Fuck Guilty Pleasures: Why Liz Phair's MILF Makeover Is Over Your Head

This picture encapsulates why hipsters hate Liz Phair
This picture encapsulates why hipsters hate Liz Phair

By Dan Weiss

[Editor's Note: Fuck Guilt Pleasures celebrates the over-produced, commercial, artless, lowbrow music that we believe is genuinely worthwhile. Like, among the best music ever.]

Last year, Liz Phair quietly posted an album to her website called Funstyle, which contained rapping, light pop fare and pointed (yet silly) skits attacking her label. It didn't smooth things over with fans of her blunt, confessional debut, Exile in Guyville, who already felt betrayed by her 2000s bleach-blonde, mom-pop makeover.

Critcs pointed frantically at the further evidence that the girl they'd thought was their blowjob queen had lost her mind. "Cluttered, scattershot and perverse," opined The New York Times. Pitchfork compared it to Dylan's Self-Portrait as a "shrewd way to lower expectations" and gave it a 2.6, which would place it in their canon above both Somebody's Miracle (2.0) and Liz Phair (0.0).

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Something about Phair makes people unable to resist overreacting, Even when she releases a download-only item called Funstyle, not a single track from which she actually played on the tour supporting it.

But Phair's love of shocking her observers has always made her go. On one of her most beloved songs, it wasn't enough to sing "Fuck and run/ Even when I was 17." She had to up the ante a notch, to "Even when I was 12." It made sense, considering she'd named Guyville after a Stones' work, the group who once snuck "you make a dead man come" into a #2 hit.

But 2003's begrudged Liz Phair proved that she's completely unable to cater to an audience. Whether it's the pop radio she finally conquered with "Why Can't I?" ("we haven't fucked yet but my head's spinning") or the indie-rockers she mortified by announcing her love of Xbox and bukkake facials, there's a reason she needs her day job. (Scoring television, for which she's won an ASCAP award.)

A middle-aged mother dressing up as teenpop, sneaking dirty words onto the radio and rule breaking onto Matador, a flagship label for scene strictures. Does any of this sound kind of punk?

But her haters are straight missing out on great music. Like when she announces to her decade-junior lover, "You don't even know who 'Liz Phair' is," on "Rock Me," a 2003 banger off of Liz Phair with a great riff, exultant "baby baby baby" chorus and her least tempered sexuality to date. That same album's "H.W.C." (the first two letters stand for "hot" and "white") celebrates how sex is saving her from middle age ("My skin's getting clear/ My hair's so bright"). And in "Little Digger," her son catches her in bed with a guy she hasn't introduced yet.

 

All of this is too much for indie rock. The stories are too concrete, too grotesque, and dare I say, sex-positive. Exile in Guyville was shadowed with regret. Liz Phair's too old to waste time dwelling on that shit. Most tellingly, the difference between Guyville's dirtiest moment, "Flower" ("I want to be your blowjob queen") and Liz Phair's ("Give me your hot white cum") is subservience.

So of course she did a rap song. It gave her pleasure, which means she didn't feel guilty about it. It wasn't her best song, though "Rock Me" and "H.W.C." are as compelling as "Fuck and Run" or "Flower." And if you enjoy her shock value but love her melodies, even the maligned Somebody's Miracle will reward you if you let it; "Table for One," "Lost Tonight," "Leap of Innocence" and "Lazy Dreamer" are some of her loveliest, simplest pop songs.

Yes, pop songs. Why can't she?


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