Whose Side Are You On


Last week I went to see Ani DiFranco at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland. It was a great concert, filled with high-caliber musicianship and passion.

Ani has built a life and career over the past twenty years as a musician and activist. These days it’s not unusual or especially difficult for a musician to go it alone without a big record label. In some ways, it may even prove beneficial to skip the labels in favor of being a direct supplier. But Ani was doing that long before the internet changed the industry, turning down deals from companies so she could retain complete freedom.

Watching from the back of the room last week, I found her music to be uplifting and inspiring. Ani has the technique and the skills to go along with the passion—but if you can only have one, I think it’s better to choose the passion. Other things will come along later, but passion is hard to fake.

At the end of the set, she played two songs. The first was an adaptation of a labor movement chorus from the 1930s, Whose Side Are You On? This song, as you might expect, was fairly confrontational, and it reminded me that not everyone is comfortable with the idea of picking sides.

In some ways it would be nice to live as a moral Switzerland, but I don’t think that’s much of a life. What do you do when you encounter injustice—where is your courage? You can try to be apolitical and agnostic, going with the flow and letting other people make decisions for you, or you can be bold and take a stand. Maybe you can even be willing to be wrong.

For the encore, she played 32 Flavors, one of her better-known songs. I like this part:

God help you if you are a phoenix
and you dare to rise up from the ash
a thousand eyes will smolder with jealousy
while you are just flying past

Later I heard from someone who said she didn’t understand why so many people were interested in this movement. I’ve been doing these things for years on my own! she said.

I said that’s great … if you have never had a family who doesn’t understand, or experienced other people making plans for you, or been pressured to do something that would put your dreams on hold, good for you. You are the fortunate exception. (And if that’s really the case, I also think you should raise the stakes a little, because where much is given, much is required.)

For most of us, non-conformity isn’t something we make a single choice for or against. It’s a process of adjusting our life, learning to be comfortable with change, and understanding that we probably have more opportunities than we initially think.

I recently heard an interesting definition of success: continuously improving your circumstances. I like it, except I would add something about improving the circumstances of those around you. If you adopt that as your goal, it helps to look up to people who have been doing this a while.

That’s why we need people like Ani, who trailblazed for decades long before the internet made a career as an independent musician more easily obtainable. And that’s why we need people like you, who find their own way to offer something of their own that is bold, passionate, and inspiring for the rest of us.


Image: Marcel

Subscribe now and you’ll get the best posts of all time.


  • Matt Langdon says:

    “If you adopt that as your goal, it helps to look up to people who have been doing this a while.”

    The sentence you wrote before this one might as well be a definition of a hero. This sentence shows why we need heroes. The whole point of having a hero is to lift us up. We can find goals, but heroes help us achieve them.

  • Elsa Xiao says:

    From a dictionary: “Success: a favorable or desired outcome”
    I like the idea Replace something you aren’t happy with by something you are more happy with one bit a day. “If you want to do something, then just start doing it.”
    “focused the energy on getting started” (so you won’t get overwhelmed or scared)
    Everything holds together.

  • Karl Staib - Party Biz Connect says:

    Trailblazing is a difficult road. There is a lot of pain, but through that pain there are a lot of stories to share. It’s why Ani tells such amazing stories. She has been through pain and come out the other side. Now everyone applauds, but before she was beaten down again only to rise out of the ashes.

    I don’t consider myself a trailblazer because I compare myself to others who have already blazed. That’s not fair to me. I know that, but it’s a process that I must deal with. All I know is I care about what I do so much that yes I’ve been beaten down by my friends, family and strangers. I always remember what Randy Pausch said about the walls (AKA beat downs) being there for a reason. They are a part of every society. If we can break through we can make an impact on other people and change this world for the better.

  • Laura Cococcia says:

    Ani was one of my first concerts and I’ve been to see her 10 times since then. She says things in “real” ways – but her actions, particularly what you mentioned about her pioneering the independent music scene, speak louder than words. And you’re right – passion is hard to fake. Body, mind and spirit, she comes alive in every way when I hear or see her on stage. Glad you enjoyed, Chris.

  • Lisa Keith says:

    I have a mental illness – bipolar I – and I am out of the closet about it. I work full time teaching teenagers with disabilities such as emotional disturbance and am working on a doctorate in organizational psychology. I had Kay Redfield Jamison as a role model. If I can be a role model for even one student, I may participate in changing the world…..Also I like to think that if it wasn’t me, then who? Someone needs to step forward. Sometimes I take a step back….but sometimes, just sometimes, I take two steps forward.

    Thanks for sharing your insights and inspiration with us.

  • Douglas Newton says:

    The most inspiring part of your article consists in your request that we continuously improve both our own cicumstances as well as the circumstances of those around us. Ortega y Gasset said, “The legitimacy of a society is the function of the whole life of a people.” I like the connective tissue such an assertion implies among people. I seek to use such logic to balance my own individualist streak with a sense that we’re all in this together.

  • Karen says:

    One of the things I try to teach my kids is that “There is no Switzerland” – not a geographical comment, but one about being neutral. If you claim to be neutral, you are actually on the side of the strong – often of the bullies. I have a couple of seriously non-confrontational people in my household and it’s been a long 20+ years of arguments about whether NOT taking a stand is the same as taking a stand.

    Hmmm, come to think of it, maybe this is my real non-conformity – wondered why your posts appeal so much, Chris, when from the outside I seem to live as boring and standard a life as possible. Thanks for this –

  • Natalie Caine says:

    Passion is the heart. Standing tall is the integrity. Falling and lifting is the reality. Transitions to change are the callings to go within and hear yourself, again and again. I too, get to Ani talks and concerts whenever possible. Enjoy the ride and get in the driver’s seat

  • Daisy says:

    The quote from 32 Flavors resonates with me. Just yesterday I told my mother that I am tired of being a trailblazer. I’m hearing impaired, I teach, I write, and no one in the school district seems to know what to do with me. They’re accustomed to shuttling their disabled kids off to special classes, but a disabled, capable professional? They’re stumped.
    Maybe this is what I need. If I can re-imagine my role not as the one out front stepping in mud and getting smashed with branches, and envision the phoenix rising, it will help give me strength to fight my battles and leave a good, clear path for those who follow.

  • Rob Paige says:

    Waaaay too left wing for me. The extremists takes away any potentially uplifting message.

  • Cynthia Morris says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Chris. I love Ani DiFranco; she’s been a heroine of mine for twenty years or so. She’s the one who showed me that women can be creative and savvy businesswomen.

    Her lyrics guided me to be my authentic self and to not waste time worrying if my expression was okay with others.

    Your nudge to raise the stakes is heard; I will reflect on how I can do that in my life and work, as I am blessed with many gifts and much to learn.

    One of my favorites of hers is Face Up and Sing.

  • Derek Murphy says:

    I saw Ani years ago in Boston, love her music. I miss the Crystal Ballroom, where I learned to swing dance to the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies. “I’ve been doing these things for years on my own!” is what I thought the first time I started reading your blog and book, and it’s true I was fortunate to have a very supportive family who let me go off and explore the world on my own before I ever got trapped into any semblance of normalcy. Now I understand that big change is hard, and scary, and a lot of people need a positive role leader urging them to take the plunge and telling them that things will turn out OK. It’s a great message.

  • Jenn Morgan says:

    Love this post… and I love that you are an Ani fan…

    Passion is mandatory if you are going to make your ceiling your floor… otherwise, how do you get the motivation to rise above all the gravity that tells you can’t do it…

  • mary says:

    I love your perspective, cheers to non-conformity.

    (and to living in oregon!)

  • cynthia gunsinger says:

    thanks for this, chris. i am so thrilled that ani was the focal point of this post. as a teenager and into my twenties, i marvelled at the bravery in her lyrics. truth be told, i was almost too afraid to listen to her music too loud, scared of how life would change if i choose to be on that side.

    to underline karen’s comment, i thought i was choosing switzerland. it was safe there, right? years later, it is sinking in that the evaluation of what is right and wrong for me is up to me: and conformity leaves me in a land that is not my own.

    here’s to continuously evaluating our choices and conquering new lands.

  • Michelle says:

    In the early 90s when I was in college, Ani’s lyrics changed my life. And then her music got me through my 20s.

    I love that men are writing about her here so intelligently and respectfully. Back in the day, most young men couldn’t talk about Ani without rolling their eyes and saying something like “lesbian feminist” with disdain.

    I followed her as a fan for a long time, and her life choices were not easy or simple by any means. Conformity can be so much easier in the moment.

    That’s why support and community are so important. No matter how independent and different a person might be, he or she still needs someone out there to connect with. Ani did that just by being true to herself and daring to share her authentic voice.

    We should never underestimate how our own words or actions might have a positive effect in the world. You just never know.

  • Liz K Zook says:

    I used to have dreams about trying to drive a truck from the passenger seat. It was always dark and I was always lost. I remember struggling from the passenger seat, reaching over to the steering wheel with shaky arms. I will never forget those dreams.

    But I stopped having them when I started focusing on my art and the things I wanted to accomplish. It’s still a struggle, getting turned down by juried shows and turned away by galleries. I’m still pushing myself, though.

    I won’t stop until my art is seen. And I won’t stop painting what I enjoy painting just because it doesn’t match the decor in someone’s living room. I’m not as successful as I want to be yet, but at least I’m in the driver seat. My life is in no one’s hands other than my own.

  • Jim says:

    Inspiration takes on many forms. Individuals simply enjoying their passion need not choose a side.

  • James Cornell says:

    It takes courage to move against herd. Everyone is going one way and you are answering your inner calling that typically takes in a different direction.

    More than ever you have people that are more stressed, more overworked, less happy than ever before. Part of it is that most of us don’t follow our passion and soul calling.

    A little bit dies inside of you the more you deny it. I know I have, but I have answered the call and moving against the herd.

    When we answer the call it usually moves us to serve others in a constructive manner. Inside of us all is a desire to make another happy or joyful, it is who we are.

    I love reading everyone’s thoughts and experiences. It is deeply moving.

  • illana Burk says:

    It takes a strong man to love himself some Ani;) …how very non-conformist of you (don’t marketers call that being ‘on-brand’?…lol). See, I just feel lame because I always thought that was an Alana Davis song. Who know you were a music educator too?

    Picking sides is SUCH a killer topic. SO many of us are conditioned to teeter on the mediocrity fence. Greatness really only happens when you take a swan-dive right on over it.

    We can only truly find our people by seeing who’s on the same side of the fence as we are.

  • Matt bailey says:

    I need to start copying my comment before posting for those times the host fails hah

    Im glad to see someone paving the trail before the “net” made people famous for it. All of life is really about nurturing passion. To many people get caught up in trying to be like others and gather as much materials as they can.

    Cant wait for WDS!

  • Austin L. Church says:

    It’s easy for the trailblazer to get lost, and it’s even easier for the next person to move much faster down the same path, maybe even do “it” much better. I have to work knowing that I might just be preparing the way for somebody else, but if I have in some small way made it possible for someone else to be more authentic and live with more passion, then I have been successful.

  • Daryl Gerke says:

    Music like this is always inspiring – thanks for sharing it!

    I’ve long been inspired by “Garden Party”. Seemingly simple, it was written by Ricky Nelson after he was booed off the stage at Madison Square Garden (1971) for the audacity to sing something new and different.

    The chorus is my favorite, “You can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself.” A polite way of telling others to butt out, and not to try to run your life.

    Lived by this philosophy, shared it with my kids, and now share it with my grandkids. No regrets either – spent a lifetime blazing my own trails — and still having a blast!

  • Steve says:

    Sounds very fluffy… rainbows and puppies, etc. I’d bet money though that if her message wasn’t so slanted to the left, that none of these people would consider her so “heroic”… I personally respect her for being passionate and unyeilding in voicing her message, my message would have the same end, but from a totally different means (ie; personal responsibility and self-reliance, vs victimhood and government dependance). It’s not that conservatives are uncaring, in fact numerous studies show that they, on average, they give more than twice the amount to charity in time and money, than do those who consider themselves “liberal”. I guess it just makes them “feel” good to simply talk about giving and demand that those “evil” successful people are legislatively forced to do so. So to answer her question, I’m on the side of those who make responsible life choices, educate themselves, and actually work for a living, as well as those that are truely unable to work. Unions, NOT on their side

  • Ben says:

    I love the comment definition of success you posted, “continuously improving your circumstances.” I think this is something we all try to do everyday, or at least its something I do everyday. I hadn’t come across that definition of success before but it really caught my eye. Love it!

  • Chris Wesley says:

    I’m a little lost from some of the comments that associate Ani with a lack of responsibilty. I’ve been a fan of her music since Dilate and as an independent music artist, I can say with all certainty that NO one looking for a handout turns down major label record deals the way she repeatedly has. I meet artists all the time whose only purpose in music is for a major label to pick up the tab and do all the hard work while they get high and get paid. Ani took the hard road and you shouldn’t have to agree with her politics to acknowledge the significance of that. What she built and how she built it during the technological period she built it during is pure grit and evidence that capitalism and benevolence are not mutually exclusive. I don’t even agree with all my friend’s politics, why should I have to agree with all of hers to be inspired?

  • GutsyWriter says:

    Chris, the definition you like is one I found interesting too, because it makes sense. The part you added: “improving the circumstances of those around you,” fits in with your message of hat we can offer the world. What I admire is how you’ve figured this out early on in life when so many never understand this—EVER.

  • claire says:

    one of the things i love about ani is the way she is able to describe the emotions we often shy away from expressing e.g. in her song untouchable face.

    however matt, i don’t think we need heroes per se, we need people who can show us other ways are possible, people whose sides we can choose to be on, people who can inspire us but …

    … ultimately though we need to carve our own unique way.

  • Jared Angaza says:

    Wise words bro. I started listening to Ani when I was 17, having just moved away (over 500 miles) from home for the first time. She was my guru, of sorts. She’s a trailblazer indeed, and someone that always stands up for what she believes in, no matter how it effects her career. And that in turn bolstered her career. I love that.

    I thank God for the Ani Defrancos and Chris Guillebeaus of this world, constantly inspiring us to follow our dreams, create better circumstances and bring more peace and unity into the world.

    Thanks for another installment of inspiration bro.

  • Callahan McDonough says:

    I am reminded of a statement I often hear : ” I don’t want to get in the middle of this.” It seems to me a mis-interpetation of ‘ healthy boundaries’ , meaning a healthy boundary does not include gossip or ill intended action, nor does it include staying silent in the face of inequity . I am refering to personal as well as political events ‘ whose side are you on’. If we are not able to speak up, and stand in our truth, align with what we believe and support then we cannot be in our power/empowerment. Chutzpah. Peace.

  • Lee Turley says:

    I consult for a small business owner who’s on the fence about re-branding his company and building something larger than himself. Over the past few years he’s built a very upstanding service business and carved out a comfortable life for himself.

    However, there are very few providers in his industry who have his values and he has envisioned a much needed shift towards “consumer justice”, if you will. If he were to make this change though, it would mean choosing a side publicly and going to war for what is right. Needless to say, it would be a temporary end to his comfort.

    I personally believe in his vision and want to see him make the leap. How do you think I should encourage him in that direction? When/where/why does one find the courage to step out on the front line when their life will go on comfortably even if they don’t?

  • Peter Paluska says:

    Yes, even though I have heard only a little of Ani Di Franco, I will agree that she is a true artist through and through. She does not wait for audience approval before she writes her songs or performs them onstage.

    In fact, it’s great that you highlight Ani because she strikes me as an ideal example of a “non-conformist”, most importantly by the way she puts her ideas and passion into action and insists on total creative control (like David Lynch, for example).

  • Kenny Rose says:

    The fact is if you want to feel alive you have to work with your passion. The end result of not doing that is you die a slow death. The only way to live in my opinion is to speak your truth and develop strategies and tactics to do it in a way that you can still earn a living. And that is the difficult part in particular when your passions are contentious or political you will pay the price but in the end it is a price worth paying.

  • Barry says:

    Thanks for a great post, Chris! We’re very much on the same page – success is often not a destination, but a process. Every little improvement we make in our lives make us and our world a better place.

  • Jackie says:

    Thank you for this. I’ve been an Ani fan for a long time and it’s nice to see my interests collide through this blog post. And that lyric from 32 Flavors is one of my favorites. I really enjoy your emails and am so glad I somehow found your blog. Thanks again!

    Also, I saw a comment above from someone who is “out” as being Bipolar I – I am as well. So I guess you’re liked by the crazies. 🙂

  • Lisa Johnson says:

    Thank you Chris for sharing your experience with Ani… I saw her many moons ago (1998) in Indiana and was not familiar with her at all…but I left that concert a changed woman. As in the words of Gabrielle Roth, “It takes a lot of discipline to be a free spirit” Amen!!! In solidarity and freedom~ Lisa

  • Mark says:

    Love the statement about being a neutral Switzerland.

    Where does that bring you in life, being neutral? It might be hard to pick a side, being on one side or another will indefinitely bring more joy into your life because you are doing what YOU want to do. You are making the deliberate choice to be YOU. We should be proud of our affiliations because they help us realize who we are.

    Without them, what else is there?

  • Jenna says:

    My heart lept in the air when I saw the Ani pic.

    I’ve joined your army only recently, but have been an Ani fan for over a decade. I’ve seen her perform live half a dozen times. And she is the one who started me down the path of thinking for myself and being brave enough to say what I have to say, even if it is hard to hear.

    There’s always a side…even the sidelines has consequences.

    Thank you.


Your comments are welcome! Please be nice and use your real name.

If you have a website, include it in the website field (not in the text of the comment).

Want to see your photo in the comments? Visit to get one.