At first, she just wanted to show the boys she could do it; now, with a second album, she’s proved she’s got staying power, not just a talent for shock.
When’s the last time a rock musician was termed “overly smart” for his or her own good? After all, we’re talking about a genre that, at its most basic, requires the mastery of three chords. For Liz Phair — the 27-year old Oberlin College grad from Winnetka who stunned music mavens in 1993 when her first album, Exile in Guyville, sold more than 200,000 copies on an independent label — the praise doesn’t end there. With the October 1994 release of whip-smart her follow-up album, Rolling Stone dubbed her the “braniac bad girl… audacious, funny, lusty and smart.” The New York Times called her songs “tuneful, intelligent and quietly startling,” noting that her second album “carries her from the fringe to the real thing.” And Time marveled at her ability to “be so honest and so much fun.”
What’s got everyone so amped up isn’t Phair’s singing ability — her live performances can actually be painful to hear, though she is reported to be getting better — but rather her dead-on look at life. Male rockers have been singing from the soul for years, using their music to work through personal miseries, but few young women, especially with Phair’s perspicacity, have been so sexually forthright with lyrics and a guitar. Phair’s penchant for explicit prose kept most radio stations from playing Guyville in its entirety — “Every time I see your face / I get all wet between my legs” is one of the album’s milder revelations.
But with whip-smart she’s backed off a bit, devoting less thought to sex and more to the complexities of love. That candor has won her the devotion of thousands of female peers hungry to hear their personal concerns addressed, as well as young men awestruck at the pronouncements coming out of this five-foot-two-inch blonde’s mouth. For her effort, Phair’s been handed the title of new feminist spokeswoman, though given her tenor of her lyrics, she’s clearly out to redefine the term.
But then Phair has been defining and redefining herself for years. The adopted daughter of John (a department head at Northwestern Memorial Hospital) and Nancy (an instructor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago), Phair drifted out to San Francisco after graduating from Oberlin. When poverty and hunger pangs had taken their toll, she returned to Chicago, settling into the (once) little-known neighborhood of Wicker Park (the real “Guyville” of which she sings). Several months later, a friend encouraged her to record some songs she’d penned while on the West Coast. Called Girly Sound, the collection eventually got the attention of Matador Records executives and, well, life in Guyville has never been the same.
The positive publicity has been overwhelming, turning Phair into a bit of a recluse — bandmate Casey Rice says she sometimes doesn’t even return his phone calls, though he did spot a new ring on her finger in late October, suggesting Phair and Jim Staskauskas, a film editor and her companion of more than a year, are close to tying the knot.
It’s doubtful that Phair will get buried under all the hoopla, though, given that she’s so clearly in control. “It would be hard to take advantage of me,” Phair announced during a September 1994 interview in Harper’s Baazar magazine, “because I’m going to exploit myself better than anyone else could.”
By Dale Eastman
Chicago, January 1995