What Is Liz Phair Thinking?
The indie queen's puzzling pop album.
Liz Phair wants a hit, and in interviews, she hasn't been too shy to say so. She also wants you to give her your hot white cum and, in the discreetly titled "H.W.C.," a song from her new, eponymously titled record, she's not too shy to say that either. On the face of it, these may seem to be irreconcilable wants. It is therefore worth pausing to remember—as it is in any context, really—that this is a Top 40 climate in which Christina Aguilera reached an under-10 demographic by repeatedly demanding that you rub her the right way. Which was, from any point of view, a more horrifying lyric than anything Phair has ever written, given that, since Aguilera also made it clear that her heart was saying "no," it was basically an exhortation to date-rape. By comparison, "H.W.C.," with its innocent, springy tunefulness, sends a kind of sweet message to the kids. It's more reminiscent of Starland Vocal Band allusively singing, "Sky rockets in flight/ Afternoon delight" than it is … well, than it is of the artist that Liz Phair fans thought they knew.
True, on Exile in Guyville, Phair famously wanted to be your blow-job queen, something that simultaneously made her beloved of every male rock critic in America and a role model for sexually ambitious women everywhere. But that lyric was always an attention-getting red herring, reducing her, in seven short words, to a different kind of mouth than the smart mouth she really is on that record: Exile takes romance and intense romantic despair in all its ugly/beautiful complexity as far as it can go, plus a little bit further than that; sex is only part of its equation. Both of its follow-ups, Whip-smart and especially the superlative whitechocolatespaceegg, proved that Phair was not a one-genre pony. And all three were received, for the most part, with the critical applause she deserved and only modest sales. After 10 years, that she wants a hit is thus as understandable and natural as, uh, that other thing she wants.
But you can't always get what you want. And if you try sometimes, you just might find you've made something that isn't a very good record. The music on Liz Phair is average, and the lyrics are, with a few slight gleams excepted, horrendous. In fact, on first play, as the cheery, MOR embarrassment of "Favorite" ("Oh, Baby, know what you're like?/ You feel like my favorite underwear") gives way to the boring, bouncy nihilism of "Love/Hate" ("It's a war with the boys and girls/ It's a war, and nothing's gonna change"), it's easy to conclude that Liz Phair is frankly atrocious. It's not. It is unfocused and stifled, though, and the reasons for this are plain not only in the interviews in which she's copped to her commercial ambitions, and on the record itself, but in its history. After assembling a number of tracks with R. Walt Vincent, who most recently worked with Pete Yorn, and a greater number with producer-musician Michael Penn, Phair went back to the well for an additional four in collaboration with the Matrix, the machine behind the monster that is faux-pop-punk superstarlet Avril Lavigne, an artist with the integrity and the aesthetic subtlety of a slightly irritable, nicely peeled hard-boiled egg. But to blame commercial ambition for Liz Phair's shortcomings is fundamentally another red herring. Well-turned, crappy pop music is and has long been both a solace and a delight, even if the corporate forces that lead to its manufacture are neither.
The thing is that Liz Phair is no Avril Lavigne. Phair has integrity and aesthetic subtlety, and she's so much better than Lavigne that when she fakes being fake, it sounds, well, fake.A record made by a naturally gifted pop-music cynic can be a beautiful dream, precisely because it has no boundaries at all and no aims beyond catching you in its arms and beguiling you with its enchantments until the dollars fall out of your pockets. Better artists than Lavigne have been making classic work out of this paradigm for years. When the Supremes released "Love Child," Diana Ross had no conceivable justification for singing that she started her life in an old, cold, run-down tenement slum *, other than that Motown's songwriters presumably believed that potential record-buyers liked to think she had. You can hardly get more cynical than that. But the over-the-top drama with which Ross sings it sold the song, both figuratively and literally; it sounds as lovely, as exhilarating, and as cathartic as if she really meant it. The cynicism of Liz Phair, on the other hand, is a problem that can't be fixed because you can hear it in the mix: Most of it's too routine and too vocally listless to be any kind of dream at all.
Nevertheless, on 18th listen, you've got to concede that Liz Phair, while not a very good record, is not so much a very bad record as it is a record about which it's easy to say very bad things. After a while, the neo-'80s, crashing-chord, drum-heavy, verse-chorus-verse song structure of the more obviously radio-friendly tracks does the job that nature intended it to do, which is to turn the listener's resistance into numbed, hum-along compliance. You begin to like it even as your heart says "no." It's a little high school, sure, but there's nothing wrong with high school (except, of course, in real life), however baffling it is that a musician who started her career in grad school would want to go there.
Anyway, it wouldn't really be fair to string this record up simply because of a Matrix-based bias against manufactured pop. As it happens, the Penn- and Vincent-produced songs are, if anything, more disappointing for sounding like bad Liz Phair than the Matrix's are for sounding like slightly-better-than-average Michelle Branch. To impartial ears, the Matrix-produced "Rock Me" sounds more like a Liz Phair song than " My Bionic Eyes," which she produced herself.
Still, you feel a pang when Phair sings, as she does on "Extraordinary," the album's opening track, "I am extraordinary, if you'd ever get to know me/ I am extraordinary/ I am just your ordinary, average, everyday, sane/psycho supergoddess." The words come across as bogus, she sounds so bored. But if you've been with her from the start, you can't really disagree with the spirit of the statement, even if its letter isn't exactly on neon-sign display. And when she sings to a younger, Xbox-playing lover on "Rock Me," "You don't even know who Liz Phair is," you can't help feeling that she's talking to you and that Liz Phair itself proves her point.
Liz Phair, per se, doesn't provide much food for thought and isn't meant to. The first single, "Why Can't I?" an almost parodically basic power ballad, doesn't have the appeal of, say, Foreigner's "I Want To Know What Love Is" or Night Ranger's "Sister Christian" because it doesn't have their sense of sincerity. But the chorus ("Why can't I breathe whenever I think about you? Why can't I speak whenever I talk about you?") is hooky, and if you had the willingness, you could drift into it and find a touch of the weird and intriguing spin with which her other records are so pregnant ("Here we go, we're at the beginning/ We haven't fucked yet but my head's spinning").
Phair certainly isn't the first artist in history who, for one reason or another, put a record out because he or she wanted a hit, as David Bowie did with Let's Dance or Blondie did with Parallel Lines. She may not have the cosmic artistry of the former or the natural pop propensity of the latter, which respectively made those albums great in a way that Liz Phair definitively is not. I doubt it will happen, but just because I like to see a talented woman get what she wants in every sphere of life, here's hoping Phair spends the summer on TRL talking to Carson Daly about the importance of sending kind of a sweet message to the kids and, in her down time, receiving every parental-advisory-sticker gift she's asking for. The truth is that if you have no ax to grind in the rock-crit Liz Phair-versus-Liz Phair debate with which the record is being greeted, it's neither more nor less than OK, not very exciting, lyrically lazy, apparently more of an act of branding than self-expression, but catchy enough. It doesn't go far enough in any direction to produce sky rockets in flight. And for pretty much the same reason, neither does it have the impact to rub you the wrong way.
*Correction June 27. 2003: This piece orginally misidenitifed the song in which Diana Ross sang about starting life in a tenement. The song is "Love Child," not "I'm Livin' in Shame."
Mim Udovitch has written about pop culture and other pre-millennial topics for Esquire, Rolling Stone, and the New York Times Book Review.