Monday, April 17, 2006

Phair and Unphair


Once describing herself as "an upper-middle-class cute girl with smart parents singing dirty words," Liz Phair, born on this day in 1967 in New Haven Connecticut, was adopted as an infant and indeed raised by well-to-do parents in the Chicago suburb of Winnetka. After graduating from Oberlin with an art degree, she became involved with indie-rock, and over the course of a few years had compiled an amorphous set of basement demo tapes, known as Girly Sound, which inspired independent record label Matador to sign her.

Her first album, Exile in Guyville (1993), was as influential as any album of the 1990s: somewhat ludicrously described by Phair as a song-for-song reply to Jagger and Richards' sexist strutting and posturing on Exile on Main Street (1972), the unexpected critical applause and MTV support for Phair's stripped-down, low budget sound (featuring ferociously awkward, fuzzy guitar lines, one-dimensional head-banging percussion and Phair's living-dead vocals), combined with surprisingly frank, wise-cracking yet at times self-loathing and confessional lyrics about sex, male egos and latent misogyny in American culture, sent mainstream labels into a panic to sign as many rough women angst-poets as they could. While songs like "F--- and Run" and "B----- Queen" could not be played on the radio, Phair became an icon in women's alternative rock circles, "summon(ing) into existence not only . . . Alanis Morissette but Jewel" by starting an "action girl" revolution which was quickly co-opted by the major labels to return "to a reassuring format certain not to frighten the horses" (J. Clover, Spin).

Her next albums, Whip-Smart (1994) and Whitechocolatespaceegg (1998), were considered disappointments when compared to the impact of Exile, but did show Phair's maturing musical and vocal ability and an untarnished ability to write perceptive, acerbic lyrics.

In 2003, Phair did a switcheroo on her old fan base, releasing an unabashedly poppy eponymous album. Her lyrics were still edgy on such songs as "H.W.C.," but much of the album was filled with high-gloss Britney-esque pop productions such as "Why Can't I" and "Rock Me" (actually produced by Avril Lavigne's team) -- leaving die-hards to theorize that there was probably a joke in there somewhere. The old controversies about her weak singing were only rekindled when she performed "Why Can't I" live from Bryant Park on TV's Good Morning America (a venue which would have been out of the question in the old days) -- sounding all-too tentative while going acoustic out of necessity on the morning after the nation's worst-ever blackout. Her 2005 follow-up, Somebody's Miracle, left the faithful all the more perplexed -- though it should be emphasized that one doesn't need "indie cred" to be interesting. That's a bit of hubris that is ripe enough to be the target of Liz Phair's wit, on a good day.

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3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I bought Exile in Guyville when it was released based on the reviews and still enjoy it to this day. Too bad the powers that be changed Liz into another Christina, Britney, et.al. Just goes to show how the music "industry" is just that: cookie-cutter, formulaic product here today, forgotten tomorrow. Long live real independent rockers like The Donuts!

10:35 AM  
Anonymous Fathead said...

That was my Donuts comment, FYI.

10:35 AM  
Blogger RSchuler said...

Huh. Would never have guessed.

11:54 AM  

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