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Judging Liz phairly

Dark Light
Liz Phair keeps growing and evolving, and like it or not, her music reflects that.

By Larry Getlen
City Link Magazine, October 5, 2005

Liz Phair is a grown-up. Everyone who worshipped her when she released the antagonistically sexual Exile in Guyville in 1993 will just have to get over it. She’s not that person anymore, and she would appreciate it if these people themselves would grow up, get over it and let her be an adult.

As if to prove the point, when she answers the phone to speak to City Link, she is cleaning her 8-year-old son’s room at her home in Los Angeles, putting away a copy of the children’s book Can You Find It Too? Whether or not her fans can deal with her motherhood, Phair believes they can actually gain from it.

“I honestly believe that my performing persona benefited, like, 300 percent by having a child,” Phair asserts. “I used to be terribly burdened by stage fright. I really felt violated by people’s attention in an odd way. Having my son opened me up. My vocals have gotten higher, and I’m singing out more. And part of this is because having a child, I was like, ‘Wait a minute. I was disgruntled about a job where I stand up in front of people, and I make music and sing for them? This is so bad?’ It’s so good, it’s such a huge opportunity, and the freshness of a new life made me see that.”

Why would Phair have been disgruntled? Well, aside from a lifetime of stage fright, she did have to face the bitter reaction of fans and critics in 2003 to her self-titled fourth album. The CD found her leaving behind the DIY sound of her previous work for the slick and girly sheen provided by the production team The Matrix, best known for its work with Avril Lavigne. Rarely have shouts of “Sellout!” been louder than when fans saw her posed naked behind a guitar on the album’s cover and heard the multilayered production, which virtually screamed, “Major-label release tailored for radio play!”

Phair makes no apology for not living up to old ideals and looks at each of her albums — including her newest, Somebody’s Miracle — with equal pride. “These are the chronicles of my life, so they’re all equally valuable,” she says. “They are all filled with the stories of what was going on then, and that’s so evocative to me. It’s like keeping a diary or a photo album.”

On some level, though, Phair understands why her longtime fans felt betrayed. “I’m a big Meg Ryan fan, and I just want her to make Meg Ryan movies,” Phair explains. “I completely understand the desire to want an artist to make a certain kind of music that you associate with them.”

This doesn’t mean she’s going to yield to that desire. Exile in Guyville, the song-by-song answer to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street that put Phair on the musical map, is still the standard by which many people measure her. Yet the expectation makes no sense, considering the album was released practically a lifetime ago.

“It’s unfair to hold me to something I did at 24 when I’m 38, because I don’t think I’d be any kind of artist at all if I didn’t evolve,” Phair says. “It would just show that I had found a good thing and followed the gravy train.”

Phair feels the critics protesting the loudest are saying more about themselves than about her. “Whenever I heard that stuff where the review would be a zero out of 10 [as on the überhip], it’s so obvious that it’s about the people who are reviewing, not about me,” she says. “They liked a certain kind of music, and they still like a certain kind of music. And they’re like, ‘I remember that.’ We were all part of that whole thing where, like, corporate music is bad, and the only thing that’s cool is that do-it-yourself thing, which I was so representative of at the time. But that world doesn’t exist anymore. The world has changed. It’s moved on, and some people haven’t. Even though there is still great indie music out there, you’ll still see it in a car commercial.”

She believes criticism of her new music is a result of misplaced anger. “It seems antithetical to say you’re a music fan and to not try to understand the music world as it is today,” she argues. “It seems like you’re more of a fan of your own life.”

This is not to say Phair doesn’t hope those critics will see the light. The whole point of tightening her production and her image was to bring more people into the fold. Having people decry her efforts, while she knew it was coming, was not what she wanted. “Of course I’m hopeful that people will like the music I make, because I like it,” Phair says. “I’m trying to communicate with people, to reach people. I’m trying to give them a gift. I’m not trying to steal their money. I’m trying desperately to give them something of value for the price.”

Somebody’s Miracle is certainly more polished than Exile, but nowhere as much as its predecessor. The album is, in fact, a fairly stripped-down, emotional affair that deals more with relationships, life and that pesky maturity thing and less with blunt sexuality.

“I think there’s a groundedness to this record,” Phair explains. “In my earlier lyrics, I was more prone to pointing fingers and raising indignation about certain circumstances. The older I’ve gotten, the more I can see many sides to any issue, and the more I’ve come to terms with my own flaws and faults rather than thinking everyone else had the flaws and faults. I think now when I write songs, it’s less driven by pain and more driven by reflection.”

Yet Phair says that these days, she doesn’t spend much time reflecting on the negative opinions of her critics. She’s a mom now, after all. She has more-important things to worry about than what people think of her.

“It does impact me if people don’t like what I do, but it isn’t going to stop me,” she says. “I’m pretty naturally rebellious. My parents couldn’t get me to do what they wanted me to do, and I doubt the critics can, either.”

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