[September, 1994] Liz Phair Brought Me Up And Let Me Down
“Some things are melting now” – Tori Amos
I went to HMV today and got a great tape, Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville. Her second release, Whip-Smart just came out and I’ll probably get that fairly soon. Exile is just so good, there are 18 songs and not one of them suck. Her voice isn’t amazing or anything but I like that, it’s earthy. I’m also interested in getting some earlier Afghan Whigs.
Oh Liz Phair. There’s such a muddle of impressions that comes to mind when I think of her. So much surprise and admiration at first, so much disgust and disappointment later on, so much indifference in-between.
Let’s go back to the glorious beginning, when a girl in Chicago recorded an album in her bedroom or basement on an eight-track or four-track or however many tracks it is that gives you the most indie cred. This evolved into Exile in Guyville, and was hailed as an 18-song lo-fi masterpiece.
It wasn’t the sort of music I would normally go for. Phair’s range as a singer was (is) limited, so the vocals were flat/monotonous. The production values weren’t spectacular, and all the songs were rough around the edges. The album’s title was cheesy. And yet…
From the first song on the first side (yes, let’s not forget I got the cassette), I was hooked the moment she sang, “And I kept standing 6’1″, instead of 5’2″, and I loved my life, and I hated you.” Here was a woman we could all relate to. She got hung up on the wrong guys, she was ostracized, but deep down she knew she was worth something. She had moments of triumph, she had orgasms, she got pissed off, she talked back. If Tori Amos was the crazy aunt who baked pot brownies and pranced around the backyard in fairy wings, Liz Phair was cool older sister who teaches you about what guys want, remembers what it was like not to be cool, and reassures you that you’ll come out okay on the other side.
Exile in Guyville was a raw and sexy breath of fresh air for me (as were Afghan Whigs, in an irresistible-boyfriend-from-hell kind of way). I got Phair’s first album just as the second one, Whip-Smart, was making her an alterna-MTV darling. Whip-Smart was more hit-and-miss, but had enough remnants of the debut sound to make it acceptable and also got more commercial attention. So Exile remained more of a gem for the “true fans.”
Then I went off to college and got her third album, whitechocolatespaceegg, which was surprisingly slick and striving to be pop-like and utterly forgettable.
And then in 2003 came a fourth, self-titled album. And yeah, she was straddling a guitar in a way that looked more contrived than empowered, and yes, she collaborated with a duo who wrote songs for Britney Spears and Avril Lavigne, but maybe it wouldn’t be all that bad.
And then I heard the single, “Why Can’t I?” and it was all that bad and a bag of crap chips. I didn’t get the album, but I did see her in concert, hoping that the earlier better material would redeem the show. It didn’t. To make things worse, she acquired a dull, generic fratty crowd that looked like they were there to see Dave Matthews Band. To make things worse, the songs they cheered on the most were the new ones I couldn’t stand.
In interviews, Liz Phair defended selling out, saying she had a son to support, and who doesn’t want success, and blah-blah-look-at-me-posing-in-a-trucker-hat-wearing-an-american-flag-in-the-shower-like-an-idiot-blah. Attaining commercial success is one thing; doing so while stripping all quality, charm, talent, and intelligence from your creative work is another.
I’m not happy to write this, but I wonder if Liz Phair was never a real artist, if she was just a fluke. She used to use her sex appeal in an unapologetic, playful way, to spread the word on her music, which was actually worth something. But ever since that commercially-successful/creatively abysmal fourth album (to this day, I could only hear it all the way through once) there’s been something increasingly used up and desperate about her, like she knows nothing she ever does again will have the same magic of Exile in Guyville, not even a little bit. And I can’t help but feel somewhat betrayed and swindled for ever loving her in the first place.
Who knows, maybe she still has a great album in her somewhere, maybe that gritty/clever/smirking woman will be ressurected and prove me wrong. Can’t say I’m counting on it, though.