By Barney Hoskyns
Mojo, Issue #12, November 1994
NO-ONE WAS MORE SURPRISED THAN LIZ PHAIR when her precocious double-album debut became the alternative-rock succès d’estime of 1993. “I was just a neighbourhood kid who wanted to show the boys I could do it too,” she says of the copiously drooled-over Exile In Guyville. “I was pretty sure we were gonna make 1,300.” By year’s end, Exile had topped the Village Voice’s annual Pazz & Jop critics’ poll, and several other polls besides.
True, Exile made itself irresistible to music scribes with its track-by-track response to a foundational rock “text” — The Rolling Stones’ masterpiece Exile On Main Street. It also helped that Phair was bridging a gap between the hairy-armpit sensuality of Juliana Hatfield. When Phair sang matter-of-factly about cunnilingus, it was hard to pin down where she stood on the battle of the sexes. Was she a Guyville riot grrrl or was she one of a kind?
But Exile stood up as a beguiling collection of songs, not simply as a statement about being a woman in the male milieu of black-clad navel-gazers that was Chicago’s Wicker Park. Whether Phair was giving it some rock testosterone with 6’1″ (the album’s “response” to the Stones’ Rocks Off) or laying low with the brooding Glory (ditto to Hip Shake) hers was indisputably a new and original pop voice.
Naturally, all the acclaim brought its own problems, particularly when Phair was lumped in with a bunch of other female indie-rockers said to be suffering from the ‘Sophomore Slump’.
“I didn’t really understand what this whole ‘Sophomore Slump’ thing meant,” she says. “It seemed to be this kind of virus that was floating around, but I didn’t know how I’d got it or how to counteract it. So I went through a period of not knowing how to write songs and all that kind of stuff. And then I realised the Sophomore Slump was exactly that — it was worrying about the Sophomore Slump!”
When Phair stopped worrying and learned to love her musical instincts, the result was the 14 songs that comprise her Matador follow-up Whip-Smart. If Whip-Smart proves nothing else, it proves that the girl has moved out of Guyville for good. “When I wrote Guyville, I still wanted to be a part of that scene,” Phair says. “This one says: I’ve orbited the planet and now I’m moving on. A song like May Queen takes a look at the little legend of Guyville and says, Hey, losers, I see what you are now, and I’m not there any more.”
But if Whip-Smart is a decidedly more produced affair than Guyville — Jealousy suggests a beefy-snared collision between Chrissie Hynde and Michelle-Shocked — there’s still an engaging quirkiness at work on songs like Nashville and Dogs Of LA that steers them away from the rock mainstream. “I think I just have this weird style, which is a combination of my voice and my guitar,” she says. “My favourite songs are the ones that literally come out full-born. Dogs Of LA, for example, came with words and tune and guitar, probably in half an hour, after I got back to Chicago from a trip to California. Those kind of songs mystify me, because I don’t know where they came from. When I was making this album, I thought I was writing radio-playable songs, but in some weird way they still don’t fit in.”
Does she think she’ll get more credit this time around as a songwriter per se rather than as a middle-class girl who talks about fucking?
“I sincerely hope so. I deliberately stuck the fuck songs at the beginning of this album to get them out of the way, because I wanted to play into what people expected and then fuck ’em over anyway — flip around on them before they realised what’s happened.”
Are people’s attentions long enough to stay with her? When will they start looking for the new Liz Phair?
“I figure I’ve got about three years here. But that’s OK, because I really don’t wanna keep this job for long. A lot of it’s really nasty. I was just looking longingly at a friend of mine who’s going back to do their Master’s — I was thinking how nice, how quiet and personal. Rock and roll is about putting out, and at some point you’ve got to stop and think about taking back in.”
Are there enough female voices in pop-rock culture?
“There are more than there were, but we’re still treated like novelty acts. The quickest way to realise that is to go on a photo shoot, having to get naked in a car with men fucking around and wanting to sluttify you. Again and again, all they want from you is their own version of female sexuality.”
Featured Image: Photo by Guzman