Ann Magnuson chaperones everyone’s favorite indie rock queen around Los Angeles.
Girls today are so lucky. They have Liz Phair records to listen to. Plus those of Courtney Love. And Kim Gordon and L7 and the Breeders and Bikini Kill and Babes in Toyland and… my God, it seems like grrrls are rioting all across this great nation of ours!
Not so in the good ol’ daze of the ’70s. When my self-esteem took that pubescent plunge that transformed me from a bossy 12-year-old tomboy to a withering, menstruating wallflower, all I had were folkie songstresses like Joni Mitchell to console me — the number of raw female voices one could hear wailing over a rock beat was woefully low. It never occurred to me that I could take my insignificant feelings and the three chords that I was taught in junior high school by an indifferent guitar teacher and then turn them into songs!
The thought of being anything more than a musician’s accessory rarely crossed a young girl’s mind. When I bought the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street in 1972, Mick and company were the reigning rock gods, a tribe of men for whom women existed only if they were beautiful groupies.
“I wanna be mesmerizing too,” Liz Phair sings on her 1993 album, Exile in Guyville, a song-by-song response to the Stones. She succeeded: 20 years later, Mick and his geriatric band of lost boys have been whacked from their pedestals by this Breck Girl gone bad.
Liz Phair is a pretty, blue-eyed blonde Oberlin grad from a tony suburb of Chicago who looks less like a rock star and more like the type of well-bred Vassar girl who’d shock the nation by blowing up the ROTC building. Friendly and fun, Liz is sure of herself in the way that only a 27-year-old can be.
Guys lined up around the block when they heard her sing, “I want to be your blowjob queen,” on Guyville‘s “Flower”, but those dudes better think twice before they take advantage of this MTV Salome, who also sweetly coos, “I have got a bright and shiny platter, and I am gonna get your heavy head.”
It is precisely this kind of tuneful wordsmithing that catapulted Exile in Guyville to the top of most critics’ lists for best album of 1993. As direct and complex as her music, Liz’s lyrics tell you more about her than any bio could. Her second album, Whip-Smart, which comes out this month on Matador Records, opens with a hauntingly demented version of “Chopsticks” in which our heroine lets us know, for instance, that she “knew Julia Roberts when I was 12 at summer camp.” In the same song, Liz also describes a guy she met at a party who “said he liked to do it backwards/I said that’s just fine with me/that way we can fuck and watch TV.”
Yup, that Liz is one cool chick. She’s not gonna let all this attention go to her head. Nuh-uh. She’s keeping a safe distance from the hype. In L.A.’s to conceptualize a film she wants to make in conjunction with whip-smart, Liz assures me that she’s determined to keep a low profile.
That is, until our first celebrity sighting. “There’s Keith Carradine,” I sigh jadedly.
Liz is distraught. “What? Where? You didn’t say anything. Oh, my God! I’m from Chicago, I need these celebrity spots. If you see anything, flag it down!”
Having a good 10 years on this young filly, I’d figured my role for the day I was to spend showing Liz around L.A. would be that of Big Sister — Barbie hell-bent on keeping the starstruck Skipper out of trouble. But I think that this Skipper’s already been around the block more than a few times.
I realize this during our heated discussion about who is and who isn’t a slut. Liz feels it’s important that we define this term, and I offer up Barbie herself as the perfect example. Don’t you think she’s turned into a cheap slut? I ask.
Liz laughs. “I can’t believe that scandal with the senator! How could she?”
We both agree that Barbie used to have this image as an up-and-coming, multiple-personality career woman. She was a stewardess, a nightclub singer, an astronaut…
“Now,” quips Liz, “she’s like the trash has-been that’s still at the party trying to get laid. It’s not pretty.”
Like Barbie, Liz Phair is a girl’s girl, but (unlike Barbie) she doesn’t dummy up in the company of men. In fact, she’s fascinated by what men have to offer. “I am a penis lover,” she admits. “It’s a great organ. When misused, of course, it can be a terrifying weapon.”
Now, everyone knows that women are much raunchier than most men when comparing notes about the opposite sex. But when word gets out that smart — yes, even college-educated! — women can be horny, as it does in what Liz calls her “little ditties”, people react as if a former football star failed to surrender to the L.A.P.D.
“When people were exclaiming over my album,” Liz says, “I thought, you’ve got to be kidding. If this was the greatest thing that ever happened to a female, it made me feel like, where is everybody? It’s like showing up at a party and wondering where everyone is who said they’d be there.”
I’d love to go to a party with Liz. It doesn’t take long for us to figure out that we could get into some mighty fine trouble together. But since we’re both currently “attached”, we must content ourselves with an innocent day of harmless, girlish fun, which includes getting painted up like dime-store floozies and searching for what little glamour is left in downtown Hollywood.
As we drive toward our first stop, we snuggle in the back seat of our Town Car and speak the language all women do when they’re alone together. Our topics of discussion read like the table of contents from Cosmopolitan: how we lost our virginity; newfangled clitoral-stimulation techniques; the horrors of female circumcision in the third world; the injustices of ancient-Chinese foot-binding; those scary, frilly dolls Marie Osmond sells on a home-shopping channel (“little dolls of Satan”, says Liz); why both of us turned down Playboy pictorials (“there’s no way to be subversive,” we agree); miserable, lying creeps we’ve had the displeasure of working with on the indie music scene; and, of course, true love, marriage, and children.
“I want all that,” Liz says emphatically, hinting that wedding bells could be ringing in the near future. So does this mean she’ll have to retire her song “Fuck and Run”, which asks the musical question, “Whatever happened to a boyfriend?/The kind of guy who makes love ’cause he’s in it/I want a boyfriend.”
Well, now she has that boyfriend. A damn good one, too, and after everything her lyrics say she’s been through, she deserves it. With man trouble hopefully behind her, she can get on with weightier matters, like securing her place in history.
“My theory,” Liz explains, “has always been: Be there. Make your name. I need to have a tangible history of women fucking up or doing great — whatever — so that, however it shakes down, the history’s literally there. That’s what we’ve been missing for so long — a history.”
Well, there’s plenty of history at the Max Factor Museum, where stars like Jean Harlow, Marlene Dietrich, and Rita Hayworth were made up by Max himself in separate rooms labeled for blondes, brunettes, brownettes, and redheads.
Posing up a storm in the inexplicably pink brownette room, the fair Miss Phair effortlessly plays the glamour-puss. Max Factor ads from the 1960s adorn the wall. One perfectly describes our young miss, now aggressively straddling the makeup chair. “The mood: action. The look: lickety slick and active. It’s the go going glitter of the Now Generation.”
Hmmm… Wait a second — that sassy pout reminds me of somebody. Some other blonde, some I… uh-oh.
So, Liz, what do you think about being called “the indie Madonna”?
She remains unruffled. “That’s fine. I hope I handle myself better than she does. She vacuous, but I want to have the staying power she has. I really want to be one of those they-don’t-make-them-like-they-used-to kind of stars. And I’m gung ho. I think like every ambitious young artist. It would be hard to take advantage of me because I’m going to exploit myself better than anyone else could.” She giggles, adding, “I’m a little fascist, you know.”
Well, every girl should conquer the world at least once in her life. Two women who made a little history of their own were Telma Hopkins and Joyce Vincent Wilson. Oh, surely you remember Telma and Joyce! “Dawn” from Tony Orlando and Dawn? Well, dozens of their marvelously hideous costumes from that ’70s variety show are hanging on the racks over at the Palace Costume Company in West Hollywood. I’ve always wanted to get inside one of those bedazzling relics! I do think it is more than just coincidence that the magnificent marabou-trimmed chartreuse gowns fit both Liz and me in precisely the same way. (Neither of us can quite zip them up the back.) We do manage to fasten the built-in rhinestone chokers, and the effect is — to borrow from a Liz Phair song — mesmerizing! We pose for our mythical TV Guide cover, the one for the variety show of my dreams, where Liz guest-stars on the season premiere and we do a Carol Burnett-Julie Andrews thang together.
But soon the party’s over and the splendiferous dresses are returned to their rack. As we stand there in our underwear, the conversation naturally drifts back to the slut issue.
“Like most women,” Liz says, “I’m sick and tired of that eternal female dialectic: Be good or be a slut. Serve yourself and serve others. I do not find my life to fit in either category, and I’m not satisfied with balancing on one end of the teeter-totter or the other. I want to pull women out of this stupid dualistic notion and provide a third option. I want a ballot in a new election.”
Somehow, my self-ordained role as Big Sister doesn’t quite wash anymore. Liz is so exuberant and self-assured that our roles seem to reverse. Now she’s dispensing advice as I reveal my fears about doing my first solo record, which, I tell her, is going to be the soundtrack to the movie in my head, a cross between A Star Is Born and Jesus Christ Superstar. No movie, just the soundtrack.
“That’s so cool!” she exclaims, “because I want to take my new album and make a movie out of it, as if it were a soundtrack. So it’s the same thing you’re doing but the exact opposite!”
“You are literally under an obligation to continue doing what you think is good,” she rallies. “You cannot stop. There are 15-year-old girls out there who are being told regularly that they have nothing to say, and you know that their voices are legitimate and should be encouraged.”
“I really believed,” she continues, “that if I get out there and fuck up and fail then that many more people will have the courage to fuck up and fail.”
Buoyed by her can-do attitude, I tell her how much I admire her courage to just damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.
“Thank you,” she politely replies. “I’m excited — that’s the fun part. And you’ll do fine. More than fine.”
Oh, Liz, I think to myself, where the hell were ya in 1972?
By Ann Magnuson
Harper’s Baazar, September 1994