What would you do?
Let’s say you’re a successful indie rock artist with three critically acclaimed albums under your belt, a successful stint on this summer’s Lilith Fair tour, and a reputation as one of the women who, in the early and mid ’90s, helped break the male-dominated rock world wide open for your gender. Let’s say one of the ways you accomplished this was by writing brutally frank lyrics about sex, relationships, break-ups, and sleazy guys, opening eyes with lines like, “Fuck and run — even when I was 12” and “I want to fuck you like a dog.” Let’s say, too, that you’re a new mother, with a 1-1/2-year-old baby boy named Nicholas — you know that, one day, Nicholas is going to come across that copy of Exile in Guyville, your debut, and want to hear the songs that you used to sing: Mommy, what’s a blow-job queen?
Let’s say, in other words, that you’re Liz Phair.
“I just hope that he’s one of those kids that doesn’t really care what mom does,” Phair admitted during a recent phone interview. “[That] he’s really into some other kind of music so that I can push the issue off until he’s older, until he’s like 20. I just don’t want to have to explain myself when he’s 14.”
Kids today… even 14 seems a bit much to hope for. But this dilemma isn’t new for Phair. When Exile was released in 1993, Nicholas wasn’t even a gleam in her eye — but, having recently moved back to her family’s home in Chicago, she inevitably had to face an even tougher audience. Upon hearing the album for the first time, Phair’s mother wept.
“It was really painful for her to listen to, because she felt like it was such a sad album. She felt like there was a whole side to me that I’d been hiding or something. There’s no question that she was a little miffed. It was probably quite embarrassing.”
Mother Phair — and Nicholas — will likely be more comfortable with Liz’s new record, Whitechocolatespaceegg. Recorded painstakingly over the last two years with long-time collaborator Brad Wood and producer Scott Litt, spaceegg is tuneful and bright, backing away somewhat from the cynicism and self-loathing of an oversexed 20-something in favor of a more generous world view. Her new attitude is apparent on songs like “Love is Nothing” — “Love is nothing like they say, you gotta pick up the little pieces every day” — and the 24-carat single, “Polyester Bride,” which directly addresses the frustrations of a jaded young woman, dismissing them with the unsinkable affirmation: “You’ve got time.”
Even more central to Phair’s songwriting than body parts and sex acts are her brilliant observations of human behavior, the hilarious-yet-disturbing caricatures of men with “iodine tans” and “cheap, unpleasant desires,” memorable characters like “Soap Star Joe” — “Check out the thinning hair, check out the aftershave…” This surgical insight has carried over to the new album as well, introducing listeners to “Johnny Feelgood” and “Big Tall Man,” taking aim at people whose highest aspiration is to make “Shitloads of Money.”
Spaceegg also breaks new musical ground, exploring different sounds and genres. “Baby Got Going” is a down-and-dirty railroad blues number which she co-wrote with Litt. “I’ve never collaborated on anything in my life,” she says, sounding surprised that the end product turned out so well. “I tried it for months and months and it didn’t work. And then one morning I sat up in bed and I wrote it down and it was completely born entirely whole. I called him up and said, ‘Scott, I’m coming to L.A. I got it! I got it!’”
On “Uncle Alvarez,” Phair sings from the perspective of a young girl staring at photographs of her forbearers. “It’s very traditional Liz Phair writing,” she says, “but this is a much more mature version of my storytelling style. The girl is having these subversive thoughts about the whole sort of patriarchal dynamic of family traditional life.” The song mixes beautifully harmonized vocals with subtle percussion and an ambiance not heard on previous albums. “It’s a beautiful cross-breed of the old and the new,” she says. “A perfect example of the kind of dreamy soundscape stuff I was into on this album.”
But don’t confuse subtlety with sedation. When Phair comes to SDSU’s Montezuma Hall this week, she’ll be bringing a full rock-and-roll band with her. Notably absent will be the stage fright which plagued her early tours. Voice lessons, a successful stint on the Lilith tour, and “practice, practice, practice” have been the keys to overcoming it.
“It’s so simple when you actually work on something. You develop skills and become more confident. So much of what contributed to my stage fright was the fact that I was completely a fish out of water. When I was making this record, it was hard to get me off the mike. I was like, ‘Let’s do another take!’ and they’d be like, ‘No, Liz, we’ll fix it later.’”
Hearing her reminisce about Lilith leaves no doubt that this was a key to her new confidence. “I had one of the best summers of my life,” she says. “That’s the first time I’ve ever had friends in the business. There was this vibe, this Lilith vibe, and I wanted to fit in. I got to know it and I learned about it and it was so amazingly freeing.”
Phair’s presence on the tour came as something of a surprise — in the past, she was held up by Lilith critics as exactly the type of artist who had been excluded in favor of the more New-Agey, goddess set. Sarah McLachlan, Natalie Merchant, Paula Cole… Liz Phair?
“At first I was terrified that I didn’t fit in and that the words I sang were too abrasive or confrontational and I was like, ‘Oh, shit.’ Towards the end of it, after I’d seen so many different acts come and go, it was really a whole new world. It was like girls’ camp in a way: you totally fit in and you didn’t have to feel the way you did when you were just on the road in the rock world. For the first time I felt like I had a context, because I never felt at home in the whole male rock world.”
On the other hand, Phair was a perfect choice for Lilith. After all, isn’t this the era of “women in rock”? Haven’t both Phair and Lilith been cited as irrefutable evidence of the ascendance of female artists? With characteristic fire, Phair insists that to focus on this “phenomenon” is to miss the point entirely.
“‘Women in rock’ — I’m so sick of that term that I’ll puke. I honestly feel like ‘women in rock,’ that phrase, is using women as a subset of an already established thing. But look at what’s happening right now outside the music — it’s not about a genre. It’s not about, ‘Is there a place for females in our little group?’ Fuck that. They’re missing the boat. Women are pouring out of the woodwork.”
Whatever name we give this period in music history, Phair will doubtless be remembered for breaking down some of the barriers — by refusing to acknowledge that those barriers applied to her. Now, five years since we first heard her music, she is an artist at the peak of her confidence, a seasoned veteran, and a glowing mother. As her new album and tour attest, she needs no one to make a place for her anywhere — she’s made one for herself. She is an exile no longer.
By Andrew Altschul
SLAMM (San Diego’s Lifestyle & Music Magazine), September 23, 1998