A subdivision of ACIDEMIC

Monday, February 1, 2010

Liz Phair: Siren, Sinner, Sister, Sell-Out

(From my discography entry in the now defunct Amp Camp, c. 2001):

Liz Phair: Miss Popular, the queen of the indie prom, the cute Chicago girl who can actually play guitar and write and sing good songs, who lives alone in the dorm room down the hall and only the coolest kids aren't afraid to talk to, the girl that all the other girls hate, who spends her nights alone with a four track and a bong, composing songs about how promiscuous she was in high school and would like to be now. Talking dirty and driving the boys crazy, she's a mix of droll songwriting talent and sex addiction all wrapped up in a cute-as-a-button package. My friends who have friends who know her from school say she's simultaneously using the nymph boy-eater posing as a gimmick and at the same time is far more voracious and crazy than she pretends to be, while also being a closet "normal" -- in other words, they don't know anything about her either.

A brilliant lyricist and notoriously self-conscious performer, Liz Phair was a package no sulky  indie boy or shopworn punkette with an ear for outsider genius could resist. Her debut album, Exile in Guyville landed her the top spot on the 1994 Village Voice Pazz and Jop Critic's poll, but the studio-produced follow up, Whip Smart, was accused of being too mainstream. Word was, she let the producers and studio musicians boss her around, and then--to make matters worse--she went and got married and had a baby. 

Hearts lay broken everywhere.

But she surprised many a few years later with whitechocolatepsacegg, wherein she looked upon motherhood with a mix of horror and good-natured sarcasm, much to our relief. BUT, then she decided to "sell out" after all, and signed with a major label, slutted-up her costumes and brought in airbrush artists and make-up technicians to remould her in a Britney-cum-MILF mode. 30something fans dropped off by the droves, to be replaced by teenybopper girls (or so she and her new label hoped). But hey, she's on a journey, and maturity has been very kind to her, replacing her precocious cuteness with a sexuality that could drop a rhino at 30 paces. Don't hate her 'cuz she's beautiful or because she sold out, hate her because she writes brilliant songs without even trying, and suddenly wants to spend more time with her stupid son than us.


Supposedly a feminist "answer" to the macho swagger of the Rolling Stones' 1972 Exile on Main Street, this sprawling masterpiece showed how one girl and her pet four-track could do more musical damage than your mama and all her biker friends after a case of tequila and an eightball of crank. She potty-mouths off to the older boys that may have once taken advantage of her in tracks like "Fuck and Run," and "Help Me, Mary," while occasionally getting all effortlessly catchy, as in "Never Said" wherein her nasal voice makes it sound like she's been (gasp) SMOKING!  Then in "Canary" and "Flower" she twists the knife all the way in, revealing the pig's blood-soaked telekenetic Carrie underneath the coy homecoming queen veneer. Raw and unhinged, the low-fi trappings here may alienate new listeners, but this album is the one that knocked the rock-and-roll boys club forever and completely on its ass. Miss it at your own risk.  A


The critical adulation Phair received for her Exile in Guyville led to the studio-recorded follow-up getting some major label distribution and even an MTV-friendly video for the single, "Supernova." Despite cries of sell-out (even then!) from some of the hardcore indie mopers this is a fine collection of songs, much more coherent and resonant than many of the lesser tracks on Guyville. "Jealousy" benefits from an addictive, propulsive rhythm as its narrator goes snooping through her lovers drawer of ex-girlfriend photos, echoing the co-dependent yowling of Alannis Morrisette's Jagged Little Pill released the same year but in a way that revealed far more apathy - like Phair's deliberately nurturing the jealous anger in herself just so she can heighten her high. Other stand-out tracks are "May Queen" and "Crater Lake," with its now classic line, "Well, look at me / I'm frightening my friends." If the sexually frank opening track, "Chopsticks," seems as if she's talking dirty just to show she can still shock prurient ears, that "Crater Lake" sentiment gets to the real truth underlying our socially conditioned reactions to such behavior: It's "cute" for girls to talk dirty, but if they start telling the real truth about things people just get start throwing rocks. Thank God that Phair still isn't afraid to do exactly that, no matter who she frightens. B+


Recorded post-child, Phair's third album received some great notices as a mature, edgy, even experimental departure for the indie princess of profanity. Sardonic power chords and spooky prog keyboards count among the many inspired flourishes, showing the whole child thing gave the lass some time to think and expand on her sound in her own weird way. The album kicks off with three instant back to back classics, culminating with the single, "Polyester Bride," a Beck-like send-up of 1970's AOR radio that confused a lot of critics who "didn't get the joke" (or maybe I'm just so in love with her I gave it the benefit of the doubt.) Then there was the infectious electro-bounce of "Headache" and her use of different narrative voices to reconfigure herself as a Randy Newman-style storyteller ("Shitloads of Money" comes off as a somehow less ironic sequel to "It's Money that Matters"). The sheer exuberant catchiness of the optimistic "What Makes You Happy" and the folky lilt of "Uncle Alvarez" show Phair as an artist spreading her wings in a way that makes the alleged "sell out" of her following album less shocking in hindsight, but nonetheless, here we go...A-

 LIZ PHAIR (2003)

Shocking! The queen of low fi (who hadn't really been lo-fi since her debut) drops all her pretensions and makes a distinctly unlady-like grab for the big gold ring of Top 40 girlpop. Slick production team the Matrix, who helped Avril Lavaigne, here work the same mojo on several tracks, including Phair's first chart-breaker, the irresistible "Why Can't I." The many-bridged psychosexual boasting of "Extraordinary" is a definite shocker with production so slick it is beyond slick. But then the smoke clears and all the fuss turns out to be a little unfounded and we start revisiting all the old Phair neighborhoods, exploring her favorite topics such as oral sex ("H.W.C.") and the seduction of impressionable babysitters (this time from the POV of the mother, "Rock Me").  In the heartbreaking "Little Digger" she explains to her 5-year old son why all these strange men keep appearing in her bed. In a way she could be addressing her whole dejected indie boy fan base, who she knew in advance were going to receive this album with angry, tear-stained dejection. From now on, we would have to share mommy with the whole wide world. She hoped! C-

Much as I hate to admit it, this cute cover makes me weak at the knees every time I see it, but Phair and I are through, finito, so there's no more listening and trying to like stuff and then getting my feeling's hurt as I realize she's not singing to my demographic anymore... she's singing for the suits, the 'tweeners and the void. Alas, a lot of people agreed with me and the last I knew they weren't even able to give Somebody's Miracle away... probably that helped prompt the career decision to do a bells-and-whistles re-release of Exile to see if all her dorky fans will now accept her as a mid-90s nostalgia act instead of alternative's Mata Hari. For me, the paint still drying on the cement floor where my heart once lay, it's gonna take another 8 years.

BUT, damn can she sizzle with a good photographer and sultry poutfit. Let's take a little pictorial walkthrough and see how one talented, my-age indie rocker goes from 80s high school girl to bitingly witty alt-rock princess to just another airbrushed Maxim boytoy:


I'm not debating her third-wave feminist right to sell out and get paid but... sheesh, there's a line between the Madonna "use it cause you got it but also deconstruct it" and the merely "use it because the publicity agents flatter your vanity." Funny that in posting all this, mainly because I found my old Liz Phair discography work from 2001 for Amp Camp, I'm now back in swooning love with this edgy MILF icon, and all the accompanying jealous pique that love entails.

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