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Talkin’ Dirty

When Subnation Meets Liz Phair

Liz Phair: The Girl Lavishes

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Girls Who Do

Liz Phair just wants you as smart as she is, able to spot a Monet or two when you walk through the Chicago Art Institute, and, when she’s in the mood, she’ll be you “blow-job queen”. With Exile in Guyville (Matador), Phair qualifies as an ultracool bawdy girl for the 1990s. In “Flower”, her seeming-jailbait protagonist declares, in a bad-seed sing-song, “Every time I see your face, I get all wet between my legs,” detailing how she wants to “fuck you like a dog, take you home and make you like it…” Now, Madonna does stick her hand down there, but it’s hard to get pent up about someone wearing breast prongs bound to put your eye out. Maybe it’s that rich-girl bohemian thing, that she’s from Winnetka, Illinois, hometown of Ann-Margaret, noted zone of fecundity to college boys past and present, but there’s something about Liz talking dirty that I find, uh, stirring

What gets me off is how neurotic she is, how that Winnetka, Oberlin College-music-major-sense of entitlement is countered by an equally gnawing insecurity. Post-teen sexual neurosis is key to the current libido-lib movement in girl rock. Exile in Guyville is supposed to be a song-by-song refutation/commentary on the Stones’ Exile on Main Street, and if that’s not neurotic, I don’t know what is. But it’s not easy being a sexually neurotic girl-rocker. Boy-dominated rockfandom (we know who we are) may have no problem accommodating the ball-busting schtick of feministas like the riot grrrls or leatherized iconographs like Joan Jett, but when confronted with personal (as opposed to anthemic) female sexuality, it blanches, often resorting to the most marginalizing of all rock epithets: folkie. Tarred with the Joni Mitchell brush!

That said, Phair appears to break new hetero ground (in this chronicler’s experience) with “Glory”, a pocket paean to cunnilingus (“He’s got a really big tongue, it rolls way out”). She also has a tune called “Fuck and Run”, but it voices a more conventional desire for “a boyfriend… the kind of guy who tries to win you over”. No matter, with Liz, a smart, fun girl likely given to psychopharmacologically treatable mood swings, it’s all subtext, and that’s smartsex, funsex, sexsex.

Juliana Hatfield, with whom Phair is often linked, is not nearly so much fun. Solidly suburban, she’s very neurotic about her looks. She says she’s “ugly with a capital u” when it’s obvious she’s a total dish. A Neil Young drone hovers over Become What You Are (Atlantic), but with her inch-thin voice and dunder-headed concerns (“Humans only wreck the world”), you wonder about the success being projected for her.

Due special considerations, however, is PJ Harvey, whose neurotic self-presentation has already been alluded to in these pages. When she begins “Dry” on Rid of Me (Island) with the lines “I caught it in the face,” and you can’t tell if she’s talking about come or a fist, it’s not what you’d call funsex, but you look down, catch that rise, and who’s neurotic now?

By Mark Jacobsen
Esquire, December 1993

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