Monday, December 05, 2005

Main St., Guyville

A slightly different version of this article appears in the December, 2005 issue of The Seattle Sinner.

The Bell Jar Descends on Liz Phair

By Jeremy M. Barker

Saturday, Nov. 12--With a sense of futility I wandered around Neumos, bored, nursing a beer and waiting for the show to start. The crowd was frankly sad; the place was pretty full, but most people were either aging yuppies or valley girl types more at home at First Ave. clubs.

Oh Liz Phair, what happened?

For many people, Liz Phair is best known as a second-rate pop diva who scored a pair of minor hits (“Why Can’t I?” and “Extraordinary”) off her 2003 self-titled album. That album also killed most of her indie-rock credibility, since several songs were produced by pop-hit manufacturers “The Matrix,” the team that made folks like Avril Lavigne and Hillary Duff stars. In fact, you might even be wondering why someone like this is being written up in the The Seattle Sinner. That’s sad, because once upon a time Liz Phair was a great artist, and the fact that both she and her work have never gained wider acceptance is just plain sad.

Phair’s first album, 1993’s Exile in Guyville, is one of the great indie-rock albums of the 1990s. A purported song-by-song response to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, in one fell swoop Liz Phair reshaped the entire musical landscape in America, carving out a space for women in rock between riot grrl punk and sappy singer-songwriters strumming their acoustic guitars. Her lightly strummed electric guitar was messy and gritty without reaching back to hardcore punk music like her contemporaries Babes in Toyland or L7, while her fairly weak voice, with its smoky, country-music swagger, set her apart from soul-searching folk-pop artists like Sarah McLachlan. It was punk rock without being loud and brash, confessional without being therapeutic. And perhaps most notable were her sexually explicit lyrics. “Fuck and Run,” her ode to drunken one-night stands, has become an anthem. But in terms of sheer obscenity, the spoken-word piece “Flower” is almost unparalleled, with its singsong chorus of “Every time I see your face/ I get all wet between my legs,” and lines such as “Everything you ever thought of/is everything I’ll do to you/ I’ll fuck you and your girlfriend too” and “I want to be your blow job queen./ You’re probably shy and introspective;/ that’s not part of my objective/ I just want your fresh, young jimmy/ jamming, slamming, ramming in me.”

The follow up to Exile in Guyville, 1994’s Whip-Smart, produced Liz Phair’s biggest hit for a decade, the top-ten modern rock single “Supernova.” She then seemed to drop off the face of the earth for four years, while artists she’d paved the way for stole her thunder. Most notable in this is Alanis Morissette; early in her career, Morissette was a Canadian pop singer and dancer in the vein of Paula Abdul, but with the breakthrough of alternative rock in 1992, she switched gears and in 1995 released a pop-influenced rock album, reinventing herself as an angry-woman singer in Liz Phair’s vein. Propelled by the success of “You Oughta Know” (apparently unconvinced of the album’s musical quality, the record label issued a non-album version as the single, with the music done by Flea and then-Red Hot Chili Pepper Dave Navarro), Jagged Little Pill became one of the best-selling albums of the 1990s.

When Phair returned with 1998’s Whitechocolatespaceegg, she’d become more introspective and less abrasive, both lyrically and musically. It was a good album, but it wasn’t going to win her any new fans, really. And then another five-year break, and then 2003 and her reinvention as a pop star.

So I was approaching the concert with trepidation; I wasn’t sure, frankly, if I wanted to know what Liz Phair had become.

At first I was pleasantly surprised. Arriving on-stage alone and unaccompanied (and still drop-dead gorgeous at 38), she broke into the trippy, psychedelic “Stratford-on-Guy” from Exile. With its evocative lyrics and cryptic references to Galaxie 500, it’s one of the best songs from the album. Then two songs later she had abandoned her guitar altogether to gyrate her hips to audience hoots and hollers, while her backing band (who frankly looked like nothing so much as a poor man’s Counting Crows, poofy hair and all) smoothed out all her rough edges with well-produced pop smoothness.

The contrast between her newer material and the old couldn’t have been more drastic. For one thing, on the older stuff she drove the music with her buzzy rhythm guitar, whereas for the new her backup guitarist was unquestionably in the lead (on some songs, you couldn’t even make out what she was playing). She pulled a lot of material from her catalogue rather than her new album (the recently released Somebody's Miracle), with renditions of Exile classics like “Divorce Song” and Whitechocolatespaceegg’s “Polyester Bride” and “Johnny Feelgood.” She closed her main set with “Supernova” at full-throttle and during her encore she finally hit on “Fuck and Run,” but despite an audience chorus begging her, she wouldn’t go near “Flower.”

So what’s there left to say? Liz Phair’s still a hottie, a textbook definition of a m.i.l.f. In concert she no longer seems to harbor her once-infamous stage fright and is all beaming smiles and hip-shakes. In the end, I decided I couldn’t continue to harbor any resentment; she cashed in to pay the bills at 35 by selling out and going pop. Exile in Guyville is still monumental and will be remembered as one of the great albums of an era, a page out of indie rock history. But staring around as the lights glared off balding heads, as 40 year old yuppies gawked at her ass and bra strap, clinging desperately to half-dead college memories, I can’t help but feel Liz Phair deserved better. The Pixies cashed in recently, too, but they got to keep their credibility when they did it. I guess in the end, rock and roll is still guyville.


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