Ani DiFranco, musician

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"We've had a lot of offers to get involved with majors, but I'm not interested in supporting or perpetuating the corporate world," she says. "But I'm also not interested in letting corporations prevent art from happening, or letting them prevent me from working with somebody whose work I'm interested in, and who I respect. And since I think Dan is a great songwriter, I wasn't about to let that happen. So I just concentrated on what it was about for me, which was working with Dan."

Predictably, DiFranco set firm ground rules about interference before she and Bern set foot in front of a soundboard. "They pretty much had to leave me alone," she says. "That was the agreement, and since I think they had a vested interest in having me on the project, they said, 'OK, sure.' But politically, it was not the most entertaining thing. It's not what I want to do--to work with, let alone for, major labels."

For the most part, Work representatives were too cowed to break their pact with DiFranco. But in the process of completing Fifty Eggs, she remembered one of the reasons she likes to go it alone. "I've always dreamt of working with other people on their music, like on the Utah Phillips project that I did," she says, referring to The Past Didn't Go Anywhere, a Phillips-DiFranco collaboration from 1996. "That was really great for me, because there's so much less baggage when it's not my music. I'm much freer to enjoy it and get excited. But what I forget about working in other people's music is that it means working with other people--and that sometimes can be difficult. So it was a real learning experience for me all the way around in terms of working with various musicians, with the artist, with the label. There was a lot of negotiating, to say the least."

Apparently, DiFranco won most of these sessions, because Fifty Eggs is as raw and unadorned as anything put out by a major in ages. Unfortunately, it's also erratic: Bern is a humorous, biting observer of humanity, and his unwillingness to capitulate to the polite side of the folk genre is obvious from the very first song, "Tiger Woods," in which he declares, "I got big balls / Big old balls / ...And on my really good days / They swell to the size of small dogs." But a steady diet of similarly wild, stream-of-consciousness sentiments ultimately becomes wearying and makes him seem less substantive than he actually is.

Still, DiFranco fanciers will be interested in at least one Bern composition, "Chick Singers." Throughout the tune, Bern vacillates between paying tribute to current artists such as P.J. Harvey, Bjsrk, Courtney Love, and DiFranco herself and questioning the way in which these women are marketed. As he puts it, "Sometimes these days, don't it seem like it's enough for / Girls to love a girl or use the 'f' word prominently / Masturbate in public or learn guitar tied up to a post?"

"That's all true," DiFranco says. "There's all this sort of music-industry hype and cultural hype over 'chick singers,' you know. And the industry's figured out how to sell them based on those things--but that hasn't stopped certain people from exceeding expectations. And I'd hate for the work of actual people making actual music to be demeaned by some kind of 'girl power' fad."

If that sounds like a Spice Girls slam, it shouldn't. Not entirely, anyway. "To somebody like me, the Spice Girls appear as the specter of the Antichrist," she confesses. "But I try to look at it and think, how damaging could it be for 5-year-old girls to giggle and yell 'girl power'? I'm impressed by the fact that young women and girls are even hearing those kinds of messages. And as empty and hollow as they may seem to us, maybe they'll give young girls a beginning of a consciousness about themselves. And maybe by the time they start growing some pubic hair, they'll become more interested in actual feminism and real politics, and not that sort of vapid, bumper-sticker sloganeering.

"I don't think my songs have ever really made good bumper stickers. We've actually tried. The people at the merchandise tables have been asking for stickers for years, and we've tried to look through the songs and find little sound-bitey things, but it just doesn't work." She chuckles. "Which I've tried to look at as a positive thing."

She takes much the same view of Lilith Fair, an all-female tour embraced by audiences seemingly startled to discover that a lot of women are making music these days. "Lilith Fair is not the festival that I would put together if I was coming up with a chicks-making-noise festival," DiFranco admits. "I think I would generally have a somewhat more diverse group of women musicians." But at the same time, she says, "there's something really interesting about listening to a cast of women musicians over the course of a day and coming away with a sort of resounding voice in your mind that's just slightly higher-voiced than the one you usually hear.

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Michael Roberts
Contact: Michael Roberts