A few months ago, indie folkstress Ani DiFranco complained to Rolling Stone that the media are so fixated on her image that they rarely consider what she's doing musically.
While her argument is valid, it overlooks one key facet of her career: She had a pretty big hand in sculpting that image. Anyone who's ever seen DiFranco in one of her many magnetic live performances knows that "the myth of Ani"--the defiantly free-spirited troubadour who won't be boxed in by corporate America, the political powers that be, or either the gay or straight crowd--is the overriding subtext of every note that comes out of her mouth. DiFranco plays with her myth like it's Silly Putty, teasingly manipulating it with one breath and angrily dismissing it with the next. When her fans squeal with delight at some private revelation, they're not just cheering on some anonymous folk singer, they're sharing a secret code, bonded by the power of celebrity--an alternative form of celebrity, to be sure, but celebrity nonetheless.
Actually, the annals of rock are littered with these kinds of love-hate relationships between icons and their self-perpetuated myths. But if one constant can be found among such myth-puncturing disillusion jobs as Plastic Ono Band, Self Portrait, The Who by Numbers and In Utero, it's that they were all made from a position of privilege, long after fame and wealth made it a safe proposition to tear your audience a collective new one.
Without question, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam waited until he was a rich megastar before he decided that he was uncomfortable with image and celebrity. No band since the early U2 has benefited as much from its perceived political idealism as Pearl Jam, but like Bono and his Irish mates, Pearl Jam has done it all with smoke, mirrors and grandstanding.
When Vedder was a struggling unknown, he didn't hesitate to set lyrics to the cliche-ridden hard-rock riffs of Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, or to jump into the lap of a huge major label, or make self-aggrandizing videos. Once Pearl Jam was established as a multiplatinum act, however, Vedder suddenly decided that music videos were heinous affronts to art. It's a position he only recently changed his mind about, coincidentally after the highly disappointing sales of the band's last album, No Code.
Pearl Jam's reborn sense of commercial consciousness has stirred much interest in the band's new release, Yield, as a possible return to the early days, when Pearl Jam basked without guilt in its own heroic myth. But you can't unring a bell, and Vedder can no longer find much to believe in. For example, in "Faithfull" he sings "I'm through with screaming," as though the thought actually depresses him. In the bummed-out "Wishlist," this most self-loathing of all rock stars states, "I wish I was as fortunate, as fortunate as me." And on the Stone Gossard-penned "No Way," Vedder sings, with absolute conviction, "Not trying to make a difference, I've stopped trying to make a difference." Does this mean that the fat cats at Ticketmaster can sleep well tonight?
This kind of morose self-consciousness might actually be enjoyable, if not for Pearl Jam's tiresome, run-of-the-mill rock sound, and its dullsville song structures. However much Vedder pleads his love for Fugazi, nearly everything he and his band touch turns to pro forma, arena-rock bombast. Like U2, Pearl Jam has a much overrated song catalogue loaded with unimaginative, samey melodies, but seems to think that a thunderous, impassioned roar can make up for actual inspiration. Those who were immediately hooked by the pensive single "Given to Fly" may or may not have realized why the song's descending tune seems so memorable: because it was stolen, verbatim, from Led Zeppelin's "Going to California."
Occasionally, Pearl Jam actually gets behind a cool riff and rocks with great abandon, as on Yield's high point, the cynical "Do the Evolution," or "Hail Hail" from No Code. But for all of Vedder's charisma and lung power, he and his band have gotten significantly more mileage out of their myth than their relentlessly mediocre music.
Ani DiFranco is a more complicated artist, and her appeal cuts in more directions than Vedder's. But, like Vedder, her star power frequently obscures her creative limitations. Nowhere was this more clear than on last year's celebrated live double-CD Living in Clip. On the one hand, this was DiFranco at her best, unbridled and feeding off the worshipful energy of her devoted audience. The tight, rubbery funk of her rhythm section adeptly complemented her wondrously odd guitar playing, which turns an acoustic six-string into a manic percussion instrument.
On the other hand, Living in Clip was such a big dose of DiFranco that it couldn't help but expose her limitations. Like Vedder, DiFranco tends to fall back on the same wearisome melodies over and over, apparently convinced that her message is so potent, it can stand on its own. And what of this message? When DiFranco opens up her diary and lets her audience get a voyeuristic rush from her love life, the vibes become thick with self-obsession and self-congratulation. But a confessional DiFranco is much preferable to DiFranco the social commentator, who suffers from a bad case of Henry Rollins Disease: the tendency to make very obvious statements, and act like they're deeply profound.
For example, on her new album Little Plastic Castle, DiFranco devotes the song "Fuel" to ranting about America's cultural malaise ("Who's gonna be president/Tweedle dumb or tweedle dumber") like she's the first person to think of it. When she moans about "hearing that same damn song everywhere I go," she punctuates the thought with one of those rehearsed affected laughs that make her so grating at times.
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Even when she writes about herself, she's inordinately concerned with the perceptions of her audience. "People talk about my image/Like I come in two dimensions/Like lipstick is a sign of my declining mind," she sings on the otherwise appealing title cut.
But DiFranco, unlike Vedder, has at least shown a willingness to expand her sonic vocabulary through the years. Both the title song and the haunting mood piece "Deep Dish" incorporate horns and ska rhythms to great effect, while the nostalgic "Two Little Girls" finds DiFranco emulating a train with a wondrous bent-note harmony vocal that calls to mind Pirates-era Rickie Lee Jones.
In fact, Little Plastic Castle offers evidence that DiFranco--who often denigrates her own studio work--has mastered the art of record-making, subtly enhancing her songs with clever sound effects and touches of unlikely instruments like pump organ and concertina. However cloying her narcissism can get, she shows an increasing willingness to let her music articulate what her words seem unable to. It's far from a perfect statement, but Little Plastic Castle, unlike Yield, sounds like the work of an artist who's still growing, a songwriter who'd rather consume her myth than be consumed by it.