Which Side Are You On? (The New Ani Difranco Album)

January 18, 2012  |  reviews

I’m pretty excited about this album. I caught the preview when it was up at whichside.net and it came out yesterday, now it’s $3.99 on Amazon for the mp3 download if you’re into that kind of thing. And considering I’m trying to figure out what to do with my massive CD collection that is doing barely anything more than collecting dust, I’m not buying any new CDs anytime soon. Even Ani CDs.

I keep seeing write-ups that say—essentially or literally—”I think it’s safe to say at this point that the Ani many of us grew up on and love dearly (the self-titled/Out of Range/Dilate Ani) is dead and buried.” I find this kind of insulting, like saying that Tori Amos’s newest album isn’t Little Earthquakes, or my mom saying, “my little girl is gone” (hypothetically—my mom would never say that). I guess growth is important to me. These aren’t the only comments being made: in this Bitch Magazine interview says, “As I grew up and went on to college, Ani’s music came with me. ” But I hear the other kind of commentary more frequently.

I think there is a larger point attempting to be made with comments like that above, which is if you let go of your old expectations and really listen to the music she’s creating, there are some amazing things here, too, but I guess we as queer communities are holding too closely to the idealized Ani from the 90s. Personally I loved her dissonant sounding string of Evolve, Educated Guess, and Knuckle Down, I loved Reprieve, though I didn’t listen to Red Letter Year much. Not because it was happy, but because the lyrics and music seemed so thin.

But this one … more dense, more things to sink my teeth into. I’m glad to hear her use the word “feminism” in a song, though I question a little bit the nuance of her conversation in “Which Side.”I guess I like seeing the grey in-between things, and less worried about which side of the black or white.

Maybe I’ll get a more nuanced understanding of it after I spend more time with the album. I just downloaded it last night and look forward to having it on repeat today. Curious what your thoughts are—do you love the old Ani? Do you, like Jesse James, think her edge ended when she sang “I’m not angry anymore”? Are you looking forward to this album, do you like what you’ve heard?

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13 Comments


  1. I saw her perform in Northampton this year and it was literally the rudest audience I have ever seen. I’ve been to more polite death metal concerts. The only time people cheered was when she was playing things she’d written when she was 18 and 20 and angry; any time she played her new jazzy stuff some asshole dude would start yelling out ancient songs he wanted instead. (Some of her new songs were kind of patronizing, but all of them were far more musically complex and interesting than her old stuff.)
    In the meantime people were holding on conversations while she played, others loudly complaining about the music she was playing. These tickets were $125+; I didn’t understand why you’d waste that much money for something you were going to talk through.

    It really felt like watching a child actor be asked to say their catch phrase from when they were 5. These were people who wished they’d seen her twenty years ago, not people who wanted to see who she was now. I’ve seen James Taylor, Judy Collins, John Denver and many other used-to-be-bigger musicians and never encountered this dynamic before.

    I wonder if it is because of the emotional investment in her early, angry movement. The people who are willing to pay that much to see her might feel a personal connection to her music, such that if she’s moved on, if she has grown and changed, they interpret it as an attack on their identity. It becomes an accusation: “I’m not 18 anymore; why are you still in that place?” However the audience was interpreting it, it led to an outpouring of gendered hostility that made the concert quite uncomfortable.

    • Wow—thanks Beth. I haven’t seen her live in quite a few years but even in 2008/2009, I thought the audience was pretty rude too. That’s interesting what you said about “they interpret it as an attack on their identity” & “an accusation” … I think you’re onto something there.

  2. I actually run Fuck Yeah! Queer Music, so thank you for engaging with my review!

    I perhaps could’ve worded it better, but I was trying to get at the second point you were making. Many people have a deep, deep connection to early-mid 90s Ani (myself included), but she hasn’t made music like that in a long while, even though it feels like people still expect that from her. I love (LOVE) Reprieve, and think it is one of her best albums, and Red Letter Year has grown on me immensely since it was released. That being said, Which Side Are You On? just isn’t a strong album. It has really brilliant moments, but doesn’t really work as a whole the way many of her previous efforts have.

    I’ve really enjoyed following Ani’s evolution in her sound, it just didn’t really work this time. But I’m really intrigued to hear your thoughts on it once you give it a few listens.

    • Hi Zach, thanks for chiming in, and glad you found my response to your response. Yeah you went on to say lots of other things in that review which I appreciated, and it didn’t seem like you were whining about the lack of the 90s Ani, though I am seeing & hearing that all over and it bugs me. I agree about Reprieve. I should go back to Red Letter Year but every time I turn it on I tend to, well, turn it off.

      I’m still getting used to Which Side, so not sure what I think about it as a whole album, but there are a lot of songs, lines, and sounds that I’m really into. I think it works really well. But that’s the beautiful thing about music (and reviews)—it’s all so subjective.

  3. this is funny- i had a dream a couple of nights ago that i was at an ani difranco concert with you. probably reading queer blogs too late at night before bed…

  4. Some of these songs seem amazing, some not so much. This is the first album I’d consider buying in a very long time.
    I will admit however that I opened the video and went to a different screen and couldn’t figure out why she had made such a random song! #headdesk.
    PS If you need someone to take your CD collection off your hands, I have lots of shelves ;)

  5. The first several tracks were not so much my thing on the first listen. When “What if yr not” came on I was thrilled! Every song after was amazing but I wish she would have had the flourish of sounds enter way sooner cause I was sitting hearing it in my head well before it arrived thinking, “A flourish of sounds would be great here..”. Maybe a more typical song model of flourish, little to no sound besides guitar, then flourish again, may have worked better.

    I also grew up listening to Ani and I have an affinity for her earlier works. It felt great seeing the reflection of my feelings validated on the stage or in passion in her songs. She has mellowed out with time and seems to be looking to reinvent her sound yet again even from reconking / reveling and evolve albums. It’ll be interesting to see how she grows and changes but I do miss the ‘fuck you, I’m telling it like it is’ truth slayer songs she once produced.

    More than likely she is no longer writing the hopes and dreams of the audience she has incurred and has moved on to writing simply for herself alone. I think this is apart of every artist’s proccess.

    When I was younger I could get lost in her music thankful someone was saying what I was thinking. Now, I can’t relate to it all. She’s working in a different space. Maybe like all relationships, we’ve just grown apart.

  6. the quality of this album notwithstanding: it is the nature of the (old union song) “which side are you on” to depict the stark choices we are presented with by capital, and by class struggle. if anything, her weak call to “vote” together is a betrayal of the spirit of the orignal. in other words, the historical tradition of this song supercedes a weak liberalilsm that can’t manage the courage of the partisan.

  7. i love ani’s work – old and new – because i like seeing her differences, how she changes, and how her music changes. i don’t love all her albums equally, of course, but i am weary of all the “ani-critique” like she’s some rare species of flower-savior-goddess who is supposed to always be x,y, or z, and always always, always supposed to be what it is we wanted her to be in that moment. i really like this album…. some of the songs really resonate for me right now. i also saw her in noho last year (dec 2011), and while i was having a *really bad night* for un-ani-related reasons, it was a fun concert – especially when melissa ferrick joined her at the end. :) i wish we would all stop girl-politic-whatever policing poor ani and her music and enjoy her for who and what she is in any given moment. isn’t that what we are all wanting for ourselves too? i know i’m tired of feeling policed.

    • Well said, yes. I find it interesting how our culture (e.g. the queer communities) are so hung up on her particular messaging and emotional content from 10-15 years ago. Almost like we’re stuck, developmentally, as a whole. I’m definitely curious how we keep working to elevate that and grow—and stop policing.

  8. I’m so glad to see this discussion happening here. It’s something I’ve been back and forth on, in my own mind, for a long time. I remember being 17 or 18 when “up up up up up up” came out (man that’s obnoxious to type)..my best friend/ex and I had driven up to the nearest college town to the little record store where all the counter culture kids hung out, just to buy this CD. Then we drove the hour home listening to it, both with quizzical expressions.

    And I remember my friend saying, “You know, I think that’s the problem. She’s actually not angry anymore, and we still have so much to be angry about.” And we did. We were the first two people out of the closet at a godawful little redneck high school in NC, and we were struggling every day, and we were hanging onto Ani’s older music for dear life, so to speak. So it stopped resonating with us.

    It was another few years before I was able to go back and start appreciating some of the songs off that album, and the few that came after. Truth be told, I think some of my problem (and I have to assume this must be true for at least some others) was that I felt that she was somehow less queer…when I was that angry kid, I had a lot of trouble with the implications I saw in someone who was bisexual ending up in a straight relationship and “abandoning” the difficulties of being queer.

    I ended up loving Revelling/Reckoning, and saw her live about the time of So Much Shouting/So Much Laughter. It was a big venue, up in Cincinatti, and I don’t remember anyone being rude, but then she did play a lot of older songs. That night was the first time I ever heard “Self Evident” because SMS/SML wasn’t actually out yet, and it was really only after that, that I started to appreciate the music that had come in between.

    These days I haven’t heard her last couple of albums because I just don’t spend as much time thinking about music anymore. I might have to download this one just to see what I think…but again, I’m really just glad to have found this conversation happening somewhere.

  9. I haven’t gotten to listen to this new album yet but I’m so glad that Ani is still producing music. I find that whenever I listen to a new album – new or old, as I still haven’t gotten to hear all of them – initially I hate it. It grates on me. Then it grows on me. Then I memorize the songs.

    I’m glad you support the evolution of this artist. When I bought Revelling/Reckoning I was surprised at the jazzyness, but I think it’s interesting. Up Up Up was the first of her albums that I owned, and after that I started backtracking to hear some of the earlier work, so I guess i wasn’t as shocked as some people when she moved away from the angry stuff.

    An artist should be allowed to grow, make mistakes, and evolve. The result is not always 100% pleasing to the audience but what’s happening is a genuine search for authenticity – rather than a re-hashing of what is popular and familiar.

    Really nice to hear this discussion on allowing this queer icon out of the box that our expectations put her into. Well, I’m bisexual; so she’s MY queer idol now! ;)

  10. i (am really late to the party, and) think that the “dead and gone” perspective you reference is not really antithetical to appreciating growth. it reads to me as more of an acknowledgement of the impact that an artist (piece, album, etc.) had on your life – and an acknowledgement that their current music is not going to have that impact.

    which, actually, has nothing to do with the quality of the music. sometimes you just need very specific things at very specific times in your life – and ani’s early music is a good example of what many of us really needed to hear as baby queers.

    it’s a bit confusing to have such a deep love for music that i don’t exactly like, actually. (if that didn’t make sense, what i mean is that there is a fair bit of music that is not to my taste – from ani and many, many, others – that i adore because of its connection to my personal history.

    that said, from what i’ve heard here, i like the more complex style of this.

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