Liz Phair may have gone domestic, but that hardly means she’s turned to tranquility
First off, her credentials are all wrong. Wrong childhood (upper-middle-class and relatively normal), wrong adolescence (director John The Breakfast Club Hughes went to the same Chicago-area high school), wrong adulthood (married with one child). Her personality isn’t much help, either. Smart, funny and extremely pop-culture savvy, she is the thinking man’s dream date and the thinking woman’s soul sister.
All of that would make Liz Phair a lousy example of rock ‘n’ roll rebellion, if she weren’t such a classic rock ‘n’ roll rebel. “Songwriting is the vehicle for me to let out all the things that don’t jibe with society, but that I think are true in life,” said Phair, who performs Wednesday at SDSU’s Montezuma Hall. “The authority figure can change. It can be parents, it can be the rock ‘n’ roll establishment, it can be society and family, but it’s always about things you’re not supposed to feel and say.”
On her stunning debut album, 1993’s Exile in Guyville, Phair said things you weren’t supposed to say about emotions that nice girls weren’t supposed to feel. In the process of deconstructing the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, Phair wallowed in lust (“Flower”), messed with gender roles (“Dance of the Seven Veils”) and pondered revenge (“Help Me Mary”). And in “(Expletive) and Run,” she even admitted to wanting a boyfriend. It was risque stuff, all right, but it was nothing compared to the risks Phair took when she decided to settle down.
Since the release of 1994’s Whip-Smart, Phair has gotten married and become a mother. And on her new album, Whitechocolatespaceegg, the woman who used to toss off references to one-night stands and oral sex is now tackling long-term romance and parenthood. But if you think that means her rebel days are over, you’re not thinking the way Phair is thinking. “With Guyville, it was about rebuttal, and I’m still kind of doing that. It’s in my nature to be contrary, and to me, this album is perfectly rock ‘n’ roll,” said Phair, 31, phoning in from the Windy City. “It’s almost like Violent Femmes-style rock ***’n’ roll, where they’re talking about stupid, everyday circumstances. Love is supposed to be this big thing that you write big ballads about, but as I grow older, a lot of time it’s just another schlep like everything else. It’s work. People don’t want to hear that, but they know it.” A real-life woman.
On Whitechocolatespaceegg, Phair brings up the kind of grubby details people don’t want to hear from their friends, much less their pop stars. In “Love Is Nothing,” Phair deflates a million heart-shaped balloons with one lyrical dagger (Love is nothing, nothing, nothing / Like they say / You gotta pick up the little pieces every day). “Go On Ahead” unveils the harsh truth behind those soft-focus diaper ads (One night is lovely, the next is brutal / And you and I are in way over our heads with this one), while “Perfect World” reveals every woman’s politically incorrect fantasy (I want to be cool, tall, vulnerable and luscious / I would have it all if I’d only had this much). But just when it looks as if Phair has gone “thirtysomething” on us, she swaggers out with “Johnny Feelgood” (Moderation is a memory / Dive right in and let him send me) and the image of the domesticated rock chick is replaced by the vision of a real-life woman.
“As a woman, you have these different aspects of yourself but none of them really jibe with each other. There are songs where I’m discussing more real-life stuff, and there are songs where I’m obviously lost in fantasy. There are songs where I’m kind of timid and feeling inadequate, and there are songs where I’m out to kick some (butt). “If you look at ‘Johnny Feelgood’ and what I’m saying in that, and then you look at ‘Love Is Nothing,’ it’s totally contradictory. But at the same time, that’s how I feel my life is. People like to make cohesive statements, but what I’m doing with this album is trying to make a statement about the lack of cohesiveness in life.”
Phair is analytical by nature and by training (she was an art-history major at Oberlin College), but if she sounds especially poised when discussing her work, it’s because she’s had plenty of cause to think about it. When Exile in Guyville was released five years ago on Matador Records, the album was a critical smash. And while music writers were naming the album one of the best of the year, the frank-talking singer-songwriter behind it became the subject of magazine cover stories, gossip and much metaphorical drooling. Men wished their girlfriends could dish the dirt with such relish. Women wished their boyfriends could really take it. And Phair wondered if she would ever recover from her bout of good fortune. “I’ll tell you what freaked me out. I lost a good sense of who I was, and that’s the thing I have now that I didn’t used to have,” Phair said. “When you see yourself in a million different pictures and you look different in every picture, and when people take your words and change them when they write the story so you sound different, if you’re young and you don’t have a life or close friends, you can be so easily messed up by that. Because where is your identity that doesn’t change? How do you find your touchstone to know who you really are?”
“In the four years that I took off (after Whip-Smart), I got back in touch with my friends, I made the effort to foster friendships, I had a child, and I became closer to my family. If you have those things, they will always help keep you grounded. If you don’t have them, and a lot people don’t, I think fame can mess you up like fire in a haystack. Poof, and you’re gone.”
On Whitechocolatespaceegg, Phair proves that a rebellious rocker doesn’t have to burn out or fade away. In the process, she has discovered that growing up isn’t the same as getting old, and a little bit of perspective can buy all the freedom in the world.
“I’m a lot more responsible than I was, and my life is more serious in a lot of ways. So it makes the fun of what I do stand out now,” said the formerly stage-shy performer. “Before, I didn’t really have much of a life. So I was like (mock wailing): ‘Oh, I can’t perform. Oh, it’s so hard.’ And now, I’m like, ‘Yahoo, let’s go!’ I can sense the fun of rock ‘n’ roll and what a great release it is. I get why it’s fun now. Before I just didn’t get it.”
By Karla Peterson
San Diego Union-Tribune, September 17, 1998