Thursday, September 22, 2005
get a load of me; get a load of you
Yesterday I received a strange Friendster message from someone I didn't know. I accepted him as a "friend" and he in turn wrote this "testimonial":
Sep 21, 2005 07:10 AM
Matt: Brianna has written the world's single most ringing and inspired defense of Liz Phair ever, a work of rhetoric so potent and persuasive it nearly obscures the fact that Liz Phair sucks arse.
Right. So, I rack my brain: when did I write this masterpiece (har har)? Oh yeah! two friggin' YEARS ago! When Liz Phair released the much maligned self-titled release which earned her a top 40 hit and also reviews that blasted her, recalling an indie-rock version of the lone audience member (representing all disenchanted folkie followers) calling Dylan Judas at his Royal Albert Hall performance in 1966 where he ripped it electric.
I wrote it when I was interning at City Pages and my editor and I were always talking about the whole Liz "controversy." [she ends up having a whole thing with Chuck Klosterman at the Kitty Cat Klub--he wrote about it in his last book, yadda, yadda, yadda]. SO, I wrote it and she put in on her blog for the world to see. This dude who contacted me is a writer and friends with her. He lives in L.A. right now and he found this ancient piece online. He has to write about her now; presumably it's gonna be something about her upcoming album, "Somebody's Miracle"(even I admit the title doesn't sound very promising this time around...).
SO, here's what I wrote then...we'll see if things change once the new album rolls out...
Defending Phair in 2003
It took a good friend's innocent comment about Liz Phair's "dumb blonde highlights," and that was it for me; I had to write something for public view. Since her new album, the self-titled poppy gem of a record, came out, I have been incensed and inspired by what everyone's been saying about Liz Phair. I can not remember a time in recent rock criticism history that such a slew of writers sounded so angry, disappointed, even betrayed by Phair's slight (yes, slight) departure from her usual brand of smart, distinctive songwriting and singing style. But more infuriating has been the focus on everything but the music. If I read one more goddamn comment about her age (36), her single-divorced-mother status or the "inappropriateness" of certain songs at this time in her life, I might explode like a Spinal Tap drummer.
But nearly everyone makes note of this: She's this indie-rock-critical-darling that has deserved every gush of praise she was given for her catchy (yep, you heard it here first!) stunning, funny, sad, filthy, literate and rocking debut, Exile in Guyville. (Which was more a "fuck you" to indie rock boys and their esoteric club than a nod to the Stones' Exile while outdoing baby-voiced contemporaries like Mary Lou Lord and her well-intended "(I Don't Fit into) His Indie World," but I digress.) And then the review usually takes this turn: But, oh, isn't it sad and so disappointing that she never has and never will match her Exile glory. Look, she's teamed with pop producers! (Watch out, kids, David Bowie--or Bough-ie, of you're Avril--is working with the Matrix, too!)
More blatant (and seemingly out-for-blood cruel) reviews have popped up almost everywhere (the most nasty from pitchformedia.com and the New York Times). These particular reviews have made me wonder if these words would have been punched out with such fury if Liz were a man. I really do hate to cry "unabashed sexism" if it's questionable, but it seems rampant in the critics' (both male and female) reactions. References to her "swearing" and her frankness about sex seem as if they were written in 1985 (and 1992) when idiots railed against Madonna for doing the same damn thing. Are music writers still this fucking sexist? Are they that uneasy with a woman calling woman's magazines sexist and dumb as boxes of hair with the song "H.W.C."? Poking fun at the semen-as-a-part-of-a-beauty-routine crap that bullshit mags, ahem, feed females, is apparently not clear enough for this new crop of Liz-haters.
After listening to Liz Phair for the first time I was pleasantly shocked (after reading embittered reviews that actually included the phrase "career suicide" in them) that is was still the same old Liz. Same voice (yes, it sounds a little more grown into, a little more polished, but what's wrong with that?) same smart, stream of consciousness lyrics, using common words and phrases and with eyes-rolled (think Madonna,"Lucky Star" video) she still stamps it with her deep, wry, "Oh-my-God" Valley girl delivery.
For me, Liz Phair is a natural progression from the fantastic, underrated, Whitechochocatespaceegg. Liz's very own eerie, foreboding Tunnel Of Love doomed marriage album, is full of great stuck-permanently-in-my-brain melodies, turns of phrases and jokes it made total sense after Whip-Smart, which was almost a companion piece to Exile...see where I'm going here?
As soon as my 13-year-old brain started digging Liz Phair, I had discovered one of the most perfect creations of a rock chick that I had ever heard or seen. Here was a small-framed woman roaring in pixilated, trashy black and white photo, bearing nipple, on the front of her first album, bursting with fierce sexuality, brilliance (the smart-ass kind and the art-school kind) and humor. Dry, very dry, wit and girly cajones. This was refreshing, this was something new.
Sure, Madonna got there first. But here was Liz, ready to acknowledge the Lady Madge and all her glory. Stealing poses, glares and sexual irony from "Desperately Seeking Susan"-era Madonna. It was as if Liz served as the Camille Paglia of rock chicks, analyzing, worshiping and borrowing the artful, manipulative, intelligent sexual energy and rebellion that made Madonna so effective as a pop culture figure. Liz took Paglia (and others') brand of feminism (keep the sex, lose the sexism) and made it raunchy, while making it relevant.
I must note that, as Liz is always sure to point out, (many songwriters will agree) her songs are never necessarily about her, or even in first person. So when I refer to Liz grabbing everyone by the balls, I mean her music and her lyrics, not the fact that the "characters" or even she herself is all about wanting lots of sex and power and money. I always found it more a commentary on what she observes around her.
Liz Phair's first single "Why Can't I?" has been the most abhorred by rock critics and long time fans of Liz. Criticisms that the song could be sung by anyone, or that the lyrics suggest a weaker, "teen-like" (read: Avril-like, due to Liz's collaboration with the pop-machine songwriters/producers the Matrix) are just lazy. While I do hear a much more externally poppy sound, a melodramatic chorus, I also hear Liz's songwriting voice tackling a new topic for her: the guilt, lust and frustration of jumping into an extra-marital affair. I hear the chorus and get that this female character in the song is surprising her self with guilt and second-guessing cheating on her hubby while her lover is doing the same to his "girlfriend" and saying "it isn't right." Oh, and it happens to be fucking catchy as hell.
Never been anything wrong with that. And here is what is so right and so a test of an effective pop song: the waitresses I work with love it. They murmur and belt along, eyes squeezed shut, knowing all the words (and they work hard for the money, remember?). Awesomely, a few of 'em own Exile. And they'll probably behind me and next to me at the show on Thursday treating "Flower" and the fantastic new female-camp-fire-sing-along-anthem "H.W.C" in the exact same fashion.