Justin Tranter on Ani DiFranco & Her Groundbreaking Use of Same Sex Pronouns
June is a time to honor the LGBTQ community’s rich history and highlight its remarkable achievements. To celebrate Pride Month, Billboard asked modern music stars to pen essays about their favorite queer icons, and how their sounds, lyrics and overall images influenced a new era of artistry.
Hey girl hey, thank the baby jesus jones, come through queen, hallelujah Awomen, Ani Fucking Difranco! I could write so many different essays about this brilliant songwriter slash activist slash guitar player slash performer slash entrepreneur. I could spend paragraphs on her intricate rhyme structures, or how her percussive guitar playing changed the singer-songwriter genre, or how she was one of the first real deal DIY artists to reach so many people. Buuuut since this is for Billboard's 30 Days of Pride I'm going to focus on her lyrical bravery that inspired thousands of young outsiders like me to stay ferociously strong and unapologetically true to ourselves.
I wanna take all y'all back to September 1997. Imagine me, with clear braces, blue eye shadow and an odd lamp shade shape haircut atop my head dyed dark brown with pink and blonde chunks in it (it was '97, if you didn't have chunks you weren't trying). It was the morning after the first night of the student directed, written, performed, and promoted AIDS Benefit show that I created at my high school The Chicago Academy For The Arts. (The annual show still happens 20 years later btw, so if you want to support, hit the school up!) I'm walking through the hallway, probably in a gross '90s platform shoe sitch that all the 20 years olds I write with now are wearing again, when two girls from the benefit show come up to me. They said something like "we just wanted to give you a gift to thank you for putting that all together." Little did Rachel and Stesha know that they just changed my life. Forever ever.
I get home that night and put on the CD they gave me. Ani's Dilate. Let me say it again, Ani DiFranco's Dilate. The first song is "Untouchable Face" and the lyrics immediately start ruining my life in all the right ways.
"To tell you the truth I prefer the worst of you
To bad you had to have a better half
She's not really my type
But I think you two are forever
I hate to say it but you're perfect together
So fuck you and your untouchable face..."
My seventeen year old femme queer head exploded! Did she just say "SHE's not really my type" SHE!!!!!! A she said she. I know for a straight person pronouns in songs don't seem like a big deal at all, but that's because you're used to hearing love songs, break up songs, and sex songs with the pronouns that make sense to your DNA all day every day. But for us LGBTQ folks, we've still never heard an artist use same sex pronouns on the radio, and still very rarely get to hear it even in indie music. So after I got over that magical moment, I then freaked out as a lover of songs that this queen was bold enough to start her chorus with "fuck you." I was in the kind of heaven that only great songs can take a teenager to, and I never wanted to leave.
As I dug deeper into her entire discography I found an obscene amount of lyrical bravery gems waiting for me, and every other kid like me.
Smart kiss offs to bullies:
"Squint your eyes and look closer
I'm not between you and your ambition
I am a poster girl with no poster
I am 32 flavors and then some
And I'm beyond your peripheral vision
So you might want to turn your head
'Cause someday you are gonna get hungry and eat most of the words you just said"
Embracing sexual fluidity:
"Somedays the line I walk turns out to be straight
Other days that line tends to deviate
I got no criteria for sex or race
I just wanna hear your voice
I just wanna see your face"
Dramatic young queer love:
"We met in a dream, we were both 19
I remember where we were standing
I remember how it felt
Two little girls growing out of our training bras
This little girl breaks furniture
This little girl breaks laws"
Then my mom and I started listening to her together and watching my mother scream "YES BITCH" to lyrics like the ones below made me love her even more.
"I'm gonna do my best swan dive
Into shark infested waters
I'm gonna pull out my tampon
And start splashing around"
All of my friends started to bond even deeper than we had before because of Ani's lyrics. We would scream every word of "Fuel" on the train at all the business casual adults talking shit about our morning make up applications. We saw her live countless times and we would all walk out of there feeling like champions. Odd, queer, feminist, art making champions.
Now back to present day me, because as a true creative type, I've made this all about me, or as the kids say: GPOY. When I was lucky enough to work with Halsey on her new song "Bad At Love" I thought about Ani a lot. As Halsey got on the mic and I heard that fabulous raspy tone using male and female pronouns while getting very personal about her love life I thought with the cheesiest smile on my face "this just might do for LGBTQ kids now what Ani did for me then."