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Truth or dare

Spotlight: Liz Phair

Phair combines brutal honesty with catchy melodies

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Every Liz Phair story starts the same way: She used to be great, then she sold out.

By Jeff Inman
Las Vegas City Life, November 10, 2005

Every Liz Phair story starts the same way: She used to be great, then she sold out. She made Exile in Guyville. It was cooler than taking a movie star to prom. Honest. Sexy. Frank. Slutty. Flat-out revolutionary, even without the whole gimmick of being a song-for-song response to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street. Critics loved her. Hipster dudes wanted to bed her. Indie girls hoped they’d have her guts some day when it counted.

And then Phair went and fucked it all up. She made other albums. Had grander ambitions. Wrote songs with the same folks that made Avril Lavigne a star, fer Christ’s sake. She abandoned you.

But here’s the thing: She didn’t really. You abandoned her. She got older. She got married, had a kid, then got divorced. She realized how hard it is to be a single mom; the practical choices you have to make, like say, selling some records to keep food on the table. She faced getting older. Trying to stay sexy while the wrinkles wage a daily war. Trying to stay cool while going to PTA meetings. Trying to deal with the specter of her own reputation as the shockingly honest one.

But you wanted that other girl, the Phair that reminded you of how cool you were before you got into middle management. The Phair that played in the background while you were young, drunk and crazy, not the one that now plays in the background during an episode of Desperate Housewives. You want the dirty girl, not the mom. Nostalgia for a reality you once had, not the one you’re living.

“That’s one thing I’ve never understood about this whole deal,” Phair says. “I’ve never figured out why I could be the indie girl when I was 25 but couldn’t be mommy pop at 35. I’m still just telling you how I feel. I’m as honest as I ever was. If I tried to be that person again, it would be like some Liz Phair advertisement, something I’m not anymore. Some people like me for that, some dislike me for the same thing.”

Those latter folks, though, are going to have to get over themselves pretty soon — or at least face reality. Phair has, maybe in a way she’s never before. While her latest disc, Somebody’s Miracle, has remnants of the commercial sheen that made her last disc, 2003’s self-titled job, so polarizing, it’s also brutally honest — the kind that originally made her a star. But instead of fast cars, emotional scars and always trying to “Fuck and Run”, this time Phair is surrounded by minivans, broken marriages and self-help books that lead to bursts of empowerment. And from anyone else, this would all be taken as a massive revelation — a shimmering and complex crack at documenting a mid-life crisis. But because Phair was once that Exile girl, it’s still seen as some sort of betrayal — of her true self, of her calling, of her supposed image.

Which is a shame, because she hasn’t had a song as cathartic as the post-divorce anthem “Leap of Innocence” in years. Or as disturbing as “Table for One”, a track that captures the secret bitterness of a suburban alcoholic in gut-tugging detail. Even her current single, “Everything to Me”, has a level of candor, in this case about Phair’s failed relationship, that most broken-heart songs can’t dream of mustering.

“A lot of this record is about those times in my life when I thought things would go on forever, that would always be a part of my present, my future rather than a part of my past,” she says. “It’s hard to deal with, but I’ve always used music as a kind of therapy. I’m revealing things in hopes of getting to that emotional truth. That’s my get-off point. That’s why I do this, not because I’m trying to please someone who cares about something I did 10 years ago.”

And if that isn’t honest enough for some people, well, screw ’em.

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