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Sunday, August 28, 2005

The Use of Beauty: A Reading of Ani DiFranco's "Fierce Flawless" as a Poem

Fierce Flawless
by Ani DiFranco

she was cuffed to the truth like the truth was a chair 1
bright interrogation light in her eyes 2
her conscience lit a cigarette and just stood there 3
waiting for her to crack 4
waiting for her to cry 5
his face scampered through her mind 6
like a roach across a wall 7
it made her heart soar 8
it made her skin crawl 9
they said, we got this confession we just need for you to sign 10
why don't you just cooperate and make this easier on us all 11

there was light and then there was darkness 12
but there was no line between 13
and asking her heart for guidance 14
was like pleading with a machine 15
cuz joy, it has its own justice 16
and dreams are languid and lawless 17
and everything bows to beauty 18
when it is fierce 19
and when it is flawless 20

on the table were two ziploc baggies 21
containing her eyes and her smile 22
they said, we're keeping these as evidence 23
'til this thing goes to trial 24
meanwhile anguish was fingering solace 25
in another room down the hall 26
both were love's accomplices 27
but solace took the fall 28

now look at her book of days 29
it's the same on every page 30
and she's got a little tin cup with her heart in it 31
to bang along the bars on her rib cage 32
bang along the bars of her rib cage 33

I believe that there comes a point in a person's live, or maybe there are several points, in which he or she must decide to either be part of the world as it is or try to change it in some way. Even in America where we have an ongoing fascination with the outlaw and the outsider a person who tries to change things is at a disadvantage. Being different is rewarded as long as it isn't too different. At a very early age Ani DiFranco decided to try to change the world. And she certainly is different.

I had heard of Ani DiFranco over a year ago and I am certain that I have heard her music before but it is only in the last few months that I really began listening to her music. I am now continuing to explore her music because I realize that not only is it good music, it is good poetry. The recent release of Reckoning/Reveling, DiFranco's most recent work, coincided with the assignment of this paper. So I am using this paper to examine one of the songs from this CD. This paper is a little different for me because I first analyze the song as a poem. I then listened to the song and compare my interpretation to the song interpretation.

DiFranco was born in Buffalo, NY in 1970. She grew up surrounded by music and at the age of nine she was playing in bars. By 15 she was writing her own songs. By 1998 she had produced 11 records on her own under her label Righteous Babe Records. She turned down several offers at record contracts with major and independent labels. She is still turning out her own records and has also produced records for other musicians under her label.

DiFranco's work takes in a lot of the landscape of contemporary America. She comments on relationships, mainly, but there is also a strong commentary on government, big business, and the American personality. "Fierce Flawless" is on the Revelling CD in DiFranco's most recent collection. By analyzing it first as a poem and then listening to the song I found that DiFranco's interpretation of the poem is different or she is trying to make a broader social comment. My expectation (based on my reading of the poem) was for the song to be low key and melancholy. It is anything except that.

As a poem "Fierce Flawless" consists of 33 lines in four stanzas. The form is free verse but there are occasionally points in which a line or line fragment is repeated. The poem tells a story from the third person omniscient perspective. The poem begins with the image of a woman handcuffed to a chair in police interrogation style. The poem then ventures inside this woman's thoughts. She thinks about the way joy works. The police interrogation theme continues with the description of the woman's eyes and smile in bags on the table as "evidence." The woman winds up in prison with "a little tin cup with her heart in it."

Lines one through three set the scene. An unidentified woman is described as "cuffed to the truth like the truth was a chair." And the interrogator is her conscience. The description of the truth is complicated. It is a chair so it supports the woman but she is also tied to it so it restricts her. What is "the truth?" A very beneficial way to read this poem is to define the truth as the statements in lines 18-20. The truth is that beauty is power. Reading this poem with that definition of "truth" allows the rest of the poem to be read as a meditation on how people use and hurt each other with beauty.

The interrogator (her conscience) waits for her to "crack" and "cry" as she sees "his" face crawl across the wall in the form of a roach that makes her "heart soar" and her "skin crawl" (lines 4-9). These lines demonstrate how the woman has been hurt by beauty. When she remembers a man that can easily be assumed to be an ex-boyfriend his face is like a roach. But this memory doesn't simply repulse her it makes her heart soar. She is drawn to his beauty. But her skin still crawls because he is, after all, a roach

And "they said, we got this confession we just need for you to sign / why don't you just cooperate and make this easier on us all" (lines 10-11). Her conscience and the memory of this man want her to admit to being used by beauty. The next stanza (lines 12-20) is an interior monologue of the woman while she reads the confession. Lines 12-13 are a corruption of the Biblical description of the creation. In the Bible God creates light and dark and separates them into night and day. Here there is light and dark but there is no separation. These lines are probably a reference to a belief that it is difficult to determine right from wrong. Is it right to be so tied to beauty? The woman asks her heart and finds that it is only a "machine" (lines 14-15).
It is at this point that we are given the "truth." Lines 16-20 present the truth indicated above about beauty as well as some truths about joy and dreams.

Cuz joy, it has its own justice
and dreams are languid and lawless
and everything bows to beauty
when it is fierce
and when it is flawless

These lines present truth in what they say about joy, dreams and beauty. And they also work on some fundamental free verse truths. The repetition of words and letters (alliteration) are important elements. And as a confession these lines are powerful. If the woman signs the confession, she can have no dreams, she can have no joy and she will be the puppet of beauty.
This also isn't DiFranco's only song in which she discusses the importance of beauty and joy. Often beauty is presented as a dichotomy.

but then what kind of scale
compares the weight of two beauties
the gravity of duties
or the ground speed of joy (from "School Night")

In these lines the conclusion is that it is impossible to measure beauty. This adds to the current reading of "Fierce Flawless" because it shows that DiFranco's view of beauty isn't flat. She understands the complexity behind physical beauty. And these lines also further our understanding of the way DiFranco understands joy.

Indeed, the accusation is that she has already been used by beauty just as she has used beauty. "On the table were two ziploc baggies / containing her eyes and her smile" (lines 21-22). Her eyes and her smile are being kept as evidence "till this thing goes to trial." The initial reaction to this image is one of disgust. It is important to remember that this whole poem is going on in the mind of the speaker. What is important is the symbolic significance of her eyes and smile being used as evidence. The eyes and smile would be symbols of her beauty as well as her reaction to beauty. But the case is really out of her hands anyway.

Lines 25-28 develop the relationship between anguish, solace and love. Anguish and solace are described as "love's accomplices." But anguish "was fingering solace" and "solace took the fall." Anguish "fingering" solace is a reference again to the interrogation scene. Anguish said that solace was guilty. I don't think that the sexual definition of "fingering" (i.e. pleasing sexually with the finger) is relevant but perhaps it does. Another way to view these lines is that anguish and love cancel each other out; this leaves behind only solace.

The last stanza (lines 29-33) ends with the woman in jail. She was judged and found guilty. "Now look at her book of days / its the same on every page" (lines 29-30). As each person dies and enters heaven, according to Christian myth, the "book of days" is consulted to see how each person lived his or her life in order to determine if he or she should be admitted to heaven. But this woman's pages are all the same. They are all covered with the downfall of beauty. But her heart protests by banging against her rib cage. The implication is that the "machine," as the heart was described earlier, cannot do anything about this prison.

DiFranco does a lot with her heart. In this song it winds up in a tin cup. In another song it winds up on a raft.

and my little pink heart
is on its little brown raft
floating out to sea (from "Grey")

This song is much more of an emotional song than "Fierce Flawless." Yet the ideas really relate. The description of her heart at sea is made early in the song. So when the song continues to say:

I've got everything i want and still i want more
maybe some tiny shiny key
will wash up on the shore

The only thing we know to be at sea is her heart. It can be supposed that the key is her heart. The heart then takes on increased significance than just being "a machine" in "Fierce Flawless." Her heart in a tin cup begging for release is really her way out. Continuing with the idea of beauty as a cage the heart seems to represent the opposite of beauty. TRUTH. That is being true to your emotions and your feelings.

This idea of truth works equally well in the first lines of "Fierce Flawless." The woman cannot get away from the fact that she has the choice of either worshipping beauty or being true to herself. Either way some part of herself will be lost. The prison in the end of this song then is being unable to decide.

"Fierce Flawless" as a song is presented with a steady wood block beat (like a heart) and an upbeat repeated guitar picking. At the line "make this easier on us all" the music becomes louder and a trumpet joins in. The song seems very festive. There are even upbeat oboe and bass guitar solos. This suggests that I've read this poem in a very different way from DiFranco. One thing that really stands out while listening to this song is the repetition of the words "fierce" and "flawless" to the point of annoyance.

I realized at this that in my explication of this song I didn't go into the significance of these two words. Again beauty is presented as a dichotomy. What does it mean for beauty to be fierce and flawless? Well, flawless is an easy enough state for us to understand even though we have no examples of perfect physical beauty. But what is truly flawless beauty comes from ideas. Fierce is defined as having a violent or cruel nature as of an animal. So it makes much more sense to talk about the physical aspects of beauty as being fierce.

With these ideas about beauty there is a slightly different way to read the poem. A person has two sides: animal and spiritual. Animal beauty can be fierce but only spiritual beauty can be flawless. Both are powerful. And the woman in the song is "tied to the truth" that she is only physically beautiful as evidenced in her eyes and smile.

By reading Ani DiFranco's "Fierce Flawless" first as a poem and then viewing it as a song it is possible to understand it in two very different ways. The conclusions are similar but distinct. As a poem beauty can be seen as a tool used by and on people. While the emphasis on the ideas of "fierce beauty" and "flawless beauty" help us to understand the song as a discussion of the types of beauty a person can achieve. Either way the woman is stuck in a prison in the end of the song. But in one she can never get out while in the later she must grow to get out.
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