By Rob Bailey
The Arizona Daily Star, October 31, 2003
Liz Phair describes herself as “brainy, kind of cute and likes to cause trouble.”
But an angry horde of cultural critics and hipster poseurs have another designation for her: sellout.
The former indie queen’s new self-titled CD drew near rave reviews from Rolling Stone, People and Entertainment Weekly, not to mention solid notices from Spin and College Music Journal. But the release has been overshadowed by naysayers who felt betrayed by the disc’s overtly-slick production.
“I think it’s because I’m really open about it. I won’t pretend like I don’t have both artistic and business aspirations,” said Phair, while sitting at the kitchen table of her Los Angeles home. “It’s like The Wizard of Oz — I wanna pull back the curtain. I knew artists in my indie days who said, ‘Man, it’s just about the music,’ which is b.s. It was really just about being the king of their little neighborhood.”
The backlash is a direct response to the 36-year-old’s collaboration with the songwriting trio Matrix — Scott Spock, Graham Edwards and Lauren Christy, who unwittingly ghost-wrote all of Avril Lavigne’s big hits.
The cult icon revered for the brutal, lusty lyrics of 1993’s scruffy, lo-fi Exile in Guyville has gone unapologetically pop, and some haters want her to pay for attempting to “airbrush 18 years” off her career.
“Exile in Guyville was the definitive feminist-indie-rock manifesto and one of the most influential discs of the ’90s,” wrote Time‘s Josh Tyrangiel, days before the CD’s release. “…It cleared an airstrip for everyone from Alanis Morissette to Lauryn Hill and created a Phair cult that exists to this day. Actually, it depends on what day you’re reading this. The expiration day on the cult could well be… when Phair’s self-titled fourth album hits stores.”
Phair remained good-humored about what she considers the hypocritical dissection of her work during a phone interview last week.
“It is pretty funny. At different times I feel different about it,” she said. “I’m very flattered by the attention — negative and positive — because they seem to really give a (bleep). But I’m not one of those people who decries the state of radio by sitting and screaming outside the castle wall. You gotta go in there and change it. That’s the only way you’re going to hear what you wanna hear on the radio.”
In the end, Phair subscribes to the old “any press is good press” adage. “It sure as hell made the release of my record kind of splashy,” she said.
You certainly can’t argue with that logic.
Phair scored beaucoup press — from a four-page spread in GQ and a beauty-tip guide in Jane to profiles in Time and every major music rag — for someone who had never even racked up a Top 10 single before this year’s “Why Can’t I”.
The very magazines that put Phair on trial for not living up to their collective image of her had no problem exploiting her cute mug to pump up newsstand sales. As for losing her indie street cred, Phair said that tag was all revisionist history anyway.
“When I did Guyville, I was only an indie hero because I was telling them, that whole male-dominated scene really, to (bleep) off,” Phair said. “Now critics are using my own record against me, as a testament to purity and how amazing it was and everything. I was there when that was released, and they were calling me a fraud even then, pointing out 25 other bands that should be getting the attention.”
“I couldn’t go out to my own local bar without my friends dividing down the room and arguing about me,” added Phair, who also suffered substantial “sellout” backlash in 1997 when she married, had a baby and moved from Chicago to L.A. “The reaction was reminiscent of this record. It’s not like I came out and was celebrated. I was skewered by indie journalists.”
The now-divored singer-songwriter said she doesn’t mind playing the cute girl for a while, even if it’s just to push people’s buttons and support her 6-year-old son, Nick.
After 1998’s whitechocolatespaceegg sold poorly, and Capitol Records execs were less-than-thrilled with the first version (produced soley by the talented Michael Penn) of her new record, Phair decided to embrace her unabashed competitive streak.
Just because she aims to sell some records this time out doesn’t mean she’s making her entire artistic statement, Phair said, adding that there will be more records in her future.
To be fair, the hit single, “Why Can’t I”, is arguably the weakest link on a CD fully of lyrics dripping with Phair’s signature irony.
Sure, the big sound is produced within an inch of its life, but when Phair sings poignantly about her son seeing her with a man who’s not his father for the first time (“Little Digger”), it’s real in a way the falsely-advertised Avril will never be.
The subversive, raunchy “H.W.C.” is the standout track. We can’t tell you waht that filthy little acronym stands for. Suffice it to say that it revolves around bodily fluids and a “secret beauty routine”. It will also make old fans laugh out loud — if they give it a chance.
“If you bought my other records, you know it’s not that far afield,” she said. “But if you take it next to Guyville, it’s definitely different. Everyone is shrieking about how overproduced it is, which my guitar player, and music director of my live show, thought was shocking and freaky. He was blown away because he couldn’t believe how under-produced whitechocolatespaceeg was. He was like, ‘Did they try to sound out of tune?'”
Speaking of singing out of tune, Phair has reportedly overcome the crippling stage fright that often rendered her low, wry voice an off-pitch mess. She credits her kamikaze performances before Lilith Fair crowds of 25,000 for her improvement.
“By the time I actually got on stage for the first time in my life, I already had a career that was getting attention,” said Phair, recalling the buzz her self-released basement tapes, Girlysounds, elicited. “The scrutiny was intense. I didn’t get a chance to fail before people knew me. I basically had to learn how to sing a little better. I had to discover the joy of singing just for the experience.”