Sexual perversity in Chicago
Where and when did you write the famous line “I want to be your blowjob queen”?
At Oberlin, drunk one night. I had this big crush on a younger man and I was so frustrated – I felt like a man dealing with a young fawn of a girl. I’d been dancing around him in ways that he wasn’t even aware of (laughs) and all I wanted to do was get down and bone.
So did you?
We never did! God, he even came over and slept in my bed one night and just snoozed there. It was ridiculous.
Are there Liz Phair rumors now?
God yeah. That I kissed Winona Ryder in a bar. Or that I treat my ex-boyfriends really bad, which I kind of did. Usually the rumors come from people who think I suck, which I do in a lot of ways. I’m not the best songwriter, and I’m certainly not the best singer.
What celebrities turn you on?
I have crushes on David Letterman, Danny Glover, and Tommy Lee Jones.
Hmmm, paternal figures.
Nah, my dad’s older than that. And my father is short and professorlike — these guys are tall, they have worldly confidence. I suppose I’ve been in Guyville too long, where the guys are so sensitive.
You’re adopted. Do you know anything about your biological parents?
I do not, but I spent a lot of time as a child fantasizing that I was part of a dynasty and I had to be raised in secret or I’d be killed. On my twenty-first birthday I sat down at the breakfast table thinking they were going to tell me, “You must take over the country, you’re the heir.” But it would limit me psychologically to find my natural parents. Whatever characteristic of the day is my most impressive I pick as my legacy.
You’re from a very middle-class background in the Chicago suburbs. what form did your adolescent rebellion take?
My parents are nice academic people — graciousness does not include showing your nipples to strangers. Toward the end of high school, I didn’t care about grades anymore. I came up with an existential crisis a bit too young and nearly flunked out. I lost my ability to go to Williams. I kept saying that I didn’t want to be guided down a path — I wanted to be my own tugboat captain.
Your Exile in Guyville was a song-by-song response to Exile on Main Street. Why did identify so strongly with the Stones?
Mick’s characters were exactly the type of men that I was intrigued by and being rebuffed by at that point in my life. They were the bad-boy scenester types that say things that are cryptic and meaningful and you think, “Gasp, wow, he knows me” – and then they’re gone. It perfectly fit my impression of what was going on in the head of this guy I had a crush on. I could project onto the Stones and they would answer back. It was like having a relationship through the music.
The fantasy of “Help Me, Mary” — “Weave my disgust into fame / And watch how fast they run to the flame” — has come true.
It’s weird, isn’t it? That was prophetic: Men would be attracted to the very thing that was criticizing them. The indie-rock guys would have to pay attention to me as a figure of respect, instead of as the band wife bringing food and blankets.
Have you become an object of desire for all those shy indie-rock Guyville guys?
That’s true. It always titillated me as a girl to listen to the rock ‘n’ roll dudes saying all these things about us that they would then turn around and renege on. But you felt like they reached out and touched you — it was like, “Wow, we would fall in love if we ever met.” It’s the same thing with my male fans now — I’m singing to them and I’m completely involved with them, and at the same time I’m denying them full approval.
Is that masochistic on their part?
Most me that I’ve talked to say something like, “I heard the lyrics, and it gave me the feeling that someone had seen me in my underwear.” I think it’s not masochism so much as it’s egotism that someone’s paying that much attention.
I heard you were going to pose for Playboy.
I thought about doing Playboy because I thought we could do something weird. I realized that there’s no way to be subversive about it, even if I take the pictures.
Are you comfortable with appearing nude?
At home I’ll trot around without any clothes on because it’s physically comfortable to do so. Americans need to have a looser attitude about nudity. So I don’t have this big rule book that I open up and say, “Only in paragraph six under these circumstances will I show my body.” I want to be able to show the freedom of enjoying myself as I am. And at the same time I’m smart enough to know that it says something.
How would you photograph yourself?
I would take myself somewhere private, like a rooftop, and I would wear my Betsey Johnson slip dress you can kind of see through and stand against a sunset. I think eroticism is hard to come by these days because it’s so painted on. To be perfectly frank, I hate the way Details styles women. It offends and kind of disgusts me. I look at all these actresses with these quotes about their empowerment in Hollywood while they’re in thigh-high boots and no expression except “Fuck me, fuck me, fuck me.”
But your music plays with similar things.
I have no problem with being sexy. I have a problem being generically sexy. I would much prefer to see myself in a photograph where I not only looked like I was enjoying myself but I actually was. But I get very uncomfortable when all I have is a photo to represent me – because it’s a manipulation of my image, and for my whole life I was behind that camera. I’m used to being the one who manipulates, not the manipulated.
What do you owe Madonna?
A lot. I think she kicked a huge rough-hewn path through the jungle and we’re all tiptoeing behind her saying, “Look at the pretty flowers.” Madonna made it possible for me to be interpreted correctly. There’s nothing I could do now that would be over-the-top. She’s like the motorboat and we’re all water-skiing like the Go-Go’s on the back of it. Maybe PJ’s whipping out of the wake and I’m sitting in the back going, (she smokes an imaginary cigarette) “Yeah, cool.”
By Rob Tannenbaum
Details, July 1994