By Gina Arnold
Riverfront Times, July 30, 2003
“There are no second acts in American lives,” F. Scott Fitzgerald said, but that’s not really true. Most of us have second — and third and fourth and, if we’re really lucky, even fifth — acts, which have the capacity to haunt or horrify us. Singer Liz Phair is no exception. Because she hired the producers responsible for hits by prefab pop stars such as Avril Lavigne and Mariah Carey, her fourth LP, Liz Phair, has received possibly the worst reviews that any once-beloved indie rock act has ever garnered, ranging from The New York Times‘ accusation that she’s “committing career suicide” to GQ‘s more passive gibe that she’s “being marketed like Tampax or Maybelline.”
These and other, ruder barbs (a perfect 0.0 review on Pitchfork Media, for example) have obscured the fact that Liz Phair is that rarest of items: a work of art about an adult woman’s life. The last time we saw a girl get such a public pink belly, Ronald Reagan was in office, so it’s well worth examining why the collected media of the world are bent on keeping her down.
If Phair’s new record really sucked, it’d be one thing. But this is more hypocritical than that — the scarlet letter, circa now. The criticism of Liz Phair, and not the album itself, sucks beyond measure, particularly in its exposure of 21st-century America as a place where you still can’t be a smart, sexy woman whose main aim in life is to please yourself rather than please men — at least not in public. (Please take note, Hillary Clinton.) It highlights the failure of rock criticism to move beyond the whole lo-fi/highbrow paradigm, whereby good music sounds bad, and vice versa. Understandably, critics don’t like to feel manipulated, but all this hysteria begs an obvious question: If Liz Phair can still shock and appall people, in what way is she selling out?
Liz Phair has presented the world with a conundrum: a commercial record by an edgy artist. As such, it has created the greatest example of raging idiocy in rock criticism since the mainstream press decried Elvis Presley for wiggling his hips. Perhaps this was inevitable: Like Presley before her, Phair is a breaker of gender stereotypes — from the outset she has written great, true songs about what assholes guys are and how it feels to be female. Given the society we live in, it’s not surprising that she wasn’t embraced by the mainstream for doing so. Back in 1993, at the height of Phair’s endlessly adored debut, Exile in Guyville, she was featured in the lowest newsstand-selling Rolling Stone issue ever. What’s more depressing is that ten years later, things haven’t progressed. Now, in addition to commercial stiffing, she’s being vilified for existing, and not just by men who think her free-spiritedness is intimidating.
Of course, it’s all being couched in other terms: Her enemies insist Liz Phair is “bad” — particularly, it “sounds bad.” This is an especially insidious fallacy, since a re-creation of Exile‘s grungy lo-fi rock sound would have sounded ridiculous on the radio. Whether the record is “bad” is, of course, open to discussion, but in fact, few reviews focus on the music, concentrating instead on the so-called “reinvention” of Phair herself. The idea being bandied about is that Liz was once super-hip and cool and groovy, but now she’s dull and boring and trying really hard to sound like Britney Spears.
This line of reasoning merely points out (among other things) the incredibly short memory of rock critics. Guyville is now universally acknowledged as one of the best LPs of the ’90s, but when it first came out, the record — or, more accurately, Phair herself — was also excoriated by (mostly male) critics who found her persona (smart, blonde, sexy, self-aware) too threatening for their weak little brains to contemplate. Indeed, before the sheer force of her talent was reluctantly acknowledged by all and sundry, Guyville was slammed in Spin by a writer who was angry in real life at Phair for breaking up with his best friend.
At the time, Phair wrote a letter to Spin complaining about their biased choice of critics, thus cementing her reputation as a “difficult” blonde. That was ten years ago, but history repeats: Recently, the Times published a letter from her — structured as an off-the-wall parable comparing whiny critics to Chicken Little — protesting the paper’s scathing “career suicide” review of Liz Phair. Phair doesn’t really mind criticism of her new record; she takes umbrage at all the criticism leveled at her.
“People forget what a shitstorm my first record created,” she sighs, ringing in from the road on her current headlining tour. “It was totally the same thing: a bunch of people attacking me and not the music, saying I couldn’t carry a tune or whatever. I have radar now about when it’s too personal, and what really irked me about The New York Times [review] was just that it seemed so ill-informed. That girl [writer Meghan O’Rourke] had all these comments about my life, but she didn’t have anything to say about the music. You know, if a critic says, ‘I’m not into this record,’ that’s fair: You’re a critic, you need an opinion. But that’s not what that review said.”
“Ms. Phair often sounds desperate or clueless,” O’Rourke wrote. “The album has some of the same weird self-oblivion of a middle-aged man in a midlife crisis and a new Corvette.”
“It was weird,” Phair continues. “I actually wrote that letter to Meghan, not to the readers of the Times, because I wanted her to feel what it felt like to be criticized as a person, and not as a writer.”
That feeling, alas, is something that Phair has had to get used to. Her strength in the face of so much misdirected ire has percolated into her musical decisions. Yes, Liz Phair is aimed at a more mainstream audience than previous LPs, but although Phair has dropped the indie-rock sonics, she hasn’t yet resorted to the phony, glitzy emotions that really make hits hit. Instead, each song tells a story about what it’s like to be a 36-year-old divorced mom, and as such, its perspective is about as far from the pop canon as Sandra Bernhard is from Jane Austen.
True, it’s produced and in parts co-written by the same people who write for Britney and Avril and Mariah and Ricky, but the content of these songs can’t be compared to the work of those singers and, indeed, can’t be compared to the equally dumb musings of older female songwriters such as Sheryl Crow or Jewel. And that’s the problem: Hardly a single critic in America can honestly endorse the work of those artists, but have they embraced Phair for bringing another voice to the table? No.
Instead, every article penned by these deep thinkers expresses outrage at Phair’s attire (or lack of attire). According to the cabal, not only is the singer flaunting her sexuality and good looks by appearing nearly naked on MTV and on her CD cover, she’s doing so at the age of 36. This, apparently, is a far more criminal act than doing so when you’re seventeen, or fifteen, or thirteen, or ten, when flashing your tits is de rigueur. Women who are older than 30, and particularly those whom we know to be moms, should just shut up and die. It’s surprising to hear such bullshit coming from smart writers in places such as the normally rational Times, rather than dumb writers from Conflict, Forced Exposure and Spin. Besides, this time the sin of ageism is being added to the more obvious sin of sexism: Each review seems to suggest that Phair isn’t being seemly.
Worse, the critics reasoning this way aren’t all male. That women writers are now her biggest detractors is highly disturbing, a fact Phair acknowledges. “I have a younger female friend who says that young women today are really wary of the word ‘feminist,'” she says. “It’s not like I’m a heavy-duty one, but having attended Oberlin in the era that I did [the late ’80s], I’m really cognizant of gender roles and stereotypes and the types of things that make people what they are. It scares me to see the generation beneath us educated in such a way that they want to shut down that part of themselves.
“The subtext of my whole career,” she adds sadly, “has always been to empower women…to give them a voice and a place to use it. To expand their roles in rock and expand what it’s okay to think about and talk about and feel and say and do out loud.”
Once, Phair’s fans had hoped that she had succeeded in doing just that, but the hostility toward Liz Phair proves otherwise. Most casual listeners approach the record after reading quite a bit of nasty stuff, and there’s reason to expect the worst — not because of the bad press, but because she is not prolific. Her last two records (Whip-Smart and Whitechocolatespaceegg) both contained tracks culled from her very first demo tape, Girly Sound. She appears to be one of those artists — like Lord Byron or J.D. Salinger — who had a sudden burst of youthful creativity. For Phair, this burst poured out of her on Exile and dried up soon after.
Given the circumstances, Phair’s impulse to hire help is entirely understandable, and the truth is, the songs on Liz Phair are better-crafted and sonically more fun than anything since Exile. Much has been made of the fact that her voice seems to have been digitally equalized, like Avril’s or Britney’s or Shania’s. It may have been, but it still sounds like Liz, which is all to the good.
As for the songs’ subject matter, it’s not as if she’s hiding anything about herself, and therein lies the rub, apparently. On “Rock Me,” she takes a younger guy for a lover and gently mocks his lifestyle while still enjoying the sex. On “My Bionic Eyes,” she talks about how, when you’re an older woman, you can see through a guy’s lies all the better. And on “Hot White Cum” — a particularly hostile flashpoint for critics — she sings a sweetly pretty song about the joys of getting laid every night, and she does so with complete sincerity.
Of course, these songs are no more likely to please the vast majority of the world than classic Exile moments such as “Flower” or “Fuck and Run,” and with better reason, because, between the production and the subject matter, the whole project is slightly off-kilter. True, Liz Phair‘s first single, the Matrix-produced “Why Can’t I,” is as unstoppably catchy as, yes, one of Avril Lavigne’s horrid offerings, but wouldn’t you rather hear someone with authentic musical context and actual songwriting talent sing a song like that than an eighteen-year-old phony punk rocker?
Sure, there are slightly embarrassing moments on Liz Phair. That’s life, is it not? It’s a brave thing to sing a song like “Little Digger,” in which she talks about the awkwardness of having a guy spend the night when you have a kid around. “I’ve done the damage, the damage is done/I pray that I’m the damaged one,” she sings, and then, heartbreakingly, she adds, “You keep repeating the line, ‘My mother is mine.'” Perhaps you can’t relate to Liz’s new concerns until you, too, have heard that poignant mantra, but does that mean her concerns aren’t relevant?
If that’s the case — that the life experiences of women in their 30s (and 40s and 50s and so on) have no place in pop music — then maybe women should withdraw their expertise, their interest and even their ears from the entire genre. And if it’s not the case (certainly, one would hope it’s not), it doesn’t make sense that Liz Phair, of all records, should be getting such a bitch-slapping. The controversy surrounding it only goes to show what’s sadly lacking in the music industry, in music criticism and maybe even in humanity itself.
Featured Image: Liz Phair, preparing for her Hot White Comeback. (Photo by Phil Poynter)