Defending Liz Phair

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

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

—Liz Phair,

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”?


Anyway, strictly in terms of clarity and consistency, her new record is her best since Exile in Guyville. (I have to put that album in its own category — it’s her Rebel Without a Cause, the unplanned moment of real inspiration.) If this thing flops, at least she can sleep knowing she made a real album. Doesn’t mean I’m going to be listening to it, but fuck — as a victim of countless single-driven piles of horseshit filler, I appreciate the effort it takes to write 13 decent songs and make them hang together. (There’re 14 songs, but “Favorite” is wretched: “You’re like my favorite underwear/It just feels right.” Please make it stop.)

Furthermore, the indie-lovers whining about her new sound are listening with superficial ears. (Nobody dissed Beck when he grabbed at MTV with Midnight Vultures.) The production may be more polished, but her songwriting is no worse than on her last two albums. Along with a lot of lame shit, “Good Love Never Dies” is fucking heartbreaking, and “H.W.C.” (“hot white cum”) is an excellent follow-up to “Flower.” Production aside, she hasn’t given up her essential weirdness — she’s just dressed it more tastefully.

The reason I ain’t mad at her is two-fold: One, there’s nothing inherently wrong with craving popular success. Two, she’s not selling out: She’s just not capable of better. She admitted this recently in Spin magazine: “Guyville was a really profound album, and I’ve tried to capture that again. But I can’t do it. I’m incapable of writing that kind of album again.”

Like I said, Phair has never been comfortable within the indie world, and I doubt there’s room for her in the pop world. That’s sad, because it could use her, but I don’t mistrust her desire to get on the radio. In fact, I respect it. Liz Phair wants to be a star — a complicated intellectual white-bread sexpot star. She’s just finally coming out about it. She said it best in the Spin interview: “Do I want to seem authentic or feel authentic? I chose feel.” I believe her. I respect her choice. And if this is the authentic Liz Phair, I now know for certain why I never really dug her that much in the first place.

-Kate Sullivan

2. All She Needs Is Love, Love, Fuckin’ Love

So, the supersmart singer and songwriter whose meticulously paced debut album, Exile in Guyville, exposed the conflicted lives of indie-rock girls in the ’90s — right down to their mean roommates and disassociated doggie-style one-nighters — has sold out. Gone soft, they say; making a craven bid for the awful and shameful fate that brought Sheryl Crow, Bonnie Raitt and Green Day down into the mainstream muck alongside Billy Joel. Having toiled for so long in the respectable but not terribly well-heeled ranks of sophisticated rockers of marginal appeal, Liz Phair now wants what everyone wants, when it comes right down to it — a salivating following on TRL.

Which isn’t so bad, really. The problem is what Phair did to get there: Hired Avril Lavigne’s producers, the Matrix (the evident gurus to aspiring pop stars with long stringy hair to dangle in their eyes), minimized instances of fuck in her lyrics, posed ridiculously like a coy nymphet in clothes that look like they might have been ordered from the Hello Kitty! catalog, her mouth half open and her nubile knees spread. You almost wonder why she stopped there and didn’t have her teeth outfitted in braces for the overhaul.

Part of the outrage is well-placed — what the fuck is she doing in those PR photos? Another part forgets who Liz Phair was, and is: never, ever anybody’s rebel. What dignified her, sanctified her, made our hearts break and allowed us to find ourselves in her was that she told the truth about one big thing: her raging longing to be loved. Loved, loved, loved. Loved by men, envied by women, adored by the masses — loved despite her obvious and humanizing inadequacies (loud, moody, not quite pretty enough). “I want to be cool, tall, vulnerable and luscious,” she sang on whitechocolatespaceegg, “I would have it all if I could only have this much.” Even Exile’s “Fuck and Run,” as much as it’s now been twisted into some forthright anthem of girlish defiance, was nearly desperate at its core: “I want a boyfriend,” Phair pleaded. “I want a boyfriend/I want all that stupid old shit/letters and sodas.” For all her naughtiness, she was never Missy Elliott, asking for advance notice before a date so she could shave her choca, instructing her lover to “go downtown and eat it like a vulture.” Phair has always been more compliant than that. At her rawest, she told of teen girls gossiping about a classmate’s stubbly bikini line. Most of the time she was stomping her feet, filling her Chicago microbrew with tears and complaining bitterly about how the mixed-up bickering of lovers could ruin a perfectly good day.


That was her charm from the start, nearly 10 years ago. She was an average-looking straight-haired dishwater-blond upper-middle-class 26-year-old woman with a guitar and a long string of boyfriends behind her, boyfriends who misconstrued her and told her she wasn’t worth talking to (after, we assume, she lost that goddamn map); Johnny Feelgoods who threw her around in the back of their convertible cars and left her aching for just one more night. And she had a voice, and wit, and she’d made a record, which isn’t all that common among her kind.

That’s still her charm. The difference now is that Phair got married, had a baby (we accused her of going soft, then, too) got divorced and is raising her 6-year-old son alone. Not too many women like her are making major-label records, either — certainly none on Capitol, as far as I can tell — and none are writing about their ‰ lives with Phair’s still-exacting observations. Between her lines you can hear her current truth: She is no longer in a position to make a well-reviewed record that makes no money. She needs to make a record that means she doesn’t have to make too many more.

Liz Phair is no Exile. It isn’t the kind of music that moves me, particularly — it’s too familiar, too jaunty, too uncomplicated. I’ll sing along to “Extraordinary” when I hear it and think it’s sweet, because in it Phair nails that nagging if-only-you’d-get-to-know-me-you’d-love-me feeling almost as perfectly as that Maya Angelou e-mail that’s been making the rounds the last few years, the one about how beautiful all women are on the inside. But I won’t play that song again after I’ve written this, because it doesn’t cut deep enough — it’s the next episode, the you’ll-dump-me-when-you-get-to-know-me part, that strikes me as more worth the agony of a song, if a little too hopeless to fit into a pop lyric. On the other hand, “Little Digger” — a song on the new record with a sappy melody buried in hyperproduced electronics — keeps calling me back and laying me flat. She wrote it for her son, the little boy who’s trying hard these days to bond with the new man in his mom’s bed, even as he wishes it weren’t quite true:

You put your trucks up on the bed next to him
So he can get a better look at them
“This one’s my favorite one, this one you can’t have,
“I got it from my dad”

Phair is just as honest as she ever was. She’s just being honest about a very different life.

-Judith Lewis

3. She Wants To Be Mesmerizing Too

Liz Phair opens on a hat trick of shiny, hook-heavy girl anthems — three songs that announce Liz Phair’s intentions for her fourth album, clearly her audacious grab at chart-topping stardom. These songs and the rest that follow on Liz Phair are already pissing off fans who feel that their indie hero, rather that making an artistic leap, is taking a dive. But Liz Phair is closer in spirit to Guyville than anything she’s done since her debut disc.

That record was appropriation as calling card: The old boys won’t let me rock, says Guyville, so I’ll remake one of their touchstones. This time Phair aims at a music world that, 10 years and two more albums later, still overlooks her in favor of what are essentially dumbed-down, tarted-up versions of herself. Meanwhile, those who find pathetic Phair’s bid for a higher profile are missing the point: She’s always wanted to be a star — taking on the Stones isn’t exactly a retiring move — and, furthermore, it seems to be working. When’s the last time she generated so much press?

This is all aside from the simple fact that the album is good — solid, worthy pop. There are great songs, good ones, some clunkers — which could just as easily be said about the White Stripes record. And under the candy glazing, it’s all Liz Phair, from the talky lyrics and chunky phrasing, to the smart-ass larks (a la-dee-da tune about “hot white cum”) and unladylike declarations (“See me licking my lips, need a primitive fix” she sings on the hot-button single “Extraordinary”). What the slick productions do is finesse what were long seen as her weaknesses, namely her shallow vocal range and flat arrangements. Frankly, Phair sounds good all prettied up and backed by punchy guitars, although it would have been nice if her hotshot producers could have held back a little, especially on the stiff shot of younger-man lust “Rock Me,” which gets buried in androidy effects. If I were 11, this would be my very favorite record, my entrée to tougher things. As a grown-up, I can groove more honestly on Phair’s catchy ode to anticipation, “Why Can’t I?,” knowing that both she and I ken the vicissitudes of romantic expectation a lot better than we did way back when. I’d put it on to clean the house, and those anthems sound great in the car — breathless lyrics, sing-along choruses, calibrated layers and all.


-Hazel Dawn Dumpert

4. Extraordinary Supergoddess

Exile in Guyville, Liz Phair’s powder-keg debut, famously framed the 20-something feminine mystique as a smart, sassy rejoinder to the Rolling Stones’ swaggering machismo; Exile’s songs, which illuminated bitchy scene politics and a crass menagerie of sexual preferences in a dorm-room lingua franca that still resonates today, proffered an exacting lyrical reflection of their lo-fi, demo-quality sonics. Yet the secret strength of Phair’s writing has always been the inconsolable melancholy underpinning its tough-girl braggadocio; when Phair tells a boyfriend she wants to be his “blowjob queen,” it’s empowering and pathetic at the same time.

An L.A.-based (well, Manhattan Beach) single mom now, Phair sought outside help from pro production team the Matrix, Pete Yorn enabler R. Walt Vincent and studio-pop perfectionist Michael Penn in making the album, and their handiwork shines: These 14 tunes are the aural opposite of lo-fi, packed with ringing guitar hooks, arena-sized distortion and oppressively precise drumming, glazed with the kind of radio-ready sheen Clear Channel execs dream of. And Phair’s cleaned up her language — excepting the intentionally button-pushing (yet strangely earnest) “H.W.C.,” which big-ups the skin-care virtues of “hot white cum” — sticking instead to time-honored questions like “Why can’t I breathe whenever I think about you?”

It’s a pitiful grab at belated pop-star success, of course, as Phair could be Avril Lavigne’s cool aunt. But she seems so into it, so enamored with the fun of tossing her hair, that only the sternest indie purist would deny herself — or himself — the album’s pleasures. Or its pain, like when the old melancholy surfaces in opener “Extraordinary,” where Phair describes herself as “your ordinary, average, everyday, sane, psycho supergoddess”; she’s boasting, but she’s also insisting. Phair will save her own damn soul, thank you very much.

-Mikael Wood


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