¿Which Side Are You On? by independent American folk artist Ani DiFranco, is an album that raises significant issues facing artists today—above all, how to view society critically. In this case, the results are disappointing.
DiFranco (born 1970) is a Grammy award-winning contemporary folk artist, with 17 studio albums to her credit since she began recording in 1990. Her early music featured her voice over sometimes aggressive acoustic guitar playing, and her vocal styling, with a mix of spoken word and occasionally passionate outbursts, showed the influence of punk and hip-hop. Over the course of her career she has moved toward varied instrumentation and a less aggressive approach to vocal delivery and guitar.
Nearly every one of DiFranco's albums features a mix of the personal and the political. The former songs are usually about her own experience in relationships, including frank discussions of sexuality and femininity. Her music is identified as feminist by critics, fans and her own lyrics.
Her socially minded songs treat themes often associated with identity politics, including abortion, the environment, corporate control, war and feminism itself. The Buffalo-born singer has also critiqued music industry conglomerates, which she avoided by founding her own label at the start of her career.
The more private material usually features lyrics with inventive analogies, humor and honesty. Roughly half the songs on ¿Which Side Are You On? concern love and personal relationships, all written with appealing melodies and instrumentation. DiFranco, who had a child in 2007, has much to say about the struggle to find love and the joy that it can bring. The songs portray love as a dynamic between imperfect individuals, rather than abstract, ideal love.
This same depth is frequently lacking in her approach to social themes, which often feature lyrics best described as sloganeering and do little to explore their subject matter. On the current album, DiFranco openly embraces the Democratic Party, and brings with the embrace her weakest, most trite songwriting.
The album title and third track make reference to a famed Depression-era song by Florence Reece, the wife of a union coal miner. At first glance, Reece's original version is a fairly simple tune—not even two minutes long, and sung without accompaniment.
But the subject matter—social class, unionism, the Great Depression, government and corporate repression—is complex and provides a vivid portrait of American society in the early part of the 20th century.
Considering the parallels in the present period to the Depression, one looked to a new recording of “Which Side Are You On?” as a welcome sign.
Unfortunately, upon hearing DiFranco’s “¿Which Side Are You On?”, the first question that occurs is: did she even seriously consider the original song at all?
Reece’s “Which Side Are You On?” is a stark protest song, born out of lived experience. Reece grew up in a Tennessee coal mining camp, and moved with her husband, Sam Reece, to Harlan County, Kentucky. Sam was an organizer for the Communist Party-led National Miners Union. In 1931, after years of wage cuts in the industry, the mine unions struck against the coal operators.
Conditions were dire. Men were dying in the mines, while families faced wretched poverty. Several women, including Reece, Sarah Ogan Gunning, and Aunt Molly Jackson, emerged as powerful voices reflecting on these harsh conditions.
Reece later explained how the writing of “Which Side Are You On?” came about: “Sheriff J.H. Blair and his men came to our house in search of Sam. … I was home alone with our seven children. They ransacked the whole house and then kept watch outside, waiting to shoot Sam down when he came back. But he didn't come back that night. Afterward I tore a sheet from a calendar on the wall and wrote the words to ‘Which Side Are You On?’ to an old Baptist hymn, ‘Lay the Lily Low.’”
Class anger permeates Reece’s original, which begins:
Come all you poor workers
Good news to you I'll tell
How that good old union
Has come in here to dwell
The following verses denounce the inequality between miners and owners, and the repression of company thugs. The refrain, “Which side are you on?” refers to the two sides in the class struggle, the workers and the bosses. The song’s appeal is to all fellow workers to join the fight against the tyranny of the companies.
The original no doubt was sung on the picket lines, and was not recorded at the time by Reece. In the 1970s, when conflict erupted again in Harlan County, Reece recorded this version [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nzudto-FA5Y]. She can also be seen in Barbara Kopple’s documentary Harlan County, USA singing a moving version before a crowd of striking miners [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WYr09q9dHSo].
The song became widely known when left-wing folksinger Pete Seeger recorded it in the early 1940s. Notably, Seeger is also present on DiFranco's recording, playing the appealing mandolin melody the song has had since he originally recorded it. DiFranco then brings in electric guitar, marching drums and brass, while tripling the length of the song. This is an effective development, at least musically.
As for the subject matter, however, DiFranco's reworking is most remarkable for abandoning the class element of the original song and replacing it with support for the Democratic Party.
DiFranco begins by asserting, presumably referring to the Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008, that:
They stole a few elections,
Still we the people won
We voted out corruption and
We voted for an end to war
And we ain’t gonna stop now
Until the job is done
This is both puerile and absurd, considering the character of both the Obama administration and the Democrats in Congress.
In DiFranco’s version, Reece’s refrain cited above now goes:
Come on all good workers
This year is our time
Now there's folks in Washington
That care what’s on our minds
DiFranco then proceeds to encourage people to vote, confesses that “a little socialism don’t scare me one bit” and urges the president and congress to “make the law.” The song is entirely devoid of criticism of the current administration, its bailout of the banks and Wall Street, its expansion of war and its relentless assault on disappearing democratic rights.
She places race at the center of things, asking “mother Africa” to “forgive us” and calling on “people of privilege,” which, in the context, seems to refer to all white people, “to join the fight.”
Mid-song, the chorus shifts from “Which side are you on?” to “Which side are you on, boys?” DiFranco sings:
Feminism ain’t about women
No, that’s not who it is for
It’s about a shifting consciousness
That’ll bring an end to war
Here, and elsewhere, a decade of neo-colonial war is reduced to “patriarchy.” Many people might recall that Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice, secretaries of state during the Obama and Bush administrations, and guilty of war crimes, are, in fact, women.
“Amendment”, later in the album, is devoted to the Equal Rights Amendment. Here, some of the lyrics are simply silly:
And when I said we need the ERA [Equal Rights Amendment]
It ain’t cause I’m a fool
It’s cause without it nobody can get away
with anything cool
All of the positive lyrics of this song are sung over an excessively sweet guitar and chime backing. The negative verses have a better crafted soundscape of low, strummed guitar, percussion and metallic noises. The latter sounds, combined with vocal effects, do create a memorable effect with lines about the oppressive, odious role of religion in denying rights to women.
This becomes an individual viewpoint on “If Yr Not”, which features moral banality on par with New Age or Christian self-help books, overlaid onto slushy, stomping blues-like sounds:
If you’re not aware that what you put out,
is what you get back,
that you make the world through the way you act
The chorus is “If you’re not getting happier as you get older, then you’re fuckin’ up.” In “Splinter” DiFranco describes a hyper air-conditioned, overlit landscape, “like we just gotta see how comfortable comfortable can get.”
Reviews have almost universally claimed the albums socially themed tracks are in the spirit of the Occupy movement, which was animated by the fight against social inequality. One wonders if these reviewers even listened to the album, or just penned comments based on DiFranco’s reputation as a “radical” artist.
DiFranco’s choice to celebrate Obama and the Democrats is somewhat at odds even with her own past. In the late 1990s, she recorded two albums with the late anarchist folksinger Utah Phillips. Both featured Phillips’ warm voice telling labor history to a new audience, stories which have an impact even with an insertion of anarchist politics.
“The Past Didn't Go Anywhere”, the first of these collaborations, opens with the song “Bridges”, where Phillips mentions another singer who comes to his shows and says “you always sing about the past, you can't live in the past, you know.” Phillips remarks that “I can go outside and pick up a rock that is older than the oldest song you know, and drop it on your foot. Now the past didn't go anywhere, did it?”
Perhaps not coincidentally, around this time, in 1998’s Little Plastic Castle, DiFranco wrote what may be her most thoughtful lyrics about issues in American society, in the song “Fuel”:
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
On the basis of her most recent album, one has to conclude that DiFranco has stopped digging. In the last 15 years, the fuel of social inequality, war, and repression has begun to light a flame of opposition greater than any seen in decades, yet DiFranco has turned away. She now directs her largely youthful audience toward the existing political system, falsely and misleadingly claiming it is willing to listen to them.