Ani DiFranco’s “To the Teeth,” Twenty Years Later

A look back at the folk song about gun violence that is, unfortunately, timelier than ever. 

Ani DiFranco does not shy away from the controversial. Beginning with her eponymous debut album in 1990, on which she described her personal experience with abortion, the prolific indie musician has frequently used her gifts to address socio-political topics through song. Some of her ’90s-era work feels dated, like dusty old folk remnants of an earlier time. (Take “Pale Purple,” for example, in which she sings, “That’s America / you have to be tough / like a Glad trash bag.”) But one track, as DiFranco recently told KUOW’s Bill Radke, “could’ve been written tomorrow.”

Released on November 16, 1999, DiFranco’s tenth studio album, To the Teeth, is a jazzy affair with thirteen tracks featuring a full band and a slate of guests including funk/soul saxophonist Maceo Parker, guitarist Kurt Swinghammer, trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, and even Prince, who sang backing vocals on “Providence.” But the album’s title track—a mournful response to the Columbine High School massacre, which had happened just six months earlier—stands out for its continued relevance. 

In “To the Teeth,” DiFranco laments America’s gun obsession while excoriating the forces — from manufacturers to politicians to the media — that work behind the scenes to perpetuate gun culture while publicly wringing their hands over what can be done about it. The eight-minute ballad opens with the singer’s plaintive crooning along with her acoustic guitar: “The sun is setting on the century / and we are armed to the teeth / We’re all working together now / to make our lives mercifully brief.” The lyrics then dovetail into a warning about the young men who frequently turn to guns as a solution to their problems: “Every year now like Christmas / some boy gets the milk fed suburban blues / Reaches for the available arsenal / and saunters off to make the news.” 

Though written immediately after Columbine, the song was in reaction to more than just one event. “It was the Columbine shooting that directly preceded that song,” she told WGLT’s Jon Norton. “But of course, that was not an aberration. There was already this escalating gun epidemic that was being evidenced in our country.”

Just a year before Columbine, two students were killed and twenty-five injured in a mass shooting at Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon. But Columbine was, at that point, the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history. The magnitude of the slaughter — thirteen dead and twenty-four injured — and the criminals’ cold-blooded callousness was a shock to the nation’s system. Clyde Haberman of The New York Times wrote that the event was “a metaphor for a nation gone haywire in its embrace of devastating weaponry.” Immediate news coverage, combined with security footage from inside the school, enabled viewers to watch the devastation play out in real time, and provided fodder for aspiring copycats (a phenomenon dubbed “the Columbine Effect.”) 

DiFranco admitted she had no way of predicting at the time that her song would remain relevant two decades after its release. “It’s amazing now to have that song and to check in with the fact that, yeah, twenty years ago I thought it had [already] gone way too far,” she said.

According to research done by The Washington Post, more than 228,000 students from two hundred and thirty-four schools have been exposed to gun violence since April 1999. This includes not only those who have been killed or injured, but “children who witness the violence or cower behind locked doors to hide from it.”

DiFranco continues to perform the song live, though she’s updated the final verse to reflect the times. In a 2017 concert, she tweaked the lyrics to suggest opening fire on mass incarceration, fascists, racists, the DEA, the CIA, and “that Cheeto and all of his friends.”

In this regard, “To the Teeth” was eerily prescient, with DiFranco reminding us that when you “confuse liberty with weaponry,” you might then “watch your kids act it out.” But the song doesn’t merely comment on gun violence; it points fingers at those who the singer feels are the real perpetrators. “How can we allow the media and our entertainment conglomerates to promote guns so much and to foster this romanticism of guns amongst the youth?” she said in an interview with The Progressive’s Matthew Rothschild in May 2000. “How can we allow the NRA to control the government, and how can we allow weapons manufacturers to get more money than our fucking schools?”

Never one to mince words, DiFranco uses “To the Teeth” to offer up her “humble opinion” on how to handle the crisis, encouraging listeners to “open fire” on Hollywood, MTV, the Big Three television networks, the NRA, and “each weapons manufacturer / while he’s giving head to some Republican senator.” 

In the years following, she was repeatedly questioned about these lyrics — how could she condemn gun culture in one verse and advocate violence in another? But as she stated time and again, these lyrics aren’t meant to be taken literally. They’re a metaphorical response to those who glibly place the blame for mass shootings on music, movies, or video games. “It’s so maddening to me when people who start criticizing this culture of violence point to rappers and say, this guy is promoting violence, and look at him toting around his guns,” she told Rothschild. “Meanwhile, there is an army of white businessmen behind him who are selling this… It’s interesting how when people do start pointing fingers, it only goes so far. It rarely seems to hit the actual power structure behind it all.”

Twenty years after its release, DiFranco continues to perform the song live, though she’s updated the final verse to reflect the times. In a 2017 concert at New York City’s (Le) Poisson Rouge, she tweaked the lyrics to suggest opening fire on mass incarceration, fascists, racists, the DEA, the CIA, and “that Cheeto and all of his friends.”

“To the Teeth” ends with DiFranco mulling over taking her friends to Canada where they can “die of old age,” a nod toward the country’s stricter gun legislation. The 1999 recording then blossoms into a two-and-a-half minute New Orleans–style jam, with DiFranco’s tenor guitar melding into a joyful groove with her band.

Though DiFranco told Bill Radke she “feels sick” that this song remains so timely, she recognizes that it provides a powerful emotional release for listeners, too: “I think my writing is just about getting stuff out of my body, you know? And then, after a bunch of years you realize, oh, this can be not just good for me, this can also be cathartic for other people who feel and think the same.”

As long as mass shootings continue on an upward trend, the track will continue offering solace to those of us trying to make sense of the madness. It will be nice, though, if we can someday look back and think of it as just another Ani DiFranco song. FL

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