Is America ready for the gender-bending punk-folkie?

Ah, April in Milwaukee — cold, bleak, and blanketed in a good three inches of mushy white stuff. But inside a concert venue called the Eagles’ Ballroom, conditions are downright steamy. Singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco is holding court before an audience of sweating, beaming fans, most of them in their late teens and early 20s. The crowd is a veritable atlas of American youth culture circa 1997, with specimens ranging from jock and cheerleader types to bespectacled liberal arts students, from mellow neo-hippies to women in leather and crew cuts caressing each other with proud abandon. If someone unfamiliar with DiFranco’s music were to wander in, there’s no telling what conclusion he or she might leap to — that the singer is an ultrasensitive folkie, perhaps, or an angst-ridden punk. Or even, of all things, a pop star.

In fact, DiFranco is all — and none — of the above. The 26-year-old Buffalo native is a product of the folk community, to be certain, having gotten her start performing with an acoustic guitar at festivals and in bars and coffeehouses. Her lean, astringent songs also owe a clear debt to punk, speaking out for the oppressed and the antisocial and addressing hot-button issues like rape, abortion, and bisexuality (DiFranco says she’s had relationships with both men and women) with unrelenting candor.

”When I was 18 and putting out my first album,” DiFranco says backstage, ”I would read in the paper ‘Angry, militant, man-hating, puppy-eating, ugly, hairy, chick rock singer! Hide your children!’… Whereas men are taught to be aggressive and stand up for themselves, I think women are taught to be nurturing and understanding. But within every sweet, smiling woman, there’s someone who’s p—ed off on a certain level.” She smiles. ”I think we’re all complex creatures.”

On stage, DiFranco covers a gamut of emotions, projecting more confidence and charisma than many artists who regularly sell out arenas. It is through relentless touring, primarily, that the singer has built the devout grassroots following that is increasingly bringing her to the attention of mainstream media, from MTV to Ms. magazine, which made DiFranco the cover girl of its November/December 1996 issue. Her just-released double CD, Living in Clip, features excerpts from more than 20 shows recorded during her North American tour last year; but for all its sonic punch, the album can’t recapture the sort of visual entertainment that DiFranco is providing in Milwaukee this evening. Alternately giddy and intense, her body swaying with theatrical grace and her wide eyes dancing under a mop of bleached-yellow hair, she could be the lost love child of Kurt Cobain and Liza Minnelli.

But just as Ani (pronounced AH-nee) the artist resists musical pigeonholing, Ani the fledgling It Girl has defied the music industry’s conventional star-making machinery. Since 1990, she has been releasing albums at a breakneck pace on her own label, the Buffalo-based Righteous Babe Records. Over the past several years, DiFranco and her business partner and manager, Scot Fisher, have been courted by some of the biggest names in the record business but have remained resolutely unattached. Until 1995, when they signed a distribution deal with Koch Records, DiFranco’s albums were available only in independent stores — or fans purchased them at concerts or by calling 1-800-ON-HER-OWN. ”Ani has complete artistic control and the freedom to do whatever she wants,” Fisher reasons. Major labels ”have nothing to offer her but money.” At a time when musicians seek to assert their independence from corporate rock by dissing Hootie & the Blowfish, this sister is truly doing it for herself.