Everybody knows who “Liz Phair” is: the privileged suburban girl with the guttermouth; a slacker who stumbled upon a hit album in her bedroom; and a whipsmart feminist who took on Chicago’s male-dominated indie scene and the Rolling Stones in one fell swoop — staring topless and defiant from her debut album cover. She’s sassy and savvy, and she does a lot of other things besides play guitar behind her bedroom door.
I know that Liz Phair, and she looks almost nothing like the stylish, petite woman sitting across from me, fishing around in her bag for her wedding band and a pair of diamond earrings that had to come off for a photo shoot.
“I have problems with my image,” Phair shrugs. “I have trouble with my image all the way down to, like, make-up artists. I never wear any make-up, and I just kind of have a preppy, fluffy cut, and again and again I walk in and they’re like, ‘Dark eyes! Grease the hair! Do something quickly — she doesn’t know her place.”
In 1993 the Chicago native’s cool, tuneful debut, Exile In Guyville, topped all the major critic’s polls and sold an unprecedented 200,000 copies for the burgeoning indie label Matador. A song-by-song response to the Stones classic Exile On Main Street, the album blew apart modern conceptions of gender with its unblinking confessions, expressions of desire and confusion, and back-to-back contradictions. The persona Phair presented on Guyville was that of a woman who was smart but did dumb things, who wanted to be your girlfriend but would settle for “blow job queen”, and who played electric guitar better than you.
In truth, it was nothing Chrissie Hynde hadn’t done before, but such audacity was to be expected from a tough chick with long black bangs and a sullen pout, who never put on a dress unless she was playing a waitress in a video. When a cute, blonde, good girl did it, it was anarchy.
“I don’t really get what happened with Guyville,” says Phair. “It was so normal, from my side of things. It was nothing remarkable, other than the fact that I’d completed a big project, but I’d done that before…. Being emotionally forthright was the most radical thing I did. And that was taken to mean something bigger in terms of women’s roles in society and women’s roles in music…. I just wanted people who thought I was not worth talking to, to listen to me.”
Phair may not have intended her lo-fi epiphanies to signal anything more than a personal declaration of self, but the times were a-changin’ nevertheless. The Grunge powerhouse had begun to sputter and spawn cheap imitations, and all eyes were peeled for the next niche. When Phair stepped forward alongside equally strong female artists like PJ Harvey, Hole and the Breeders, the public said, “Ooh, look, girls!” And the music industry said, “Eureka! GIRL$!“
Without this initial surge into the mainstream consciousness — Phair being one of the most quotable, photogenic, desirable (by both sexes), and musically accessible — there would be no Fiona Apple, no Gwen Stefani, no Meredith Brooks, no Alanis Morissette.
We’ve come a long way, maybe. In 1994, a barefoot Phair graced the cover of Rolling Stone magazine’s “Women In Rock” issue, wearing a not-quite-perfectly fitting slip dress and pink lipstick. The coverage consisted of five stories. Last year’s “Women In Rock” issue coincided with the release of the Women In Rock book and featured Courtney Love, Madonna and Tina Turner vogueing in Gucci stilletos on the cover. The three divas reportedly staggered their arrivals so they could all be made up by Kevyn Aucoin. The “movement” had become a bona fide industry.
“I think it’s peaked,” asserts Phair, sipping herbal tea at a health food restaurant in Soho. “Maybe the chunk of time would be from Alanis hitting big, trickling down to now. That may have been two years, two and a half — that’s the bubble. Maybe in five years it’ll just be about new artists, male or female.”
“The bubble’s a good analogy,” I continue, “because maybe now it’s burst and will just disperse.”
“Okay,” she smiles, nodding. “So they popped that zit!” She laughs and goes on, “I’m just so tired of answering questions about ‘women in rock’, because even though it’s completely valid and worth talking about, it’s hard, as one, to really feel the label personally because it takes so much energy to be a musician and a singer and a songwriter. I’m just trying to make great songs and I’m busy doing that. So I’m happy that it’s all come and happened, but I don’t feel that I have much to say about it anymore.”
This attitude is certainly understandable, but it’s a far cry from the one held by the once-pithy press princess who, if a microphone was in her face, obligingly deconstructed all manner of pop phenomena — from Cindy Crawford to Nirvana to, mostly, herself.
In 1994 she told a reporter for the Chicago Tribune Magazine, “I’m cute enough that you can photograph me, and you can dress me up and I’ll do it. I’ll smile and dance around.”
“But can’t you hear the fear in that?” Phair asks, leaning forward and fixing me with her large, lake-blue eyes. “Inside I was really flipping. People wondering so much about me, and what I had done, and who I was made me feel like I had no idea…. It’s like someone who analyzes something to death because they’re afraid of being caught off guard, the one who didn’t know. That’s what sounds like to me — trying to cover all the bases so I’m in on the joke.” She sighs and adds, “I look at her and I feel sorry for me then, because I really didn’t flourish under that.”
Whipsmart, Phair’s sophomore effort, was a more musically ambitious work than Guyville and chock full of potential hits, but sales were relatively disappointing. Phair opted not to do a full-band tour in support of the album, perhaps partially due to her notorious stage fright. She did manage to pull off a couple well-received solo acoustic dates, but then essentially dropped out of the public eye.
In 1995, she married her longtime boyfriend, film editor Jim Staskauskas, and by the spring of ’96 she was pregnant. Her son Nick was born in December of that year.
I venture delicately around the subject of a “comeback”: “I mean, I’m sure you were making music…”
“Not really,” she shakes her head. “I was totally away; I had a baby. I have a home that I do laundry for and buy flowers for the garden… And I probably could have stayed there, but I got lucky and was woken up because I think I had another album in me and maybe [even] another one.”
“I think I waited just long enough that no one really expected it anymore, and in a funny way that freed me up to make it. Whipsmart felt very much like all eyes were on me, and it’s a lot more fun to come back after three years and be like, ‘Look what I made!'”
Whitechocolatespaceegg, took form over the course of several years, and is the product of Phair’s collaborations with a varied assortment of producers and musicians, from longtime partner Brad Wood to superstar producer Scott Litt (who brought in everyone but Stipe from R.E.M., to play on the song “Fantasize”), to the former heartthrob of her high school. The album’s 16 tracks are as wildly diverse as the phases Phair went through while making it (country to electronica), and she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I think it’s great when a band is really cohesive and has their particular sound,” she says, “but I’m so much more flighty than that. I really like to experiment and see what happens — like, throw something together spontaneously and find out what you can make.”
Phair had the recent realization that this record is, in fact, exactly the one she had hoped to make all along.
“Four years ago, I set out two goals that would really interest me, and that was to have a lot of different musical styles and to record at all different places, or to sound as different as possible from top to bottom and play with all different people. And then I forgot about that, and I went on and got pregnant, and I woke up a couple weeks ago and realized that I did it!” She cocks her head. “Isn’t that eerie?”
There is a palpable sense of liberation and exuberance on Whitechocolate that is truly refreshing. One thing’s for sure about Liz Phair: she can write a mean (that is to say, nice) pop tune. The best songs on the record are the kind that give you chills and make you want to dance around your apartment and sing along — but not in a cloying, soft-drink commercial way.
On Whitechocolate’s first single, “Johnny Feelgood”, Phair tosses bouquets to the lover who makes her feel “strangely good about myself” as dense layers of guitars criss-cross over sci-fi synths and a loose, elastic beat. (if anybody’s counting, she only says the F-word once.) The disarmingly sweet “Polyester Bride” asks the unlikely question: “Do you wanna find alligator cowboy boots, they just went on sale / do you wanna flap your wings and fly?”
Pulling a total 180, Phair’s gender-bending posturing in the Chicago blues rocker “Baby Got Goin'” (the music was written by Litt) takes its cue from the macho swagger of Patti Smith’s version of “Gloria”, while “Headache’s” droll flirtatiousness (“Hey, mister, why don’t you come for me? I”m a psychosomatic sister, runnin’ around without a leash”) bounces along on Human League-style keyboards.
Utterly simple, the closing track, “Girls’ Room”, resonates with the sheer love of music that colors this whole album. Accompanied by a reverb-y guitar, Phair’s voice undulates like water — part lullaby, part playground sing-song — as the words roll out from her mouth: “I’m sleepin’ in the gir-irl’s room. I’m sleepin’ in the sky-y-y.” It is an inspired moment.
“You know how sometimes it just springs from you complete?” she marvels. “That’s how it was, just flew out of the sky. I was mystified by it.”
Fans will have had a chance to hear for themselves on this summer’s Lilith Fair tour. “I hope I do it well,” she says, almost pleading. “Jesus Christ, I hope to do it really well. I love singing. I used to dread my vocals, making records. I would rather die. Now you can’t get me off the mic.”
Whereas before she only found creative fulfillment in the writing process and felt like a scam when she played live (“I was trying to keep up to the beat of the drum”), now she feels that performing is a creative process for her.
“I sing my songs that I’ve already made. I sing them out and feel extroverted about them. I enjoy my abilities now, whereas before I was embarrassed by them, or scared to be compared or judged.”
Sitting alongside the female luminaries of MTV and VH1 at a Lilith Fair press conference, Phair thought, “Wow, cool, I’m inside TV!” and found herself quite comfortable there.
“Even though I never had the sales that these women have, or I’m perceived as being different, as human beings who write songs, I totally fit in. I looked left and right and thought, “Shit, it’s like we could share a cabin in girl’s camp!”
Phair debated whether or not to bring her son on tour with her. “I want him with me, but I want him to be safe and happy.”
It’s clear that motherhood is a role she was made for. Walking down the street, she spontaneously coos “I love babies” as we pass a child in a stroller, while back at the Matador offices she unconsciously starts picking lint off my pants and traces her finger around a tiny hole in my knee.
“I’m a hands-on mom,” she declares with pride. “I’m wipin’ that snotty nose, I’m gonna be talkin’ to those teachers — I wanna know what they’re teaching ’em!”
You’re gonna be driving that carpool!” I offer.
Phair flashes that famed toothy grin. “Fuck yeah!”
By Steffie Nelson
Raygun, August 1998