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All's Phair in Love and Music

[whitespace] Liz Phair
Katrin Thomas

What Makes Us Happy: Liz Phair's best songs soar beyond mere catchiness; the sensations they evoke are utterly true to life.

Forget the name, Liz Phair's 'Whitechocolatespaceegg' expands on the nakedly emotional world of 'Guyville'

By Gina Arnold

IN 1993, Liz Phair wrote a song about sharing a house with a bunch of roommates who had little respect for her or her property. The lyrics went, "Help me, Mary, please / I've lost my home to thieves / They bully the stereo and drink ... / As they egg me on and keep me mad / they play me like a pit bull in a basement, and for that ... / I lock my door at night / I keep my mouth shut tight / I practice all my moves ... / I make myself their friend ... but I'm asking you, Mary, please / temper my hatred with peace / Weave my disgust into fame / and watch how fast they run to the flame."

Well, Mary--or whoever--heard Liz's plea and came through big-time. Phair's debut record, Exile in Guyville--which described in intricate detail what it was like to be young, blond and electric in the early 1990s--was a smash hit, and the world did indeed run straight into her arms. The people who pissed her off in the first place didn't even seem to notice that they were being pilloried, and Phair was briefly revered by them and the media alike.

Unfortunately, the fact that this highly regarded, independent-minded and extremely assertive rock singer isn't a household word shows just what a tough road it is for a woman who doesn't play a very submissive hand. Her videos are not in constant rotation on MTV, and she doesn't get a ton of radio airplay.

But Phair is not just a singer-songwriter in the Sarah McLachlan/Paula Cole/Sheryl Crow vein. To many women (and some men), she is a rock star whose whole take on life has colored our subsequent perceptions. Roughly speaking, she's the Bob Dylan of the '90s, a woman whose penetrating observations about modern life go well beyond mere girl-meets-boy scenarios.

Phair's excellence as a songwriter cannot be denied, but the passionate intensity with which Exile in Guyville was embraced signified something deeper than just the advent of a girl who had a nice smile and a way with words. It was, simply put, an apotheosis. Before Liz, women in indie-rock (most of them named Kim) played bass and were, inevitably, romantically involved with members of their band--after her, the deluge.

Come to think of it, the Dylan analogy holds true in more ways than one. Like Dylan, Phair comes from a well-heeled Midwestern suburb. In the '80s, she attended Oberlin College and hung out with hip indie-rock crowds in Columbus, Chicago and San Francisco before self-marketing her own cassette, Girly Sound, and eventually getting signed to Matador Records.

Also like Dylan, Phair is something of a prophet without honor. In 1965, the world screamed when Dylan went electric. In 1995, upon the release of Phair's second album, Whip Smart, her fans began to turn on her, leveling various charges: the LP was weak, she was a bad live performer, she'd gotten married, she posed in her undies on the cover of Rolling Stone.

SOME OF THESE CHARGES may even have had some merit, but the point about Liz Phair has always been her ability to expose us to our own prejudices. Until I heard Phair, I didn't even know what it was that I didn't like about most "women in rock." After I saw her, I realized that most of them embarrassed me by pretending to be one of the boys or by being histrionically sexy thespians who'd merely chosen rock & roll as a way to go about in a skimpy costume.

Before Exile, there was simply no one who was just a normal girl singing in a normal voice about profoundly normal things. And Phair was certainly the only woman artist I had heard who managed to integrate certain contradictions about being female into her lyrics. She was like a cross between Keith Richards and Joni Mitchell. She was a woman who stood on stage with an electric guitar and spoke truthfully about her life. Not her boyfriend's life. And not her life when and if she got a boyfriend. But her own life, with its vicissitudes and maneuvers and longings and tricks.

One reason Exile was so revered was that it sexed up indie rock good and proper. 'Tis perhaps a truism to say that men sing about sex while women sing about romance (as the Afghan Whigs' Greg Dulli sang " 'cos she wants love, and I still want to fuck"). But by leading people to believe that she was more interested in sex, Phair gained an awful lot of publicity. The media went nuts over her (sparing) use of the word "fuck," as well as one line in the otherwise forgettable song "Flower": "I want to be your blowjob queen."

That the lines were meant at least partly ironically did nothing to stop nightclubs and record stores filling up with geeky guys who seemed to believe, with touchingly transparent hopefulness, that women who liked Phair's music were all the more likely to like giving blowjobs.

Not surprisingly, Exile made the top of every critics' poll in the nation. But five years have passed, and the music world now abounds with Liz-like creatures. Most famous of all is Alanis Morissette, who first hired bassist Flea and then defanged Phair's most celebrated blue lyric to read, "would she go down on you in a theater," reaping untold millions in the process.

LIZ HERSELF bowed out three years ago to have a baby, but now she's back with a horribly named new album, Whitechocolatespaceegg. And there's no doubt that people who loved her merely for talking dirty will find the record disappointing. But who cares what they think?

In my opinion, Whitechocolatespaceegg reestablishes Liz Phair as one of this decade's most important artists. Certain artists--the Sex Pistols and Devo come to mind--are never able to repeat that initial shock of the new, and Liz is definitely one of them. There's no way that this album (alas! it's a pain to even think of its title, much less read or write it) could be as groundbreaking as Exile, and happily it doesn't try to be. The curse words, though present, are at a minimum. And the lyrics aren't as nakedly personal, striving instead for a vaguer, more grownup and universal tone.

That said, however, the album shows growth and accomplishment in ways that I didn't really expect. Phair finally sounds like a great and personable singer, and she's cleaned up the production and arrangements so that her songwriting skills are more readily apparent. Unlike most female indie-rockers, she writes songs with lots of chords, a definite melody, a beginning, a middle, a bridge and an end.

She's not a production whore, though. With the exception of the title cut, these songs would all sound fabulous unplugged. The songs "Polyester Bride," "Johnny Feelgood," "What Makes You Happy" and "Shitloads of Money" are particularly pleasing to sing along with, slightly more verbose but just as pithy as those by her sonic peers--that is, bands like the Replacements and Soul Asylum.

"Shitloads of Money," in particular, has much in common with the indie-rock era of ungrateful howls, describing as it does a guy who's sold out his ideals for a high-paying job, excusing himself with the words "It's nice to be liked, but it's better by far to get paid." How much Phair herself ascribes to this theory is left up to the listener to decide.

One more Dylan comparison comes to mind--the lyrics poor Liz writes are forever destined to be scrutinized as being the voice not just of a generation but of a gender. Although I found certain aspects of Exile to be almost terrifyingly true to my own boho experience and thought process, I don't see why Phair should go on speaking for us all, anymore than Dylan has.

Dylan writes songs now about Mexican banditos; he has long since eschewed his socio-political commentator role. Judging by her new album, Phair would also like to be rid of the task. So she has written songs about truck drivers ("Baby Got Going"), WWI ("Headache") and job dissatisfaction ("Shitloads of Money"), as well as a few utterly opaque ones, like the lightly salsa-flavored number "Uncle Alvarez."

Of course, however, topic A is, as it has always been, love--and time and again, Phair gets it remarkably right. "I want to be cool, tall, vulnerable and luscious," she intones on "Perfect World." "I want to be involved with you."

"Johnny makes me feel strangely good about myself," she adds, on "Johnny Feelgood," a song about a torrid and possibly abusive affair. "You thought I'd totally excite you," she sings on "Love Is Nothing," a song about failed expectation. "I guess it's just another thing to stand up close and ignite you." Perhaps most poignant of all is "What Makes You Happy," in which a daughter tells her mom about her latest romantic disaster: "I swear this one is going to last, and all those other bastards were only practice!"

The thing is, for all her articulation, what Phair is best able to capture in her music is the emotional feel of a love affair. Her best songs soar beyond mere catchiness. The sensations they evoke are utterly true to life.

The record ends with "Girls' Room," a gentle reminiscence of the slightly bitchy chitchat of adolescent girls. It's a song that exemplifies what makes Phair so great: the way she has managed to elevate the American white girl's inherently shallow experience to the subject of great art. Such a gesture took both courage and vision, and for that, Liz Phair should always be revered.

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From the August 6-13, 1998 issue of Metro.

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