By Mike Jollett
Filter, May / June 2003
IT’S TWO P.M. on a sunny Los Angeles afternoon and Liz Phair is having a good day. She recently moved here from Chicago, and it shows. Gone are the days of stage fright and hiding in the shadows. Gone are the days of obscure cover art and songs which dabble in self-loathing. These days, the town is warm. The label foots the bill. And the new album (Happy Tragic Thing) shoots for the big time. I don’t know if any of it makes for good art, but damn if it doesn’t make for a good mood. That’s why people move here.
So before you go shooting your mouth off about selling your soul to Capitol Records, remember that it’s not your soul, it’s hers. And the same independent nature that led her to write all of those dearly confessional songs which populated the interior tracks of a nation’s mix tapes, leads her now to seek out greener pastures. Yes, she teamed up with the Matrix for the new album. Yes, those are the same people who invented Avril Lavigne. Yes, this smacks of corporate pop machinations. But get over yourself. Liz Phair shouldn’t even have to compete for the “jaded darlin'” slot on your local Infinity Broadcasting playlist. She invented that whole schtick.
Besides, it’s nice to grow up. It’s OK to be happy. And after years in the shadows, we should all have a chance to bask in the sun. Below, she discusses pop music, feminism, songs about sex and riding off into the sunset.
When you were doing Lilith Fair, did you ever feel like you were responsible for it? Like you paved the way?
No. Never. It never occurred to me. I did feel really happy that it was there. It kind of reinvigorated me to working at all because I always kind of hated, you know, the whole guy world.
Is that true? I hadn’t heard.
[laughs] Shut-up. It was just so nice to tour with a bunch of peers.
I have this theory about alpha bands and beta bands. Wherein alpha bands are the progenitors of a certain scene and then beta bands come along and use their sound for their own purposes —
and get all the money…
Right. So for example, Nirvana had the Pixies. All these O.C. punk bands had Social Distortion. There are a couple rules which dictate the relationship between alpha bands and beta bands. The beta band is always more successful. And alpha bands, despite the fact that they’re adored by critics, always die drunk and alone in a pool of their own piss and vomit. So I’m wondering if you ever feel like an alpha. Like you look at someone like Avril Lavigne or Alanis Morrissette and go, “that girl’s ripping of my shit”?
A little bit. Not Alanis. But I’m definitely an alpha. I think I go in there and I break ground. That’s my main aim in life.
Do you look forward to dying broke and alone in a puddle of your own vomit?
I thought that was the beta band.
No, the beta bands die in a country club in Orange County, surrounded by adoring fans.
That’s why I’m trying, with this record, to cross over into beta bandom. I’m trying to be my own beta band. Why use someone else? Just take your own alpha career and go beta. And that’s not even a joke. I’m trying to parody myself. [giggles] I’m trying to become like a washed up, diluted version of my own self and rake it in.
I think the Lemonheads are the only other group that’s ever done that.
That’s a good call.
Because they were really cool, but then when It’s a Shame About Ray came out, it was like, “what the fuck happened to this group?” Or maybe even the Goo Goo Dolls is another example.
Yeah, they did it too.
Your fans have this really strong empathic connection to you. All the girls want to be you all the guys want to date you. There’s more than one marriage proposal on your fan sites.
[wistfully] I should have been looking.
Well, why do you think that is?
Because I’m just so cool. No, um, I don’t know. Why do you think that is?
Well, I’m the one who’s asking the questions here, sister.
Ok, so I know why. Because my music seems to them like my real feelings coming out. Even when I try to be commercial it’s still my real feelings and my real point of view, and they can tell. A lot of people will hold back from exposing themselves. I’m all the way in the front of my own music. So it allows them to sort of feel like they know me. And they probably do.
Do you like that your fans are like that?
It’s a little creepy. Don’t you think? Because I walk around oblivious to that. I don’t ever think about it. I’m always thinking like a person who has a lot left to prove.
I’m sure you got the question when your song “Whip-Smart” came out — you know, to what extent it accurately summarized the way in which you wanted to raise your kid. So, now it’s been five years. Does it?
Nobody ever asked me that actually. I think it’s pretty good advice. I don’t think in those terms now that I’m really a mom. It’s a hell of a lot more about thinkgs like “OK, do we have anything to pack for lunch? Did you do your homework?” That kind of stuff. But I do want to impart most of those values. I don’t think I need him to be as paranoid as that song leads you to believe I think he should be. I was a little more angry then. A little less powerful.
Do you consider yourself to be a feminist?
Yes I do. I’m a serious feminist, actually. I’m just not one of those people who likes indoctrination. I don’t like to go along with the crowd, so to speak. But I’m fully a feminist. The whole point of feminism to me is to have as many women be as many different things as they want. We can have as many female assholes as there are male assholes. Or as many female saints as male.
Yeah. Lame is still lame. I read somewhere that you’d been approached to be a Playboy centerfold at one point. So I put this in the context of a question about feminism because you were saying it’s all about being whatever you want. So can someone be a feminist and be a Playboy centerfold? Because what you said at the time that you didn’t think there was just any way to have power in that situation. One way or another, guys were going to jerk off to your picture, and so you just can’t feel like, “hey, hear me roar, these are my breasts.”
[laughs] I kind of feel differently now. I kind of fee like if you could control what the pictures looked like… I think back then I just felt less in control sexually in my life. I felt more like I was doing things for men but I wasn’t really enjoying it as much as they were. Now, I feel more like I get what I want. I really like sex. I don’t feel weird about it.
Ah. The mid-thirties.
Ah yes. God times. So if I could project what I wanted to project… but then I’m not sure Playboy would allow that. So it would be like a different world. I don’t think nude photos are… I don’t know, it’s hard to say… it’s a tough call. Because you’re right, you’re putting it out there with all your best intentions but other guys are just still sitting around making fun of you.
On Exile in Guyville and Girlysounds your songs were always very explicit, but they dealt with sexuality in this much larger emotional context, but then all the press latched on to you as if that’s all you were — that girl with those dirty lyrics. I’m wondering how you dealt with that in just, interview after interview.
It did kind of suck. Because I felt like no one got the humor. No one credited me with being able to make art; they thought it was just confessional and I was just an idiot naturally spewing out what I thought. And no one got that. I said things a certain way for a certain reason. In the beginning, it was all about saying really shocking stuff in this really tiny non-threatening voice.
It wasn’t just shocking. It was that it was vulnerable. And on a song like “Fuck and Run”, there was some explicitness there, but it was in this much larger context of vulnerability and loneliness and maybe some power dynamics that go on in situations like that. Also, there was a sense of rooting for you on that album. Like you know that girl or you sort of feel that way. When I heard you got married in ’96 I remember thinking, “That’s great. Good for her. I hope she’s happy.”
Ohh, that’s so sweet. It’s that personal connection. Because I say a lot of stuff that people mostly keep to themselves. But I am vulnerable like that. Always. Still.
When I first heard the new album, my reaction was that there was that same sort of sexual explicitness but without any real emotional context to it. And I was actually a little taken aback by it, like, “wait a minute. She’s just… horny.” “Why isn’t she talking about how it sucks?” So then I heard “H.W.C. (Hot White Cum)” and it occurred to me that it’s all about these themes of sex as this link to youth and vitality and staving off death. Which is a huge theme in literature. I mean, Philip Roth, that’s what he’s all about. Nabakov, that’s what he was all about.
You’re very highbrow. Wait, I can’t be funny when I’m trying to answer a good question. First of all, that song was written simply because that’s how I felt. I wrote it just off the top of my head. It was a radical thing to say because it’s embracing a part of maleness that has for the last 25 years been kind of vilified. You know, “he came in me.” You know what I mean? It’s like, “oh my God, am I going to get AIDS?” or “do you feel violated?” And there’s all this stuff around it. And I kind of just feel like that’s what makes me come alive. Every woman I play that song for as a friend is like [screeching] “yes, yes…” Because that’s how we feel. And that’s sort of what I do. I try to say how I feel regardless of how you take it. For me the context is — if its political at all — it’s about taking back the sperm. Reowning your right to want it. It’s kind of using guys in a funny way.
I don’t know if it’s using. It’s like if you’re in a long-term relationship and you’re really hittin’ it. You know what I mean? Not like the first two months, “oh everything’s great, let’s do it.” But the eighth month monkey sex. When you’re really into it. It’s totally like that. I mean, you’re in love and you’re friends and you’re all that cool stuff too. But then on the side, statements like the lines in “H.W.C.” come out.
Yeah, and you know that whole thing about the creativity being in men’s seminal fluid?
Sure, it’s a creation myth in a bunch of different cultures.
Well, there’s a little bit of that going on there too.
It’s funny. Philip Roth’s my favorite writer and he wrote this really dark book called Sabbath’s Theater and it ends with the protagonist jerking off on the grave of his mistress. Which, I know is kind of a morbid image. But it’s because they’d spent so much time in these intimate sexual situations, and they were both getting older and their lives sucked. But then when they were having sex they just felt young and they felt — I don’t know if “innocent” is the right word for it — but maybe “playful”, maybe “vital” —
How about “timeless”? Because that to me, when you were talking about long-term relationships — you know, the monkey sex — when it gets there. What I find, it’s such a trip, because when I’m having sex like that, I feel like two prehistoric things that found each other in the forest. You know what I mean?
Like Adam and Eve.
Yeah. Like, “you are man and I am woman and that’s it.” And that’s sort of what I was trying to get at. And I think that’s worth writing a song about.
So, on the new album, why did you decide to team up with the Matrix? Was it the betafying of the alpha?
I totally enjoyed it. I wanted to get on the radio really badly. And I don’t write those kind of songs. I write stuff that’s quirky or more personal. So collaborating was a way to get some people who kind of know what they’re doing with chord structures, plus they’re all so talented and really great people. Like if I took you there right now, you’d love them. I respect what they do. To people on the outside, they can look like the monsters who created Avril. For me, I see taking what Graham [Edwards], Loren (actually, it’s Lauren) [Christy] and Scott [Spock] [of the Matrix] do and putting it to a massive commercial end with this girl who didn’t really write it and pretending that she’s an indie little scribbler. But they just write these great pop songs. And I’m in there with them. I won’t sing anything that isn’t my message anyway.
Are you worried about alienating some of your prior indie-ish fan base? Because even without hearing the album yet, the people on your fan sites seem to feel betrayed.
It’s appropriate that they feel that way. Because what I’m doing is leaving them to go seek other people.
You were raised in Winnetka, Illinois. Isn’t that the town where all those John Hughes movies in the 80’s were set?
Because I think there’s a point to be made here somewhere about how those movies always had that underdog character — whether it was Anthony Michael Hall as the bracey king-nerd, or Ally Sheedy as this awkward goth, or Molly Ringwald as this indie-priss — and they all had to kind of change themselves so that they could be with the popular kids. So it sort of occurred to me, that’s what’s happening with this record. I mean isn’t that what you’ve essentially been talking about?
Kind of. Only I was a more popular kid in high school.
I don’t doubt that. I’m just talking about your career, if you’ll indulge the metaphor — you’re now sort of like Molly Ringwald and you want to go to the prom with Blane instead of Ducky. And “Blane” is a major appliance, not a name.
[laughs] Who is Ducky?
[drops tape recorder] Who is Ducky? Are you really asking me that? In Pretty In Pink, Ducky was her friend with the pompadour and the bolo tie and the Creepers. You know, “Despite my appearance at this function, I remain now, and will always be, a Duckman.” [shuffles feet]
Pretty In Pink I don’t remember. I remember Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles…
OK then, Sixteen Candles — she has no interest in Anthony Michael Hall, who she kind of hangs with in that driver’s ed car — and instead she wants to go out with that guy Jake Ryan.
But isn’t that an incredibly wise decision?
Of course it is. But your fans are Anthony Michael Hall, not Jake Ryan. And now you’re with that rich guy Jake Ryan who drives the Porsche and wears tight jeans.
I don’t know about that. I haven’t quite achieved it yet. But, you know, he’s called a few times and I think he’s interested.