By Liz Itkowsky
Albumism, June 24, 2023
In 2003, Liz Phair surprised everyone and teamed up with pop world heavyweights to produce a self-titled album aimed directly at the Top 40 charts. Produced in part by The Matrix songwriting team (along with Michael Penn, R. Walt Vincent and Phair herself), it was perceived by some as a betrayal to the indie scene that had raised her. This collaboration felt especially egregious at the time, with The Matrix being responsible for the hit “Complicated,” by Avril Lavigne, the day’s most glaring example of punk fraudulence.
But Phair didn’t completely reinvent herself for her fourth album. Liz Phair is full of catchy hooks, loud guitars and intimate lyrics, all Phair staples, just with a lot more sunshine.
It’s impossible to talk about Liz Phair in retrospect without noting the general attitude towards pop music at the time. Today there is a lot less anger around pop music—it’s no longer seen as an affront to the serious listener. Without Total Request Live and payola-based radio stations determining the public’s listening diet, pop feels less ubiquitous and bland. In the 2020s, indie darlings like The National have collaborated with Taylor Swift while Ke$ha released an album produced by Kurt Vile. Add in a small, but important shift towards calling out the sexism embedded within criticism and the music industry in general has created a flourishing, diverse pop ecosystem that Liz Phair would have fit into beautifully had she just waited two decades.
Luckily, history is being revised, and credit is being given where it’s due. The Pitchfork writer who infamously blasted the album with a 0.0 review apologized, saying, “The idea that ‘indie rock’ and ‘radio pop’ are both cultural constructs? Languages to play with? Masks for an artist to try on? Yeah. I certainly did not get that. [Liz Phair] DID get that—way before many of us did.” Even those who treated her with fairness have commented on Phair’s musical prescience. In remembering the album years later, legendary music critic Robert Christgau points to the frankness around sex in the work as one of the several reasons the album was maligned, when it should have been celebrated. He stated, “it got killed in the indie press for two things: the indie sin of hiring name producers…and explicit sexuality.
The first single off the album, “Why Can’t I?” was a departure but not a betrayal. The song was her first and only US Top 40 single, peaking at #32, and became the de facto montage song for romantic comedies of the era. For most casual listeners, it would be their first encounter with Phair, in a breezy, earworm of a pop song. “Extraordinary” was another bubbly pop tune, similarly maligned for its cheer. With a much stronger guitar riff than the majority of Top 40, it’s classic Phair, with its subtle digs and sense of humor.
“HWC” is a song dedicated to bodily fluids, a jaunty bop with lyrics not to be hummed in polite company. Despite rappers and rockers of the ‘90s saying some of the most vile sentiments imaginable, “HWC” had the distinction of being left off “clean” albums of the time, and was ridiculed by critics. But in 2003, the idea of a woman being in control of her own sexuality, and enjoying it to boot, was still a punchline in HBO comedies, and hardly a mainstream concept. There’s a sense of humor to putting this track on her album after luring listeners in with cuter, less threatening singles, but for anyone familiar with Phair and her unflinching songwriting, it’s a fun throwback to her Exile in Guyville (1993) days.
“Little Digger” is another track about a grown-up subject—parenting as a single mom. Opening to a scene of her son walking in on her and a man who isn’t his father, something that could be silly or overwrought, is reflected on by Phair in simple, sobering lyrics, like, “I pray to god that I’m the damaged one.” It’s songs like “Little Digger,” where her earlier fans must have felt most deceived—they were supposed to be her special little boys! It’s also a point of view that’s inaccessible for many, specifically a crowd who is used to having rock music made for them.
Looking back, Liz Phair is a good album, full of vibrant emotion and wry observation, with an outsized cultural impact. In the days following the boy-band and pop princess mania, leading up to the irony-drenched grunge revivals of the early aughts, the album came at the wrong time to be lauded, but the right time to cause a stir. In the gentler light of 2023, Liz Phair stands the test of time as a fun, albeit mature, album, a sunny spot within the inimitable repertoire of a versatile rock star.