Music: Two young performers capture the spotlight and tell tales of invasion and privacy
YOU MAY REMEMBER THE Riot Grrrls, that network of young feminists who play in hard-core guitar bands, wear boots and baby-doll dresses and walk around with RAPE and SLUT scrawled on their bellies. This isn’t about them. This is about two alternative-rock singers who have declined to pledge allegiance to grunge, who have had ponytailed record execs kneeling at their feet. Liz Phair and Juliana Hatfield, both 26, have poured a great deal of themselves into their songs. Both, in fact, are beginning to wonder if they’ve poured a little too much.
Phair’s official press bio tells us that when she was growing up in a well-heeled Chicago suburb, her mother read Victorian erotica aloud. Untrue. The bio is a joke at the expense of anyone who confuses the singer with her funny, graphic tunes. Phair’s extraordinary debut album, Exile in Guyville, is a song-by-song response to the Rolling Stones’ classic Exile on Main Street. In the broadest sense, Phair has cast herself as Mick Jagger’s lover, and we don’t need an unauthorized biography to tell us that Mick is a man of eclectic tastes. Still, Phair often goes the Rolling Stones one better. The Stones want a lover who’ll make them “Happy”; Phair wants a man who won’t “Fuck and Run”. The Stones get wistful over an ex; Phair gets wicked: Every time I see your face, I think of things unpure, unchaste. She goes on to name a few, making “Flower” so explicit as to defy paraphrase, except to say the narrator has an oral fixation. Starting stuff, to be sure. But what’s most subversive about Phair’s songs is that they’re full of such sly pop melodies and such cool, offhand guitar work that they’ve entered your circulatory system long before you’ve figured out the lyrics.
Phair, an Oberlin College grad whose homemade tapes brought her to the attention of the independent label Matador Records, says she had reservations about making such graphic detail. “I didn’t think, ‘Let me make a splash.’ I thought, ‘My God, if I put “Flower” on the album, am I going to get stalked?‘” Phair’s unflinching take on sex and sexual politics has caused major labels to come courting, which is problematic for a songwriter who has always needed a measure of privacy. “A lot of girls weren’t out playing sports,” Phair says of her childhood. “A lot of girls were in their rooms, in their little imaginary worlds. That was my songwriting world. And it still is, but it gets harder and harder to get that time for myself, because my life isn’t that quiet and it isn’t that private.”
Juliana Hatfield sounds more dire on the subject of notoriety, joking, “I’ll probably get more guarded and more guarded and then I’ll implode.” Hatfield grew up near the ocean, in Massachusetts, and once played quirky guitar-pop with the Blake Babies. Last year she made her solo debut with Hey Babe. The album was lovestruck and charmingly geeky — I’m ugly with a capital U — and Hatfield absolutely hated it. “The stuff that I sang about, it was just embarrassing to me,” she says. “I seemed weak on that record, when I envisioned myself as a strong person. When the album was all mixed, I was listening to it and bawling and saying, ‘Oh my God, people are going to tear me apart’.”
Heartbreak kid: As it happened, the album led to a daunting pile of publicity and to a deal with Atlantic Records. Still, Hatfield emerged with a chip on her shoulder: she thought the press had written her off as a heartbreak kid, and once she told Interview magazine that she was a virgin… well, nobody was going to let her live that down. Hatfield’s latest album, Become What You Are, seems fueled by something like resentment. Whatever works. Become is Hatfield’s finest hour: it’s leaner than Hey Babe and quite literally meaner. The singer’s voice remains small and girlish — and given to lush pop harmonies — but her guitar playing is louder and more propulsive. Last year Hatfield was the long-suffering girlfriend sing, I’ll stick out forever, baby. Now she’s the guarded loner saying, I don’t want to share/I don’t want to care… Never let them see you sweat/A little piece is all they get. Anyone sniffing for autobiographical clues is largely out of luck. Phair wants her privacy so she can write private songs, but Hatfield just wants her privacy.
Last summer, when the Riot Grrrls were all the rage, Hatfield was a woman-child singing of “a cold, cold bed and a broken heart”. Needless to say, the P.C. crowd has never known quite what to make of her. An editor at the teen juggernaut known as Sassy recently waxed ambivalent: “Her music isn’t about girl empowerment at all; we just like her records.” But Hatfield, like Phair, has no interest in pleasing all the people all the time. “I’m totally committed to the cause of individuality,” she says. “That’s the only thing I stand by: independence.” Now there’s a message worth scrawling on your belly.
By Jeff Giles
Newsweek, September 6, 1993