By Aidin Vaziri
San Francisco Chronicle, February 29, 2004
In the past year, Liz Phair has been called everything from shameless exhibitionist and media manipulator to corporate slut and categorical sellout. While it’s fairly certain these things were meant as insults, it’s hard to take whiny Sam Goody employees seriously when they use big words like that. It’s also hard to see how these would be bad qualities in a rock star. For most people, they are just the minimum job requirements.
The trouble started when Phair, 36, who made her mark with the trash-talking 1993 college radio classic Exile in Guyville, decided she wanted to go mainstream. It wasn’t just that she wanted to have her songs appear in Mountain Dew commercials, but that she hired the Matrix, the production trio behind snotty teen-pop star Avril Lavigne, to help her make the transition on her self-titled fourth album, Liz Phair. To her now balding and beer-gutted hardcore fans, this was a bigger betrayal than when the bass player from the Replacements joined Guns ‘N Roses.
Yet the album the New York Times branded “an embarrassing form of career suicide” last June has instead rejuvenated a star that was seriously on the wane after the creative plunge of her two previous releases, 1994’s overearnest Whip Smart and 1998’s boring Whitechocolatespaceegg. If Phair kept making records like that, the only instrument the divorced mother would probably be playing right now is the espresso machine at Peet’s Coffee.
Instead, Phair has just returned to her Manhattan Beach home from the Sundance Film Festival, where she attended all the best parties, got friendly with Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie and heard her top 10 hit “Why Can’t I?” played in heavy rotation in the hotel workout room. Her latest single, “Extraordinary”, is on the rise. And she’s on something like the 27th leg of the Liz Phair tour.
“I’m always the type of person that is wary to say, ‘We did it!'” Phair says. “But we certainly did accomplish a lot with this record. I kind of knew we would. Honestly, the best thing about having to go through all this was that while everyone was freaking out around us, we stayed focused on what we were doing. And I’m really proud. We hauled that single up to the top 10.”
Amid all the carousing at Sundance, Phair says she had a real revelation when she bumped into old friends and fellow musicians Pete Yorn and keyboard player Rami Jaffe of the Wallflowers. Both acts put out sincere, critically acclaimed albums in the months preceding the release of Liz Phair. Both sank unnoticed. “They were like, ‘So what are you up to now?'” Phair says. “And when I said, ‘I’m about to go out on tour again,’ their faces just fell. It was the first time that I got it. It’s like, yeah, I’m not over.”
It is Phair’s contention that she is still the bold, deadpan bookworm who made the iconic Exile in Guyville. The songs still come from the same place, she insists, it’s just that they’re dressed up differently now. And the sly sexual predator of her early years certainly seems to be breathing fire into songs from the latest album such as “H.W.C.”, a celebration of the cosmetic benefits of semen, and the subversive “Rock Me”. And if she has to put on some lingerie and straddle an electric guitar on the CD cover to get them across to more people, so be it.
“When I’m at the gym and I hear my song come on and people are bopping around to it, I know what it means,” Phair says. “I get it. And I take great pleasure in that. Whether they know it or not they’ve been infiltrated by a thinking, complicated human being. If you buy the record based on the single, I’m going to hit you with some complicated issues.”
The funny thing is even after making this grab at fame, very little has changed for Phair. When all the fuss behind the album dies down, she’s just going to come back home and face all the same insecurities she had before selling half a million records and hearing her songs in whatever teen movie is out this week. There will be failed relationships, bad sex, a child to raise.
“My mother told me when I was little, ‘It’s never going to be easy for you. You’ll never be able to skate through life,'” Phair says. “Because I question and I doubt and I fear. I can’t skim along the surface. I’m always diving in.”
The only difference now, she says, is that she can embrace her dysfunctions, turn them into pretty pop songs and trick Justin Timberlake fans into buying her records and maybe learning something about themselves in the process.
“I just got issues,” Phair says. “I’ve got baggage. It’s inescapable. The trick is to just keep moving forward and positively utilize whatever comes my way.” And for those disgruntled old fans there’s always a bad new Stephen Malkmus album around the corner.
Featured Image: Liz Phair (Photo: Phil Poynter)