Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Researcher explores Ani DiFranco’s changing views on motherhood

As the mother of her own little “righteous babe,” DU lecturer Jennifer Campbell was very interested to see how motherhood would change one of her favorite musicians: Ani DiFranco, the punk-influenced, feminist singer-songwriter who released her first album in 1990 and had her first child in 2007.

After tracking the way DiFranco’s lyrics about motherhood have changed between her early albums and today, Campbell recently delivered a lecture on campus titled “Striking a Chord and a Nerve: The Rhetoric of Reproductive Rights and Motherhood in and Around the Work of Ani DiFranco.”

“What jogged this was her most recent album that came out after she had her daughter, which had several songs that dealt with motherhood,” says Campbell, a full-time lecturer in DU’s writing program. “The language was so different than her earlier work.”

In contrast to early DiFranco songs that pressed for a woman’s right to choose an abortion and contained references to a “fetus holding court in my gut; my body hijacked,” Campbell says, the singer’s recent work takes a much more positive view of pregnancy and giving birth.

“She has a line in a later song that says ‘to split yourself in two is the most radical thing you can do.’ She’s actually making reference to atomic energy and nuclear war, but also that sense that [giving birth] is a big deal, so it has to be something you embrace and that you do on your own and commit to,” Campbell says. “It’s all wrapped up in her joy about motherhood and celebrating her baby even when she’s not here yet. Some people saw that as a contradiction to her stance on abortion rights.”

A fan of DiFranco’s since she was a teenager, Campbell also researched DiFranco’s thoughts on body image, as expressed in songs like “Imperfectly” and “32 Flavors.”

“She’s really open in the way she talks about women’s bodies and sexuality in a way that makes a lot of people uncomfortable, in the way she’s willing to use words that make most women cringe, and talk about things like tampons,” Campbell says. “She’s admitting the way things are, and it tracks into the fact that the things that make us strong also make us weak at the same time. We’re Amazon warriors, but we’re also vulnerable to attack. There are a lot of contradictions there.”

DiFranco, who records for her own Righteous Babe record label, has long been a vocal advocate for women’s rights and reproductive rights, and another facet of Campbell’s research deals with the singer’s status as a political motivator. Though Campbell says DiFranco occasionally has expressed discomfort with being the “voice” of a movement, she has garnered a large following that looks to her as a feminist icon to emulate.

“I’m looking at how much of an influence different musical genres and different political and public figures have on the people who watch them, who listen to them and respond to them,” Campbell says. “This is a different kind of activism. She takes it beyond just her music that’s about activism to being very involved in marches and politics and creating her own business. It’s not just symbolic, and I think that’s one of the things about her work that’s interesting, that we need to tap into more, is seeing what are the connections between the rhetoric and the action.”

Campbell has been working on her DiFranco project for almost three years. As the work nears completion, she’s looking for the right venue in which to publish it.

 “One of the challenges is that I really want to do a more multimodal, tech-based publication because it deals so much with the visual and with the audio,” she says. “I would really like to make it hypertext housed online rather than a traditional academic article. It would work really well, but then there’s the matter of finding a good place to house that and having it count for as much. When it comes down to it, we still trade in the currency of the academic article.

“I could certainly write this as a journal article, but I want to do the cool thing.”

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