Ani, Manhattan and the Matrix

I recently realized that I have been a fair-weather fan of Ani DiFranco. My good friend Amanda got me into her a few years ago, thanks to a homemade, amazing, massive, slightly schizophrenic (and I mean this in the oft incorrectly-used medical sense) four-disc compilation that had everything from Allison Krauss and Van Morrison to The Postal Service and G. Love and Special Sauce. And of course, Ani Difranco.

I think the first song I heard of Ani’s that I really liked was “The Arrivals Gate.” There was just something beautiful and true-to-life about her take on people-watching. I mean, people write songs about people-watching all the time, but not like this, first waxing a bit sentimental about people hugging and being happy, then coloring the reality with:

I just wanna drain my pink little heart
Of all it’s malice
And kick back for the afternoon
In this fluorescent palace
 
Everybody’s in a hurry
Here in purgatory
Except for me
I’m where I need to be
 

And the one that made me a fan was “I Know This Bar.” There was this strange, evocative marriage between the instrumental motif and the imagery in her lyrics that I just loved. And the witty play on words sold me:

I know this song
With this one really killer line
I don’t remember it exactly
But it slays me every time

That’s one of the lines that makes me go, “Wow, everyone knows what that means.” During college, I always liked listening to that song at 1 or 2 in the morning when I’m restless enough not to want to go to sleep, but pensive enough to warrant some late night candle-lighting and melancholic self-reflection;)

The banjo from “Not Angry Anymore” just hit me in a certain way, in all its celebratory, weathered and unapologetic claim of happiness. I am always amazed at her seemingly endless supply of wit, insight and defiance that simply forces every listener to constantly reevaluate culture.

Still, I recently realized that Ani is one of those artists that sometimes I hear a tune of hers come on, and I absolutely love the instrumentation and then she starts to sing and I become distracted by some weird voice inflection of hers that is just a bit too edgy for me and the mood I happen to be in. Sometimes there is simply too much pain and honesty and edge and anger in her voice, which is why I avoid her sometimes. Sometimes I just need the vocal simplicity and beauty of Norah or now Mindy.

Her songs hurt. Sometimes they make me mad at her, and I don’t always agree with her political, moral or philosophical assumptions, but more often than not, they alert me to me and my culture’s own insistence on self-obsession, ignorance, comfort, artistic sloppiness and emotional stuntedness.

So all this to say, recently I’ve been getting into Ani again, after a long withdrawal. I heard this song “Fuel” recently off of her new record “Overlap”:

People used to make records
As in a record of an event
The event of people playing music in a room
Now everything is cross-marketing
Its about sunglasses and shoes
Or guns and drugs
You choose

And

Am I headed for the same brick wall
Is there anything I can do about
Anything at all?
Except go back to that corner in Manhattan
And dig deeper, dig deeper this time
Down beneath the impossible pain of our history
Beneath unknown bones
Beneath the bedrock of the mystery
Beneath the sewage systems and the PATH train
Beneath the cobblestones and the water mains
Beneath the traffic of friendships and street deals
Beneath the screeching of kamikaze cab wheels
Beneath everything I can think of to think about
Beneath it all, beneath all get out
Beneath the good and the kind and the stupid and the cruel
There’s a fire just waiting for fuel

It kind of reminded me of a lecture I heard when I took a History of the Holocaust class. Scholars, historians, politicians, social critiquers and the like have dissected the central question that inevitably arises after such a dark, horrific event in human history: How did this happen?

One of the reigning explanations, specifically on the relationship between Hitler and the Holocaust is this fire theory, widely supported by historians today, and loads more nuanced and complex than the simple A + B + C = World War II version we learn in high school. However, in a significantly dumbed down version: the combination of the aftermath and consequences of World War I (an entire generation, in trial by fire, introduced to the horrors of war, not to mention a perfected military technique and technology), the prevalent social Darwinism and biological determinism seeping down into the collective consciousness of the day, dire economic conditions, even the influence of nationalist student fraternities, populism, radicalism, any array of social and political conditions, including a vacuum of political power created the necessary ingredients for the “perfect storm,” a “fire” if you will, that led to the systematic mass killing of 12 million people, for which the rise of Hitler was merely the spark that set the whole of society’s crisp, already waiting-tinder afire.

I don’t know if that’s what Ani meant when she wrote about the fire or the fuel, but that’s the imagery I got: underneath a mass of society and all its concrete and glass, muck and mess of human relationships, there is an assumed invincibility about our culture that is paradoxically understated and passed over, and while often grossly overstated and marketed, but never plainly set forth and acknowledged to be a falsity.

And it’s entirely possible that a spark can come along and expose it for what it truly is, likely with grave consequences.

Security and comfort is an illusion that we buy into daily. I buy into it with my casual use of time and my often mindless consumption in lieu of thoughtful engagement.

I’m still learning. But it’s a bit like being caught in the Matrix, isn’t it?

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