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GameZone Interviews Recording Artist Liz Phair

Liz Phair brings provocative spin to new album

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College rock coquette Liz Phair hits up Syracuse University’s Goldstein Auditorium

By Nathan Turk
Syracuse New Times, February 11, 2004

Considering the assets she flaunts on her recent, self-titled disc on Capitol Records, it’s not hard to figure out how Liz Phair found her post-divorce solace. In the Avril Lavigne-esque stomper “Why Can’t I?” she gushes, “Why can’t I breathe whenever I think about you?” while referring to another guy’s ejaculate (readers can speculate what the acronym is for “H.W.C.”) as her “fountain of youth.”

Phair, 36, wasn’t picky when it came to age. “What’s give or take nine years, anyway?” she rationalizes in “Rock Me”. And when she can’t figure out why she keeps a guy around in “Favorite”, she realizes he’s just like an old pair of underwear: Slip him on again, and “he just feels right.”

Phair has always been cozy with her own sexuality, often to the point of making the listener squeamish. That didn’t change after her son James was born in 1996, nor after she cut off her marriage to Jim Stauskauskas in 2000. But there’s a sense of infantilism to the lyrics on Liz Phair, her fourth major-label album, that leaves a bitter aftertaste.

Her 1992 debut, Exile in Guyville, meshed trash-talking angst and awkward seduction while keeping an ear to her vulnerability, weaving precocious lines such as, “I’m asking, will you, Mary, please temper my hatred with peace/ weave my disgust into fame/ and watch how fast they run to the flame.” The disc was praised by indie rockers and craft connoisseurs alike. But on Liz Phair she’s reduced to rhyming “I want to play X Box on your floor” with “say hi to your roommate who’s next door.”

Phair admits she’s not as interested in sui generis literariness. “I’m much more emotionally direct now, which is harder, in a lot of ways, than couching things in clever terms,” she says. “It’s harder to actually articulate how you feel.”

If that’s the case, Phair has traded one disguise for another, piling the slick sheen on her songs until they’re nothing but anonymous, sugary nuggets of radio rock candy. After the chorus of “Why Can’t I”, muffled overdubs of herself kick around the phrase “whenever I think about you” like detritus in a crashed hard drive.

But it might as well be coins knocking around. For probably the first time in Phair’s career, the mainstream recognizes her. Liz Phair peaked at No. 27 on the Billboard Top 200 album chart in summer 2003, while “Why Can’t I” topped out at No. 15 on the Adult Top 40 chart, Phair’s highest chart showing ever. She enlisted a cast of A-listers in the studio, from Pete Yorn to Dr. Dre bassist Mike Olizando to Avril Lavigne’s production and songwriting team The Matrix, who helmed “Extraordinary” and the aforementioned “Why Can’t I?” She even sang backup on Sheryl Crow’s “Soak Up the Sun” single in 2003. Shit, she’s practically beau monde, while in the early 1990s few knew her outside of the Chicago underground rock scene. “I feel really at home, because I kind of feel like a veteran myself,” she says. “But I’m also easily star-struck, so even though I know Sheryl, I’m like, ‘Oh my God, it’s Sheryl!'” she relates. “It’s fun. But maybe it’s my age, maybe it’s how many years I’ve been in the business, I feel like I’m kind of fixed in the pop cultural hierarchy.”

Maybe this is why critics feel that the old Liz Phair, the vindictive art-school grad of yesteryear who wanted to “fuck you like a dog” and “take you home and make you like it,” swigged hemlock long ago. In Meghan O’Rourke’s review of Liz Phair in The New York Times, she notes, “The wince comes from watching a genuine talent dressed in bland packaging.”

Phair understands the backlash: “I think writers often get uppity because they have a very important position as someone who can bring music to the masses and say, ‘This is quality.’ I can understand that. I think I enjoyed that kind of popularity with my earlier work. But now they’re like, ‘This isn’t difficult enough for me,’ because I’m sort of bypassing them and going directly to a musical listener.

“When my first record came out, people really hated me for getting attention because they didn’t think I should get it,” she remembers. “They thought I was suburban, and just bounced in there into the spotlight with my highlights, when people such as {Chicago scene veteran} Steve Albini had been making music forever and didn’t get the same attention. Over time they’ve forgotten that furor, and they say that I always was respective and indie and I wasn’t thought of that way at all. This isn’t my first go-round with the committee.”

Phair has retained a sense of mystery through it all, suggesting her new image may just be a grand swindle a la Punk’d. “You sure you want to find out?” she sings in “Take a Look”, all but challenging the world to judge her at all. “‘Cause once you know the truth, you might wish you’d walked away.” As far as she lets on, she’s having the time of her life robbing cradles and whoring herself to the mainstream, daring you not to get turned on by her “bionic eyes”.

Catch Phair on Saturday, Feb. 14, 8 p.m., at Goldstein Auditorium in the Schine Student Center, 303 University Place, Syracuse University. Only those 18 and older get in. (“Really, my music is for people who’ve already started having sex,” she explains. “Otherwise I just don’t think that they can grasp what I’m talking about.”) Tickets are $10 at the Schine’s box office. Students get in for $3. Local modern rockers Merit open. For more information, call 443-4517 or visit

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