By Michaela Bancud
Portland Tribune, July 18, 2003
Liz Phair is a sellout! An embarrassment to herself and her fans! At 36, she’s suffering a midlife crisis. And so go the bad reviews of Liz Phair’s self-titled new album.
Sure, she’s dolled up in skanky clothes — and the babe factor, played down on earlier albums, is kicking full blast. Pictured on the new album in army fatigues and fishnets, Phair strikes poses best described as “combat porn.”
Gone is the off-key voice, the one we thrilled to on her debut album, “Exile in Guyville”, in part because it sounded a little like us.
Phair’s deadpan wit, with which she observes heavy-breasted men and cracks dirty barroom jokes, as she did on “Juvenilia,” is still here, if you listen closely.
The galloping wild child of “Whip-Smart,” the one who hurled herself into messy emotional states, eating men like air? Fully present.
So, what’s she gone and done to make the critics mad, exactly? Gunned for the big time, she says without apology.
Since the slutty outfits have become such a big part of the chatter, I ask what was up with the zippered up and rolled down miniskirt she wore in The Sunday New York Times Style section. The skirt, Phair says, was just a last-minute thing.
“My days tend to clump up,” Phair says with tea-party politeness. (Can this really be the deep-throated singer of all those famously dirty ditties, you wonder.) “And I’ll run from one place to another and have to be cool-looking. So I had on a dress, my publicist and I didn’t like it. We looked at each and she was like, ‘Let’s cut it.'”
“So, we cut off the top and left the flap hanging over. There’s something very liberating about cutting clothes.”
There’s something very liberating about Phair’s new album, too, despite the big choruses and echoey production effects (courtesy of the Matrix, the writing and production team behind Avril Lavigne’s debut). On “It’s Sweet” and “Rock Me”, songs ostensibly about bagging younger, uncomplicated men, she sings, “It’s sweet how you believe you’re in love with me. In the early light, I catch you staring and you make a joke about it.”
“Little Digger” is sung in Phair’s clearest choir-girl voice. So personal it makes you wince, the song was written for her son after he sees her with a man other than his father for the first time.
In The Times review, a staff writer wrote that Phair has “committed an embarrassing form of career suicide” with her latest album and accused her of pandering to the lowest common denominator.
“It’s OK with me if people don’t like the record,” Phair says of the review. “Because I really like the record, and I know I’ll find people who do — but she (the writer) was really so hyper.
“I’ve always felt this way, long before this piece was written. It’s music, you have got to relax. She made it seem like I was in some kind of midlife crisis and that I was presenting this terrible role model.”
Phair is not, she insists, having any sort of crisis.
“I’ve never been more together, and I’ve never been happier,” she says. “I work my butt off, and I raise my son as a single mom. If I’m fanciful with my clothes, that’s my business. It makes me happy. Compared to other musicians who do heroin, who would probably be on her top 10 list, I’m actually a really good role model.”
The week after the review was printed, The Times published a letter to the editor from Phair.
“I couldn’t believe they printed it,” Phair says. “But when people get that upset, there is usually something with them,” Phair says of the writer. “So I used Chicken Little’s ‘the sky is falling’ as my analogy: You can’t run around making these broad, sweeping statements. She made some… pretty scandalous… assumptions. Without even interviewing me. And she didn’t seem to have anything but ‘Guyville’ and her experience with that record behind it.”
“As a critic, she should have some serious stuff to back it up,” she continues. “So I was trying to insult her in a light way, so she’d know what it’s like. So she’d say, ‘Hey, that’s not me!’ And also to give a little slap and a bit of tickle.”
For Phair, songwriting has always been therapy. An outlet for less appropriate feelings, and a place to revel in them.
“When I turn to songwriting, it’s a razor’s edge kind of feeling I’m going for,” she says. “The excitement of doing something that’s sort of taboo. I’m exceeding my allotment, societally. Or it’s frustration or anger at not having handled a certain situation right. There’s a rebelliousness or a perversity to it.”
Speaking of perverse, have her parents heard the album?
“I’ve tried to stall them,” Phair says. “There’s a version out there without the song ‘H.W.C.’ (an especially raunchy tune) that’s sold at Starbucks and Wal-Mart, but they know my life, and they are pretty happy with it. And there’s a lot of eye-rolling, of course.”
Phair is divorced but says she’d like to get married again one day.
“I’m really fine the way I am, although I do fantasize about being married,” she says. “It’s always easier to fantasize about what you’re not, and I definitely suffer from that.
“All my friends are pretty much coupled up. I kind of hope to have more kids one day, but, honestly, you can’t stress about it — it’s not going to hurry anything up. I’m really not going to make another bad decision if I can help it.”
Courageous, big-hearted and flawed. Same old, wonderful Liz Phair.