Punk rock and hip-hop (if not John “Working Class Hero” Lennon) brought four-letter words into the music mainstream, but it was Liz Phair who reclaimed “fuck” as active verb for the undersexed indie-rock generation. Arriving in the cute and coy wake of Juliana Hatfield, the soft-willed infantilists and a million wimpy boy bands fearful of letting their testosterone leak out, singer/guitarist Phair emerged from a Chicago bedroom to bare her knuckles and some portion of her soul in melodically seductive and lyrically blunt eyewitness accounts of the war between the sexes. Whether Phair is the daring, desirous and disgusted woman of her songs or a provocatively imaginative nose-thumber, the gap between her creations and herself led directly into a maze of fantasies, controversies and contradictions for fans and detractors alike. A singer who announces herself as “your blow-job queen” and promises “everything you ever wanted…I’ll fuck you ’til your dick is blue” (to quote the oft-cited “Flower” on Exile in Guyville) raises issues that can’t properly be settled in a two-minute song. As illuminating and resonant as her impudent declarations of independence may be, she’s also been seen as both a titillating tease and a willing victim with a cute butt. And that’s not accounting for suspicions that she’s a phony.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter where the truth and illusion in all this lies: Phair cuts a potent figure in modern rock by stepping outside the boundaries against which such female pioneers as Chrissie Hynde, Holly Vincent, Joan Jett and Nina Hagen had to strain. By changing the terms of the struggle, Phair helped add a crucial why-not option to the creative menu for girls with guitars. At worst, it’s hard to imagine Alanis Morissette making Jagged Little Pill without Exile in Guyville as encouragement.
Prior to signing with Matador, Phair had a reputation on the groovy fanzine circuit owing to her home-made Girly Sound cassettes, actual samples of which can be heard on the Juvenilia mini-album. (She also remade songs from both for the LPs.) But the attention and adulation that met Exile in Guyville was earned strictly on the album’s considerable merits. Phair’s avowed conceptual device of writing and recording an analogue to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St produced audible echoes of that record here and there but amounted to a red herring, a pirate’s map for academically minded critics who wasted endless hours in scrutiny and debate. How Phair (and co- producer Brad Wood) approached the construction of her eighteen-track extravaganza doesn’t matter. It’s the individual songs, not their unfathomable totality, that makes Guyville (the title a wryly critical nickname for Chicago’s incestuous underground rock scene) so great. The spare arrangements feature Phair strumming oddly shaped guitar chords and singing in a soft, unsteady voice, as Wood and engineer Casey Rice add lean portions of drums, guitar, bass and organ to fashion a fascinating variety of sounds. “Fuck and Run,” “6’1″,” “Divorce Song” and “Never Said” march to brisk rock strength. “Explain It to Me” and “Gunshy” lose themselves in woozy tremolo swirls. “Glory” is an acoustic whisper; “Soap Star Joe” a bluesy raunch. In truth, presentation matters little to Phair, whose ingenious gift for tartly expressive lyrics and memorable melodies fills the album with songs that express strong ideas in a most alluring fashion. Opening a wardrobe of dramatis personae that includes sexual bully (“Flower”), simpering victim (“Divorce Song”), romantic skeptic (“6’1″”), self-critical pushover (“Fuck and Run”), housebound hostage (“Help Me Mary”) and defensive punk (“Never Said”), Phair reflects the uncertainty of real life, caulking brash outspokenness about her personal experiences with fears and irrationalities anyone can understand.
Returning with Whip-smart, Phair is still the ideal ’90s woman: smart, sexy, charming, crude, autonomous. Upping the ante in diversity, ambition and emotional maturity, Phair amplifies her strengths, complicates her character and reveals no heretofore overlooked flaws. If no songs here are as singularly devastating as “Fuck and Run,” Whip-smart‘s fuller arrangements and consistent quality are a satisfactory trade-off. Sidestepping the trap of writing about career calculus, Phair continues her mine-strewn journey through carnality, relationships and self- discovery. Though riddled with geographical references and vehicular motion, the album sits still long enough to resume the debut’s hapless, low-expectations grappling. In the conspicuous first verse of the album- opening “Chopsticks,” over a suitably naïve two-finger piano figure, she meets a man who likes “to do it backwards.” That suits her fine. Replying with a hooker’s withering suckerpunch, the narrator has her own angle on the position. “That way we can fuck and watch TV.” Point, set. Meanwhile, other songs map out new terrain. In “Go West,” one of several which pose seemingly serious personal reflections in an ambiguous blur of pronouns and romantic reports, Phair announces, “I’ve got to tear my life apart…It feels like I’ve got something to prove, but in some ways it’s just something to do.” The real love creeping up on her in the catchy “Cinco de Mayo” and the soulful, Pretenders-like ballad “Nashville” outlines a future free of self-satisfying disdain and the ironic toxins of “Jealousy” (“I can’t believe you had a life before me/I can’t believe they let you run around free”); the title track goes so far as to conceive wisdom-filled parenthood. But while she seems happy to embrace hope, Phair isn’t ready to relinquish her diffidence: The dreamy, low-key “Shane” ends with a mantra that commands “You gotta have fear in your heart.”
The sketchy presentation of the five rudimentary Girly Sound artifacts — crudely recorded with one electric guitar and double-tracked vocals — on Juvenilia isn’t what makes them insignificant. As of these formative efforts, Phair’s melodic skills are in a more advanced state than her lyrics, which only hint at the focused invention to come. (“California” and “South Dakota,” which prefigure the geographical obsessions of Whip-smart, both make joking reference to fucking cows.) The sullen “Easy” is the only song strong enough to have potentially found a home in Guyville; the others are strictly for the archives. Otherwise, this interim release contains the second album’s “Jealousy,” the previously unissued piano-backed “Animal Girl” and a pointless cover of the Vapors’ new wave nugget, “Turning Japanese,” hastened along breathlessly by Material Issue, whose Jim Ellison does half the singing.
The long silence between the one-two punch of Guyville and Whip-smart, combined with the fact that many of the songs featured on those two albums dated back to the Girly Sound tapes, led to suspicions that Phair might have said all she had to say. When it finally arrived, Whitechocolatespaceegg established Phair once and for all as a serious major artist. Also produced by Phair and Wood, this solid, mature album focuses on Phair’s new marriage, maturity and motherhood, with some of her best, most insightful songs. Notably absent is any attempt at shock for shock’s sake: when she drops the F-bomb, it’s always in service to the song, free of any “see how nasty I am” snicker. “Polyester Bride” is the best cut here, but the song which, in retrospect, merits the most attention is “Shitloads of Money.” “It’s nice to be liked / But it’s better by far to get paid,” Phair announces. At the time, the assumption was that the indie queen was being ironic. The next stage of her career suggested that she had never been more direct or honest.
During another long recording gap, Phair’s marriage dissolved, she sang backup on Sheryl Crow’s unnervingly Phair-like “Soak Up the Sun” and tried her hand at acting, making a favorable impression as Robin Tunney’s bitchy boss in the indie film Cherish. When she did get around to releasing Liz Phair, it looked like she was commemorating Guyville‘s tenth anniversary by stirring up another huge controversy.
Phair had finished the album with producers Michael Penn and R. Walt Vincent and turned it into the label. Everyone was happy with it, except Phair herself. Ten years earlier, during the media rush on Guyville, the young auteur told interviewers that airplay and hits were not really her aim. To a 35-year-old single mother, however, especially one who had seen whole chunks of her persona ridden to the top of the charts by the likes of Alanis Morissette and Meredith Brooks while she remained stuck in the cult artist/critical darling category, such impractical idealism no longer swayed her. Phair decided to go for the gold.
She scrapped part of the album and hired the Matrix, the songwriting/production team that had made an overnight star of Canadian teen pop-rocker Avril Lavigne, in many ways one of Phair’s musical granddaughters. The wounded “sell-out” cries from the indie community were loud and legion. Phair added fuel to the fire with comments like “I have no desire to be Wilco,” a statement which, in the heady post-Yankee Hotel Foxtrot days of 2003, was on a par with John Lennon’s bigger than Jesus remark. She alienated what was left of her feminist following by announcing that her fondest wish was to marry a nice rich man who would support her and her son and allow her to just sit around and create art when the whim struck her.
And then there were the photo shoots…Phair was never shy about exploiting her looks, but it was always ironic, nudge-nudge-wink-wink, sexy-in-quotation-marks stuff. Posing half-naked for hubba-hubba shots in laddie mags promoting an album she dared to hope would be commercially successful was something else entirely and a completely unforgivable crossing of some line or another.
With nearly everyone who cared calling for her pretty head on a platter, Phair insisted that she had always been a fan of Top 40 radio and wanted a Top 40 single of her own. Why enlisting the Matrix to make that happen was any worse than a band of indie-rock fans enlisting Dave Fridman or Steve Albini (or Brad Wood, for that matter) to produce their album and gain instant credibility was beyond her, and she couldn’t understand what the fuss was about. And besides, she had a kid to feed.
The possibility (probability?) remains that the whole controversy was just one more provocation from a veteran shit-stirrer. What could possibly tweak the noses of Phair’s longtime nemeses, the guys of Guyville, more than selling out? And there is the fact that Whitechocolatespaceegg — a strong, artistically mature album — was her worst seller. It’s a credit to Phair’s well-established intelligence and sense of mischief that the suspicion of media manipulation is even there. Who else could make people wonder if Top 40 success was part of an ongoing piece of performance art?
After all the sturm und drang that preceded its release, what about the actual contents of Liz Phair? On balance, the album is actually pretty good. The two songs bearing the strongest imprint of the Matrix are a mixed bag. “Why Can’t I?” is the atrocity everyone feared — a quirk-free generic piece of slick, faceless Top 40 product which could have been sung by Avril, Kelly, Ashlee or any number of non-entities with no one the wiser. (To rub further salt in the eyes of her indie detractors, Phair sports a CBGB T-shirt in the song’s video.) “Extraordinary” is better. While it’s an obvious and shameless attempt to pen a girl-power anthem that could contend with Smashmouth’s “All Star” as the go-to soundtrack for any commercial or sporting event, it at least sounds like a Liz Phair song. And the strategy worked: “Extraordinary” became the theme song for the WNBA.
Elsewhere, when Phair tries to recapture her shocking naughty girl mojo on songs like “HWC” and “Rock Me,” the results sound forced and contrived rather than anything she really felt moved to express. The songs left over from the original, non-Matrix album form the emotional core of Liz Phair and make it worth hearing. In songs like “Little Digger” (Phair explains the new man in her life to her), she addresses issues in which she has an emotional stake. The tracks which aren’t screaming “look at me” are the ones most deserving of attention.
To placate the former faithful, a bonus EP of less commercial work (most likely the stuff bumped from the album to make room for the Matrix) was made available to download from Phair’s website. In a shrewd if potentially self-defeating marketing move, however, fans had to purchase the album to get the download, drawing a line in the sand which the EP’s target audience was unlikely to gladly cross.
In the end, Phair got her Top 40 hits, both of which achieved ubiquity in what seemed to be their intended arenas: “Extraordinary” at sporting events and on any advertisement in need of an uplifting sentiment and “Why Can’t I?” on WB network teen dramas. One hopes she earned enough to assure her fiscal security and that she might now resume the more personal creativity of Whitechocolatespaceegg. It would be preferable at this point if she wrote songs about parent-teacher conferences rather than hot sex with an oily bohunk, but that’s not the way she rolls. Phair being Phair, she will probably try to find a way to combine the two.
On Somebody’s Miracle, Phair completes an artistic collapse of almost unprecedented proportion, matched perhaps only by Rod Stewart and Fat Elvis. Without a bothersome leftover half of a decent album to deal with, Phair is able to throw herself wholeheartedly into the type of banal, greeting-card rubbish that even Diane Warren would probably find trite. In a major miscalculation, Phair has chosen to forego the Matrix, who at least understood how to utilize Phair’s strengths and minimize her weaknesses. Instead, Phair uses her hacks of choice. Producers John Alagia and John Shanks (who’ve helmed albums by such artistic titans as John Mayer and Sheryl Crow) polish the backing tracks to a generic commercial luster but are clueless what to do with her singular voice — they just toss it into the mix and let it fend for itself. The flat, nasal honk that was so perfectly suited to sing Liz Phair songs sounds completely lost in this slick environment as it wanders everywhere except the vicinity of the right note or key. One would almost feel sorry for Phair if it weren’t for the fact that she did this to herself.
It’s difficult to figure out who Phair imagines is the market for this. She’s told her original audience to fuck off in no uncertain terms, but it’s hard to picture a mainstream audience embracing Somebody’s Miracle to the extent they did Liz Phair. The market is already oversaturated by more saleable cupcakes doing this sort of crap, and most of them can actually sing. As bad as she sucks, Kelly Clarkson’s Breakaway kicks Somebody’s Miracle‘s ass without even going to the gym. Isolated pockets of desperate fans may still cling to the hope that this is all some sort of elaborate joke on Phair’s part, and that she’s intentionally satirizing Top 40 pop, but that seems increasingly unlikely. God help her, she seems sincere.
Following the non-miraculous market reception for Somebody’s Miracle, Phair left Capitol and signed with Dave Matthews’ ATO label. She also branched into TV soundtrack composing, providing the theme for the short-lived ‘70s key party drama Swingtown and the updated version of 90210. Judging from later material chronicling her experiences, it was a career move which Phair found vexing. In 2008, ATO did a fifteenth anniversary reissue of Exile in Guyville, packaged with a few inessential outtakes from the album and a DVD chronicling its creation and examining its cultural significance. Phair’s first release on the label was also her last. The Guyville reissue served as a reminder of all the reasons Phair had been loved in the first place; her departure from the majors was a hopeful sign that Phair might correct her artistic slide. However, nothing with Phair could ever be that easy. With her next album, she managed to again stymie anyone trying to figure out decisively what the hell was going on inside her head.
Funstyle slipped out quietly, via an announcement on Phair’s website, over Independence Day weekend of 2010, previewed with the streaming single “Bollywood.” To call the track divisive would be a gross understatement. Phair raps about her music industry woes over an ersatz bhangra beat whilst carrying on a conversation with voices representing industry bigwigs. The song is awful on every level. Most grating of all, the source of her anger towards the music business seems to be that it treats her the same way it treats everyone else. Well, boo hoo. Still, “Bollywood” had its stubborn defenders, who argued that its inescapable dreadfulness proved Phair a genius, the Andy Kaufman of rock and roll. Phair was way too smart, the reasoning went, to release anything that crappy without its crappiness being the point. Y’know, performance art.
Amazingly, “Bollywood” isn’t even the worst track on Funstyle. That honor goes to either the opener “Smoke” — a random assemblage of bits from Phair’s Swingtown soundtrack and some more “humorous” dialogue dealing with life as a celebrity in decline — or the closing “U Hate It,” on which Phair preemptively dismisses objections to Funstyle by declaring “I think I’m a genius / You’re being a penius / Colada, that is.” What the hell that’s even supposed to mean is anyone’s guess – rhyming misdirection is as old as vaudeville but it only works when the joke makes sense, which “penius colada” definitely doesn’t. At any rate, it begs the question that if Phair knew this stuff was so dreadful that she felt the need to head off the haters, what was the point of releasing it in the first place?
The rest of the album is mostly inoffensive and was largely co-written and produced by Matthews himself. It’s not likely Dave Matthews’ label would dump an album that Dave Matthews had such a large hand in creating; perhaps Phair wanted off ATO and added the offending cuts as a poison pill. Or she was just trying to drum up interest in an otherwise okay but bland album. (It’s unthinkable that Phair actually deemed “Bollywood,” “Smoke” and “U Hate It” good on their own merits.) The vulnerable “Miss September,” “And He Slayed Her” and the moody electronic workout “Bang! Bang!” aren’t bad at all, reassuring signs that Phair is still capable of writing good stuff when she puts her mind to it. The other Matthews-produced tracks aren’t memorable but they aren’t awful, either. The awfulness is all Phair’s own doing.
When it came time to release the physical issue of Funstyle, Phair resorted to reliable tactics — sex appeal and dangling old material which still maintains her indie cred as a lure to get those on the fence to bite. The cover art features Phair in a variety of cheesecake poses, while a bonus disc packages up some of the remaining historically significant Girlysound recordings that didn’t make it onto Juvenilia. Phair seems to view Whitechocolatespaceegg and Somebody’s Miracle as cautionary tales – when she focuses on the music and doesn’t court controversy, no one is going to care. The whole Funstyle episode raises the specter that for all her considerable talent, Phair would rather draw attention than create good material, and that in today’s climate when no one ever seems to know when someone is being sincere or ironic (and has even less idea what it would signify even if they could figure it out), a smart artist can release dumb material and then sit back and profit from the debate.