Defending Liz Phair 

(4 times better than she does)

Photo by Phil Poynter

The eponymously titled and much anticipated Liz Phair . . . is, as Ms. Phair has suggested, her bid for center stage — the moment when she will finally make the leap from indie-rock quasi-stardom to teen-pop levels of superstardom. Instead, she has committed an embarrassing form of career suicide.

Meghan O’Rourke, The New York Times, June 22

Chicken Little cowered in the corner as a fork of lightning licked the trees. “It’s dangerous!” she cried, “you could slip on the wetness! You could catch a nasty cold! You could get electrocuted!” The three readers laughed, and went back out to experience the mystery of the storm, without thinking, without deconstructing, without checking what the other would do first. “Listen to me! Listen to me!”

—Liz Phair, The New York Times, June 29

1. Get Over It, Indie Lovers

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The Matrix gave me really amazing vocals, melodies that I wouldn’t have thought of on my own . . .

—Liz Phair, ModernRock.com

That is so fuckin’ awesome, man. I mean, I knew the Matrix made stuff, like cities and vampires and déjà vu, but I didn’t know it made music, too. But of course. I mean, it explains so much.

Avril Lavigne? So the Matrix.

So anyway, Liz Phair plugged herself partly into the Matrix to make her new, fourth album, which is her first overt attempt at serious radio play and pop stardom. She’s not the first older female singer-songwriter to court Mammon with big production (Sheryl Crow and Shelby Lynne come to mind, for starters), but she’s definitely the most awkward. Simply put, Liz Phair is inherently awkward in the world, no matter where she tries to fit in: She couldn’t squeeze herself into the puritanical indie-rock mold, that’s for sure. And there’s no way she’s gonna fit in on corporate radio. She’s just too weird, even when she softens her edges.

I like that about her. But I’m not a huge fan, so I’m having a hard time getting all offended and disillusioned by her latest scheme to maybe, somehow, finally become a rock star. For one thing, I never had that much invested in her: I appreciated Exile in Guyville, for sure, but, unlike so many of her fans, I never felt she spoke for me. She spoke for herself, as far as I could tell, with way more sexual confidence than I had. (The closest I ever got to her was the line “I want a boyfriend.”)

Plus, I realized a long time ago Liz Phair wanted to be a glamour queen and not a kick-ass rock hero. It happened the first time I saw her live, in Minneapolis, during the tour for Whip-Smart, I think — maybe whitechocolatespaceegg — anyway, it was years ago. The club was overpacked, and Phair kept us waiting for like 45 minutes, forcing us to watch a series of slides of her in a photo booth with some hot guy, showing her boobs, as she loved to do. (Even the photos for Exile in Guyville were pretty jug-o-tastic.) It was the most self-indulgent load of crap I have ever witnessed at a concert. Finally, Phair appeared, wearing a floor-length satin gown and trainers. She was tan, taut, blond — and I don’t know how to explain this, but she smelled of cash. Not in a rock-star way, but in a well-educated-daughter-of-a-prominent-Chicago-physician way.

I was so fucking jealous I could have punched that bitch. Where did she get off: rich, skinny and talented, and a totally hip rock musician? And clearly sporting an ego the size of Lake Michigan?

It was then I realized that Liz Phair would probably never be the person I wanted her to be — neither a normal girl like me, nor a snarling rock monster like Chrissie Hynde or PJ Harvey or even Courtney Love. If I was jealous, that was my problem, and I needed to get a fucking life. Yeah, I wish she didn’t need so desperately to be hot. Yes, I wish she were scarier, deeper, more talented, more masculine, less predictable in her values. I want her to embody the rock & roll spirit of rebellion. But she doesn’t, in that way.

I could have loved her despite it all if her records had been better. But whitechocolatespaceegg was such a muddle — one minute she was ripping off Led Zeppelin for no apparent reason; the next, she seemed to be fumbling in vain for something like Guyville, but without the urgency, or even the fun Stones vibe. It sounded like a contractual-obligation record, not a burning missive from the muse. I would have even settled for a balls-out mercenary pop album. Get Max Martin on the job — can’t you just imagine Phair singing “. . . Baby One More Time”?

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