By Kent Kimes
The Sun Times, April 1, 2004
Liz Phair feels as though she always straddled the line between waify blonde and artistic feminist, even when dishing out put-downs of the male-dominated alternative rock scene on her 1993 debut Exile in Guyville. But her waify blonde alter ego is getting more attention these days.
Phair has reinvented herself with a stylisitc makeover that landed her, scantily clad, in glossy magazine photo shoots, and a music makeover that landed her on — gasp — the pop charts.
Her visual image, it seems, is catching up with her penchant for X-rated lyrics and song subjects.
Phair, 36, readily admits that her self-titled album released in June was an attempt at mainstream success as she moved from independent label Matador to major heavyweight Capitol Records.
But she thinks lyrics, such as “I want to play Xbox on your floor,” from the new, shiny, self-titled pop album sailed right over critics’ and the music press’s heads.
“They don’t understand I’m being tongue in cheek,” she said in a phone conversation from Los Angeles, before the second tour in support of Liz Phair kicked off earlier this month.
Sean Ross, vice president of music and programming for Edison Media Research, who writes the weekly syndicated “Ross on Radio” column, said many critics were fixated on the sing-songy hit single “Why Can’t I?” and ignored the rest of the album.
“‘Why Can’t I?’ made most of her rock critics so made that they tended to overlook the rest of this album being more of a piece with the rest of her previous work,” Ross said. “If it wasn’t Guyville, it still had respectable power pop moments. And it’s very hard to please an audience that has already turned on the White Stripes, much less their darlings of a decade ago.”
Teaming with The Matrix, the songwriting/production outfit responsible for Avril Lavigne’s multiple radio hits, Phair had her first mainstream chart success in “Why Can’t I?” Phair said the songs she produced with folk rocker Pete Yorn from her self-titled record have slipped under the media’s radar, too.
“I did as much with Pete as I did the Matrix,” she said.
A decade ago, Phair was the “it girl” of another variety. “She was the artist that every woman wanted to be and all the guys wanted to do,” said Bram Teitelmann, rock editor for Airplay Monitor magazine.
She was a critics’ darling, the ultimate, attitude-laced indie rock chick who gained a cult following from Exile, paving the way for a line of frank-speaking, sometimes angry young female singer-songwriters, such as Alanis Morissette.
“You could make a case for the new generation of female singer-songwriters being the sanitized versions of not only Liz Phair, but certainly Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan and all those other artists who are considered past their pop prime for not being 18 years old,” Ross said. So, perhaps, Phair’s getting a little payback, Ross said.
“Arguably, Liz isn’t staking out somebody else’s turf as much as defending her own,” he said.
She also conquered a much-publicized battle with stage fright.
“When I first started, I had no stage experience,” Phair said. “I like being on stage now. It’s very cathartic and exciting, much like you’d expect. I get excited. It’s like gambling and the associated adrenaline rush.” Off stage, and in many of her newer songs, she has mellowed a bit, too.
“I’m not as jaded,” said Phair, who is divorced from film editor Jim Staskausas, with whom she has a son. Having a 7-year-old son, who is the inspiration for the song “Little Digger”, has changed Phair’s perspective — especially on men.
“He’s changed how I view men,” Phair said. “He’s a little man-boy.”
Meanwhile, Exile in Guyville is still her best-selling album, according to Teitelmann, but the pop approach of Liz Phair has paid off, as it has surpassed its predecessor, 1998’s whitechocolatespaceegg, in terms of sales.
Still, the new album has been berated with a chorus of “sell-out”. Teitelmann said it could, however, be seen as the natural evolution of an artist’s work that has gotten less raw and more polished each time out.
“You can’t be that cool, indie rock girl forever,” he said. “I think she would say that she hasn’t sold out, but the indie rock snobs who live for that old Liz Phair style, of course, would. But their kids might like it.”