Liz Phair, who moved from obscurity to rock-critic darling with her 1993 debut album Exile in Guyville, is sustaining the buzz with Whip-Smart, her current collection of edgy pop-rock and sharp studies on love and lust.
The salty-tongued singer/songwriter, 27, has a female rock vocal Grammy nomination for Whip-Smart‘s first single, Supernova. She directed the video for the title-track second single, airing on MTV, and contributed to a new tune, Don’t Have Time, to the Higher Learning soundtrack.
Enamored with video but ambivalent about performing live, Phair has no tour plans. The Chicago native, an Oberlin College grad and daughter of a doctor and homemaker, recently talked about her sudden ascendancy in pop.
Q: After all the praise for Exile, were you nervous about a sophomore jinx with Whip-Smart?
A: Yeah, you feel like you have to live up to some huge expectations. But when I got to the studio, I didn’t think about it too much. I fell in love with the second album.
Q: The kudos must be thrilling, but you’ve had bad reviews too. Do those sting?
A: You want to say something back and you can’t. I used to go crazy reading absolutely contradictory reviews. I don’t read them now.
Q: How did living in Chicago influence your music?
A: Because it’s so undramatic, Chicago inspires you to create your own drama with your art, a world that’s better than the one you’re in. In L.A., there would be too many temptations to be fabulous. You might get caught up in that.
Q: Did some of your rebellious nature stem from growing up in an affluent suburb?
A: I definitely felt the constraint of the conservatism, the tradition, the emphasis on appearances, the Protestant work ethic. It’s a very WASPy thing: Thou shalt not discuss sexuality. Thou shalt write thank-you notes. Being a good girl was too hard for me. I was always a lusty, irreverent kid. I still straddle those two worlds.
Q: How did your parents react to your choice of career and specifically the sexual frankness in your songs?
A: They were proud of the accolades, less pleased with the field (I chose). I think they would prefer that sexuality wasn’t what I was known for. They think it’s tacky. They wish I were more reserved. Those are their reservations about my little underworld.
Q: What’s your take on Courtney Love, who seems to be the most visible and outspoken female rocker now?
A: I like reading about her because she’s what a rock star probably ought to be. She does what she wants, sticks her foot in her mouth and lives a crazy life. I’m sure she would offend you if you talked to her long enough. I respect her honesty, her incredible intelligence and her ability to go out warriorlike and kick ass left and right.
Q: Reports say you and Madonna aren’t too cozy and that you haven’t credited her as your forerunner.
A: I don’t know where she got it in her crazy head that Courtney Love and I were dissing her. If Madonna hadn’t run around presenting shock as an art form, the rest of us wouldn’t have been received with the proper understanding. She allowed women to use exploitation to empower themselves. Exploiting yourself can get you ahead if it doesn’t take a toll on your psyche.
Is there a contradiction in strong, independent women using sexiness to manipulate or get attention?
A: What liberation means to me is the freedom to do exactly what I want and not be punished for it. People get upset and say, ‘How can she stick her boobs in the camera and say she’s a feminist?’ Because she felt like it!
Q: How do you feel about the media’s habit of lumping “women in rock” together?
A: You don’t see them pitting Pearl Jam against Soul Asylum by running record reviews side by side. The media operate under the fallacy that all women are trying to achieve one kind of album. They act like we’re all in some club together. As much as they lump us together in the press, they separate us on the bills. I don’t feel like I’m a “woman in rock”. I’m a lone artist trying to make it on my own terms.
Q: Rock is an all-ages field now. Is age relevant?
A: I’m an ageist. Age makes a difference. Green Day rock cannot be produced easily by 35-year-olds. And it shouldn’t be. Unfortunately, the whole music business caters to children, and artists are coddled so much they remain infantile.
Q: Do you have any serious qualms about aging?
A: I’m upset that my breasts aren’t totally perky anymore, and I’m really annoyed that I’ve gotten crow’s feet.
In real life, love is sweet
For all her carping about loser boyfriends, singer Liz Phair in real life is enjoying a fairy-tale romance. She and her fiance, 36-year old film editor Jim Stakauskas, met on the set of her first video a year and a half ago and plan to wed in June.
“Falling in love is so wonderful,” Phair says. “For a while, I couldn’t write songs because I didn’t want to do anything but sit around and gaze into his face.”
Well, it’s not all wine and roses. The couple are learning to deal with each other’s quirks, and Phair says hers are considerable.
“I have a problem with jealousy,” she says. “I don’t want him thinking about other women. And as much as I like to lead a low-key life, I need excitement from time to time and I get crabby if I don’t get it. He’s much more steady.”
And if her increasingly demanding career isn’t compatible with a healthy marriage, Phair knows which she’ll sacrifice. “I’ll dump rock ‘n’ roll for my marriage. Being in love has made me happier. I don’t need to be a superstar.”
By Edna Gundersen
USA Today, February 22, 1995