“Most people lean toward one thing or another, and I’ve always been one of those people that went the whole fucking gamut. And what people criticize me for — and rightly so — is that if you do that, you do it at the expense of real knowledge and depth and experience. I will never have expertise at anything but being able to see many sides of a coin that only has two faces. But that’s the dilettante’s art.”
That’s Liz Phair: self-absorbed and self-effacing, off in her own little world and making perfect sense all at the same time. She really is everything critics and fans claim her to be, good and bad, and she knows it.
“I’ll always write songs harder than I can play them, or at least different than I can play. I have no interest in perfecting my craft. I only have interest in expressing something that will last. Certain things just happen, and because they’re so true, they last. There’s nothing very special about them. They’re just so true, and I think that’s what I’ve got a corner of the market on. You can portray me anyway you want, but I’m never gonna be sitting in my kitchen with white hair and a nose job.”
Sitting in her kitchen, the pale light obscuring all features save for that slightly crooked nose and her brilliant blue eyes, the brashness that marked her stunning debut, Exile In Guyville, is in reserve. Her flirtatious nature emerges only in a few unsolicited personal appraisals (“You’re neurotic-obsessive. Total Achiever Syndrome. That’s good, though”), and an easy self-possession is the sexiest thing about her. She’s feeling the slack of having a few days off from photo shoots and preparations for her fall tour. Her big eyes narrow, however, as she imagines it all evaporating with the release of Whip-smart. “When it’s all thrown in my face again this fall, it’ll totally wig me out ’cause I’ll be Liz Phair Incorporated again.”
But Whip-smart, a brilliant follow-up to Guyville that recasts some songs from her much-circulated “Girlysound” demo tapes, is a few weeks from release, and for now, she can still drive around her Chicago neighborhood (“It’s like a big small town here — ‘the relentless pursuit of the middle’ as my friend Tom says — and everybody knows everybody else”) and sing along to her own new record without anyone noticing. She is relaxed and unguarded, remarkably so for someone who, by her own admission, is “fostering a media career greater… than an actual audio career.”
“There’s lots of people who have made pronouncements on me having never listened to the record but read the press. Because there’s so much of it, they’re formulating opinions on that alone. We’re just trying to staple a place in rock history as all these female musicians come tearing up the pike. It’s like, well, here’s my notch — ’93, I was there — as everyone goes whoosh, whoosh, whoosh, right on by.”
Liz Phair’s notch was marked most prominently by Guyville topping the Village Voice‘s 1993 “Pazz and Jop” critics’ poll. That mention was based as much on her frank sexuality as the sharp songwriting that shone through the album’s song-by-song take on Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street. It was the open sexuality, of course, that translated this critical success into more mainstream media coverage and made her the focus of much of the year-end critical theory. While discussions of gender politics ambled on, the record’s direct, simple tone lulled many into confusing the author with the subject. To many, that sexuality was Liz Phair.
“I’m surprised that writers would mistake another writer. I’m surprised that writers who are expert in concealing motives in language wouldn’t recognize that I do the same thing. It’s just that it’s poetry instead of prose. It’s just completely scaled down so that the whole feelings come through. And it’s total tedious, obsessive-compulsive work.”
“I’m always editing in favor of the natural turn of phrase. You know how Langston Hughes fussed over his work until he was capturing dialect? It would seem very simplistic where it was actually very complicated. So to psychoanalyze something that is my sole artform at the moment is really dumb. What [critics] are psychoanalyzing is a fictitious creature. They’re psychoanalyzing someone I’ve created to conceal some of my own insecurities and to purposefully expose other ones, so I’ve already done all of this patchwork. There’s lots of fodder for psychoanalysis, but it isn’t me.”
She may be misinterpreted by critics, but it goes double for her public. Of the attention she received for the guy-like sexy swagger she deftly appropriated on Guyville, she says, “that attention doesn’t fill you up, it depletes you.”
“That’s usually at shows. You go afterward to sign some autographs and that’s when I see that they’re completely waiting for something, like little kids at a birthday party, ‘Is there a clown? Is there a pony?'” She stops drawing on the backs of the day’s mail to lean across the table and make her point. “They want something. They want their own personal snippet to go home and remember. All these hungry mouths, all these gaping baby birds. Some people see me as a wounded soul and want to get that. Some people see me as the girl that scorned them in the schoolyard and they want me to be bitchy and bratty. Some people see me as a kind of hippie collegiate. Think of all the different perceptions of what the songs say and that’s the variety you get coming back at you.”
She bounces lightly back into her curled position on the kitchen chair, smiling at having satisfactorily described how “this kind of attention just eats at you” and somehow seeming not bitchy or ungrateful as much as very protective of her personal and emotional space. (She saves those sort of resentments for the insularity of indie rock. “What a bunch of grandfathers. I never felt so old and lonely as when I was in the indie scene.”) Still, she seems acutely aware of her position in the center of the vortex of hype surrounding her.
“These are the hard learning years. This is 101 and 201. When I’m in the third year of this business, and fourth, I should be pretty much doing what I want, which in some people’s eyes will make me greatly cheesier. But I was much cheesier before any of this started. I’ve totally held myself in because I knew I was going to be looked at. The natural me is much giddier, way more mainstream pop. If people hate me for those reasons now, they have not seen anything. I’m way worse.”
“I think that being turned around [bandmates] Brad [Wood], Casey [Rice] and all my boyfriends in college who were so rigorous about their love of music and what was good and why it was good has, in a way, cured me of ever caring. To me, music speaks to you. And the national anthem is just as valuable as anything Iggy Pop ever did. It all has the same amount of weight for me. There’s this whole juxtaposition. And I think that just comes from why I started making music in the beginning, which is just because I’m addicted to tunes.”
“I just always wrote songs,” she says, tracing the roots of her music back and launching into another of the monologues that characterize her conversation, “My mother used to sing me to sleep every night, ‘White coral bells upon a…’ We’d sing together and immediately I just started putting in my own words like ‘down in the poo-poo’ instead of ‘valley’. And that was really cute and funny, so I probably went and did some more new words to old songs. And therein lies my rip-off fetish. It gave me good attention when I was probably fucking three or something. And there’s a total precursor to Guyville in that. I would always take songs at large — whatever type of song I was into — and try to write one of ‘those’, I would call it, of that kind of song. So it was totally natural to do my version of the Rolling Stones or to rip off Malcolm McLaren.”
“What music really is to me at some bottom level is the songs I sang at camp, songs my mother sang to me. Really simple chants. For me they’re archetypal. It’s a real girl world. I don’t think boys do this. I don’t think they sing like girls do. And I don’t think they have those little rituals of rhyme,” she pauses to illustrate her point with rhythmic patty-cake hand claps, “and melody that girls grew up with. I mean, Barbie fuckin’ sings. Dolls sing. Everything is hummed to a melody. Even the National Anthem is intriguing to me lately. I called my production company National Anthem because it’s a great song for what kind of songs I’m talking about. It isn’t a pop song, and it isn’t a folk song, but [anthems] are archetypal. My songwriting is always trying to be a song like that, a song that’s like some weird primal something or other. Things like ‘bubblegum, bubblegum in a dish’ [a jump-rope chant from her song “Slave”], the rhythms of that stuff, and all these childhood things, I try to bring them up in my songs because there’s something about those songs that lasts. What are school yard chants? They’re not folk songs. They’re not pop songs. There’s something primal — a way of remembering. It’s like oral history.”
It’s not hard to get caught up in her monologues even as she stops to admit to schoolgirl crushes on Darth Vader and The Addams Family‘s Lurch, or to lament that she can’t be so free in public as she once was. “I used to be a great dinner table take-over, and now it would be a major faux pas for Liz Phair to come in and take over a dinner table conversation because she’d be doing it because she’s Liz Phair. When actually, Elizabeth Clark Phair used to do that all the time.” If there’s one thing that Elizabeth Clark Phair has in common with the Liz Phair of renown, “potty mouth” and all, it’s a propensity for thinking out loud, for embarking on her ad-hoc examinations of everything in her life and what it all means, as if the truth is in another clump of words around the corner. And it’s amazing to see, because the directness that makes her songs so arresting is always there, and it’s never more brilliant than when she describes her songs and why she writes them.
“Even now, just fighting with my boyfriend and stuff, it just compels me what human emotions tolerate, how flexible they are, how they rebound and how it feels to have something to lose. The risk factor is something I go to again and again in my songs. Whatever in my life has created a flush of blood all of a sudden — be it lust, fear, embarrassment, shame or sudden recognition of impending doom, whatever — those are things I’m going to stick in every song. There’s going to be one of those in any song I think is any good. I think are the poetry of what a songwriter does is to take those moments that just fleet — they’re here and then they’re gone — and kind of immortalize them, to find in 50 words or less some context to pit around one of those moments so that it will be recognizable to another human being.
“Any time any boy had an effect on me like that, a song had to be written at some point. The songs were the venue for things I never felt like I had a chance to say. If I was obsessed with somebody beyond me or that I didn’t know, I’d write to them. It was like me secret fetishism… I’ll write about stuff that happened a couple of years ago if I get that feeling again. I’m not one to go running to my friends and tell them what happened that day. I wanted to run to the guitar and say it.”
Always prone to intellectual flights, she is not above free-form contemplations, when coaxed, of what makes her something special.
“I think I’m a little punk in some sense. I think I say things in a way that’s accessible but a little more complicated than that. I say things in such a way you can recognize them in your own life. I think one of those things is that you can say my words if you’re a man or a woman. I give you little slogans… I don’t know. I’m making shit up right now. I’m just bullshitting for you. I make up theories at the drop of a hat, it’s just something to do… I think one thing I do is cross the gender barrier in certain ways and give you emotions that both sides relate to. And I give you words that are not hard to speak and at the same time effectively — not always brilliantly, but effectively — fill the need to speak something that usually goes unspoken. And I think I do a good job of universalizing very private, specific moments, which is a hard task.
“On some level, I’m just trying to make an hour’s worth of music worth listening to. I’m not trying to make the fucking pop hit album of the 20th Century. And I think I did my job well. I think I got a B at least, like exactly between a B and a B+. And I don’t know what hits a culture to make a Guyville but I sure as fuck don’t think that it comes along often. And I don’t think it comes along twice in a row.”
Is Liz Phair for real? Most definitely. She’s smart, a gracious host and, well, nice. And to listen to her, not all that hard to figure out.
“Really, I’m just a suburban girl who grew up upper-middle-class and had fawning parents who wanted her to achieve. It’s really pretty simple. What my merit is, is my ability to create a character worth psychoanalyzing, but that’s not me. That’s what I’ve done. That’s the only credit I should be getting. That’s the funny irony. What I actually get credit for is kind of bogus, and that’s why people get that sense of sham, because no one’s picking out the real accomplishments. No, they’re picking out, like ‘she’s the first woman to take her sexuality and throw it out there.’ And that’s not true. What I am is the first woman to calculatedly use my sexuality to be mainstream. Well, no — Madonna did that. See, now I didn’t even do that. I didn’t fucking do anything. All I did was write. That’s what’s so funny.”
“White Babies” on Chinny Chin Chin compilation (See Eye-Shimmy-Disc)
(note: credited to Kicking Giant; Liz sings it on Tae Won Yu’s answering machine!)
Exile In Guyville (Matador)
“Carnivore” (7″) (Minty Fresh)
“Supernova” (7″) (Matador-Atlantic)
By Scott Frampton
CMJ Music Monthly, November 1994