By Melora Koepke
Hour, November 6, 2003
You been around enough to know / If I want to leave you better let me go / I take full advantage of every man I meet / I get away almost every day with what the girls call / what the girls call what the girls call… the girls call murder.
– Girls! Girls! Girls! (from Exile in Guyville, 1993)
They make rude remarks about me / They wonder just how wild I would be / As they egg me on and keep me mad / They play me like a pit bull in a basement / And for that I lock my door at night / I keep my mouth shut tight / I practice all my moves / I memorize their stupid rules.
– Help Me, Mary (from Exile in Guyville, 1993)
If you didn’t know better, listening to Exile in Guyville today, you’d think Liz Phair was practicing her escape from indie rock back in 1993. That was the record that catapulted Phair, a self-proclaimed “suburban kid with blond highlights just out of college,” onto the cover of Rolling Stone. Phair was the indie-rock goddess for a new generation, but also the fierce – and triumphantly foolish – independent who now, 10 years later, is less an idol than an effigy.
Her new, self-titled album and recent ubiquitous presence in the media has brought, among other denouncements, a sneering New York Times screed (“Exile in Avril-ville”) from a female critic who proclaims Phair’s “embarrassing kind of career suicide” a betrayal of her fans and, from the sound of it, of all womankind.
Phair’s real crime? Growing up. Or not growing up, depending on how you look at it.
The story of Liz Phair is a lesson to all women, so listen well: In the music business, it’s not the virgin/whore dichotomy you need to worry about (Britney straddles that split quite nicely, thank you) but the indie/mainstream juxtaposition. You step outside the lines, and it can be murder.
An intentional blow-by-blow send-up of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, Phair’s Exile in Guyville cast her, at 25, as the spokesmodel for a certain kind of feminist who was in her ’20s in the ’90s, and gave all their boyfriends boners with her Chicago-gangster, dirty-talking, three-chord crooning. It also, many argue, set the stage for the Avrils and the Alanises (Alanae?) that came after her.
In the decade since Exile, Phair did a lot of things – got married, had a kid, got divorced and produced two more albums, Whip-Smart (1994) and whitechocolatespaceegg (1998).
On her new, recklessly bouncy album, she enlisted the producing/songwriting triumvirate The Matrix (who authored Avril) on four prominent cuts. But unlike Avril, the Sk8er Bois are “good enough for” Phair: “I want to play Xbox on your floor / Say hi to your roommate who’s next door / You don’t have a dime, but I don’t mind / Who gives a damn / Your record collection don’t exist / You don’t even know who Liz Phair is…” (from Rock Me).
Rock Me sounds like two impulses at once: both the urge for self-annihilation in the arms of a kid who’s never seen a cover of Rolling Stone from 1993, and a chance to reassert her carnivorous sexuality from an elevated place, once again at centre stage.
“Maybe it’s the time we’re in right now – I don’t seem to be the only 30-something chick dating younger guys,” says Phair.
“For me, [my sexual potency] is the connection to life and what I’m saying about it is political. I spent my 20s seeing men as threatening. I always felt very… sought out by men for sex, even by much older men. When I got older I met and chose partners with whom I had equal and beautiful, awesome sex, and biologically, that’s how it’s supposed to be. I don’t buy all that social Darwinism crap.”
Still, it’s by the rules of survival of the fittest, musically speaking, that Phair structured her newest opus as a sure-fire hit-machine. And by all accounts, it’s her collaboration with The Matrix that is most problematic for her detractors.
“I get accused of being untrue to myself all the time,” says Phair. “But what I’m doing here isn’t chipping away at who I am. My [Matrix songs] are not about, ‘Oh I just want to run away from myself.’ It’s very me. I’m experimenting with different ways of recording myself. It’s very self-centred of them to assume it’s all about them… If you hate the mainstream and you hate what’s on the radio, you’re never gonna change that sitting in the corner of a dark bar with your arms crossed, sulking.”
Still, Phair, because of her shimmy into danceability, is hardly walking on sunshine. Can she make the switch? Does she even care?
“If you listen to Guyville, I was bashing the indie scene about being an exile from that, even then,” she says.
“I was sort of something they could hold up like a big fuck-you and say, ‘See, mainstream, we’ve got Liz Phair and she’s like Madonna, only better.’ I was their power thing against the mainstream, and then I made a couple of records they didn’t buy, and then I show up on their radar having shaken hands with the devil, having gone to the source of what they think keeps them down. But I haven’t been in the indie scene or hung out at their bars or gone to their shows for ages. I’m making music that reflects where I am now – it’s still the same message, but now you can dance to it.”
Indeed, the new album is pretty formulaic, musically, like any flash-in-the-pan firecrackers detonating off MTV these days: Phair’s sexy cracking monotone is a little too hard to find amid the hooks. But at 36, Phair is hardly a babe in short pants. On Liz Phair, it’s clear that she isn’t exactly acting her age, doing shaggy adult contempo-rock like one expects from a divorced single mom.
On one song that will never make it into Top 40 play, H.W.C., she extols the virtues of male ejaculate as a beauty aid: “My skin’s getting clear, my hair’s so bright / All you do is fuck me every day and night / You’re my secret beauty routine / Na, na, na, na, what my body has seen / I am lookin’ good and I’m feeling nice / Baby you’re the best magazine advice,” and the chorus, “Gimme your hot white cum / Gimme your hot white cum” ad infinutum.
When Phair performed H.W.C at South by Southwest this year, a (female) journalist speculated that it was a good thing Phair didn’t have a daughter if she was going to need H.W.C.to keep herself radiant (she has a son). So maybe it comes down to that: Is a “hot white cum” beauty routine feminist or anti-feminist?
Either way, for Phair, it’s definitely political. All that has changed is the bass line – so what’s the big deal?
“I think it’s absolutely misogynist, even and especially from female reviewers. To me it highlights the self-hatred there is left among [certain] women. They’re still thinking of themselves as being put down in the power structure, so they eat their own for stepping outside of the lines.”
Phair frequently likens her music to a gastronomic orgy. If you have a taste for it, it’s because you’re hungry. And if you don’t, well…
“For me, music is always the thing that trumps everything else. It’s like eating… and that’s what I felt about all these reviewers who just couldn’t loosen up and take it the way it was meant without having to intellectualize it. It’s like not eating your dinner and writing about it instead.”
In the meantime, when you listen closely, rock’n’roll is more than a job for Phair – it’s what keeps her on the same stage as rock goddesses 20 years younger than herself. Consider the other verse of H.W.C., the song that will never be a single: “Gimme your hot white cum… / Face it, one of these days / Without you I’m just another Dorian Gray / It’s the fountain of youth / It’s the meaning of life.”