to stretch some of her moments into songs. When she does, she covereth a multitude of songwriting transgressions. In her best, the lovely "Angry Anymore," she not only forgives her father unconditionally but does so to a melody well worth humming.

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