Sellout. Fake. Phony. Career killer. Catastrophe.
Those are some of the words used recently to describe Liz Phair, the artist, and Liz Phair, the June-released album from Capitol Records. In the annals of The New York Times, Time magazine and Pitchfork Media, among many others, it's been decided that the once-vital Phair has become an embarrassment to herself and to the fans who used to revere her as a free-spirited and foul-mouthed champion of indie-rock ethos.
How does she answer the charges?
Liz Phair performs August 1 at the Granada Theater, with Jason Mraz and Sondre Lerche.
"Really, the longer it goes on, the harder it is for me to figure out exactly what people are so upset about," Phair says over the phone from Los Angeles, sounding a little weary of the whole damn thing. "It's kind of like they involve me in some kind of political scenario. It's like, 'Oh, no! She changed her platform! This isn't what she campaigned on!' Which is good, because it means that they were really attached to the earlier work. But, ultimately, I just made one record here, and I've made others, and I'll make others. This is one aspect of my personality that maybe they haven't seen before, but that doesn't mean it wasn't there."
Phair may have a hard time understanding why her new album has come as a jolt to the critical army and her long-standing fans, but the reasons are actually quite comprehendible to anyone who's followed her career over the past decade. A common thread runs through most of the indictments: In 1993, at age 26, Phair released Exile in Guyville, an important record that mated an abundant sexuality with intelligence and good, old-fashioned hooks--and that ultimately helped to change perceptions about the fairer sex's ability to write a song and then crank it on a guitar. Today, however, she's released an unabashedly commercial effort that recasts her as a shadow of her formerly fierce self.
The singer-songwriter didn't just provide plenty of ammo for this argument; she practically loaded the cannon herself. Newly backed by Capitol Records after a five-year hiatus and a three-album run with Matador, Phair announced--without the slightest glimmer of apology, embarrassment or irony--that she wanted to become a staple of commercial pop radio and, along the way, sell a million copies of Liz Phair. It was a particularly bold, possibly harebrained, statement. Exile in Guyville sold roughly half that; the two releases that followed, 1994's Whip-Smart and 1998's whitechocolatespaceegg, each sold progressively less. Radio was never particularly kind to her, either, and the medium has only gotten more unfriendly since she left the ring. The niche she helped carve for smart, song-driven female rockers had been almost entirely bricked up by the likes of Christina Aguilera, Avril Lavigne and Pink, artists with whom she has very little in common.
Or with whom she used to have very little in common. Once a staunchly autonomous songwriter, Phair enlisted the help of not just one collaborator, but a team of songwriter-producers for the new album; worse, that team was the Matrix, the hit-making force behind pop starlets such as Lavigne and Aguilera. The resultant lead single, "Why Can't I?" boasts ooh-ooh-baby choruses, a thick production gloss and a video replete with seizure-inducing strobe-style edits, skin aplenty and the slightly unnerving sight of Phair writhing around on the floor like a horny toddler.
Phair called it a comeback. But practically everyone else was soon calling it the last stand of a woman on the brink of total career oblivion. Who was this wannabe pop tart, and what had she done with our once-and-future indie goddess? The way Phair sees it, her only crime was revealing a part of herself that was there all along.
"I'm actually happy to thumb my nose at those people--to say, 'Yeah, I feel completely comfortable with the idea that I can enjoy something that's totally off-the-wall obscure, but I can also get really into cranking up Shakira on the radio,'" she says. "That's my territory, too.
"I've always had this extreme irritation with indieville. That's what I wrote Guyville about," she continues. "It was these people who were so rigid: You could like this and you couldn't like that. And I could never really participate in it, because then I would have to admit that I liked listening to the Police."
Liz Phair does not represent Phair's first foray into pop territory. Even Exile in Guyville had its commercial strivings, however modest; the uncharacteristically radio-friendly (and expletive-free) "Never Said" served as the album's most-pushed single. Whip-Smart had some overt pop ambitions, as well: The single "Supernova" was maddeningly catchy, about as deep as a slop bucket and a thoroughly fun listen. The problem with Liz Phair isn't so much that Phair's making a bid for the mainstream; it's that she hasn't done so particularly well. The singles "Extraordinary" and "Why Can't I?" sound desperate, and they're irritating where they should be confident and hooky. Stylistically, the recording has the consistency of a gravel milkshake, and it spends too much time being oversexed and silly ("Rock Me," a paean to younger men and Xboxes), and sometimes just plain base. "H.W.C.," for example, celebrates the curative powers of spunk: "It's the fountain of youth/It's the meaning of life/Baby, you're the best magazine advice."
But if it's a mess, says Phair, then so is she.
"My idea of an album is that I have one song for each trait in my personality. I like to have my whole self out there and to encompass sets of opposites," she says. "Like, I'm a mom, but I'm still interested in being as fiery and sexy as I can possibly be; it's always struck me as sexist--and elitist, frankly--to think that those things can't go together. If you really listen to Guyville, you see that all of the songs contradict each other. You'll have something like 'Girls, Girls, Girls' or 'Fuck and Run' next to something that is a little more quiet and vulnerable. That's something that great artists are really successful at doing. Recognizing that everyone is contradictory, and to deny that or suppress that or be embarrassed about it, is to go against your own nature."
Maybe, but it's hard to know what personality trait or deep artistic impulse is represented by "Favorite," a grating anthem in which Phair likens her lover to an old pair of panties: "You know how you feel?/You feel like my favorite pair of underwear/And I'm slipping you on again tonight." When Phair still lived in the proximity of Guyville, she employed sexuality to reveal something about character. Even "Fuck and Run," her infamous opus on one-night stands, was not really about fucking; it was about bad judgment, low self-esteem and the haze of humiliation that clouds the morning after. The aspiring blow-job queen knew that the most mundane details could be the most revelatory. She was, sometimes, just writing about sex: getting some, wanting to get some and taking stock of the situation after sex had been gotten. But more often, it was about mapping the vast murky territories that lie between men and women--the hurt, excitement, desperation and desire that invariably creep in when they try to get together.
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Now her sexuality often feels like the pseudo-sensual posturing of a woman who aspires to join the MTV harem. Newly divorced and a single mom at 36, Phair appears on the cover of the disc nearly nude, just one scrap of a silk scarf away from coitus instrumentus. "Rock Me" is ostensibly about an older woman's desire to cut loose with a younger man, but in the final tally, it's just another do-me ditty: "Baby, if it's all right/Want you to rock me all night/All night/Yeah/Rock...me...all...night." (For the record, she isn't dating a younger man, as "Rock Me" has led some to posit: "I often channel for songs, and that's the exciting thing. I'm never supposed to say that. I'm supposed to toe the party line and say that they're all totally confessional: 'Yeah, I lost my virginity at 12, and I fuck all the time.' Sometimes you just take things and piece them together, and sometimes you just make them up. That's what makes it art.")
Still, despite its many missteps, the new record has its moments. It's not as much of a catastrophe as The New York Times would like us to believe. The tracks that Phair penned on her own are the album's best--suggesting that while she isn't an especially prolific songwriter, and while she flubbed big time by allowing the Matrix to get its mitts all over her, she's still got some ink left in her pen. "Bionic Eyes," a cynical reading of an adult woman's relationship to her own sexuality, and "Little Digger," a plaintive and personal appeal to her son, who's dealing with the idea of his divorced mom dating men other than his dad, suggest the wit, honesty and flawed humanity that made her endearing in the first place. But Phair's sparkling moments are sporadic and, in some cases, hidden: Embedded in the Liz Phair CD is comeandgetit, a scrappy, four-song downloadable EP that is likely to resonate with older fans. That is, if they stick around long enough to hear it.
"I know some people feel personally affronted by this record, but ultimately, that is not my responsibility," Phair says. "We're talking about my creative decisions--an album! One album. That's all it is. I've never been able to understand why everything I do is examined so seriously. It's like people link things in their lives to mine.
"Ultimately, I really don't think your identity should be so wrapped up in what kind of music you like," she says. "There should be other things, other core values, that are more important. And if music is such a huge fixation that it defines you, then I think maybe you need to get a life."