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Ani DiFranco, Bob Dylan and The Dangers of Identity Politics

Beware of allowing your identity to be a canvas on which other people paint their politics. 

March 2, 2018

I started listening to Ani DiFranco in 1995, when I was in college and she had just put out Not a Pretty Girl, still one of my favorite albums.

Of all the influential intellectual and artistic figures of my undergraduate years (Cornel West, bell hooks, Paulo Freire), Ani DiFranco probably best embodied the identity politics fervor I was in at the time. The personal and political were fused for her in a visceral way. It poured out of her lyrics (‘cause silence / is violence / in women and poor people) and it burst from her pores when she was on stage. 

But one of the downsides to singing about how your identity drives your politics is that other people start to demand their politics from your identity. Even worse, they start to tell you what your politics should be, and how they should be represented in your person. That’s disfiguring for any human being, and fatal for artists.

As she evolved, it seemed clear to me that Ani wanted some distance from people requesting strident political statements out of every song. I am thirty-two flavors and then some, was her lyrical response to that.

I caught Ani at the Park West in Chicago this past weekend. Twenty albums into a remarkable musical career, she’s still able to light the stage on fire. She opened with one of my favorites, Little Plastic Castle, in which she sings:

People talk

About my image

Like I come in two dimensions

Like lipstick is a sign of my declining mind.

Ani is not the first musician to want some separation from other people’s political demands. I’ve been going back through my Bob Dylan catalogue recently, and am struck by his evolution from Woody Guthrie-styled folkie to rock-and-roll pioneer.

The shift was especially fraught because (for reasons that seem like a strange curiosity now but I’m sure made perfect sense at the time) the anti-war movement of the early 1960’s believed that acoustic music, political orthodoxy and personal integrity were somehow intertwined. The older generation had icons like Pete Seeger who upheld this definition of purity, and the younger ones felt like they had found their spokesperson in Bob Dylan.

“And here he is,” one of the old time folkie’s told the crowd at the Newport Folk Festival in the early 1960’s. “Take him, he’s yours.”

“What a crazy thing to say,” Dylan reflected in his memoir, Chronicles. “Screw that.” He wasn’t interested in being a blank piece of paper on which other people inscribed their orthodoxies. 

In 1965 he shocked that same folk festival by bringing a rock band on stage and singing Maggie’s Farm:

Well I try my best

To be just like I am

But everybody wants you

To be just like them

They sing while you slave and I just get bored

I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s Farm no more

Pete Seeger threatened to cut the cord on him. Half the crowd booed.

Dylan decided he’d rather endure boos than suffer other people’s wishes. He brought his electric guitar to England, took in the hisses on the other side of the Atlantic, and responded to a fan who called him Judas by saying, “I don’t believe you. You’re a liar”. Then he turned and told his his band to “Play it f***ing loud.” They promptly went into a historic version of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’: 

How does it feel

To be on your own, with no direction home

A complete unknown

Like a rolling stone

Go back and listen to those early electric albums by Dylan (Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde), revel in his genius, and be glad that he didn’t allow his identity to be a canvas on which other people painted their politics.

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Eboo Patel

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