Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Top 25 of the 2000s, #14 - "Liz Phair"

Upon its release in 2003, “Liz Phair” was widely reviled by a vast majority of critics. And the critics didn’t stop with attacking the album – they attacked Phair herself, essentially accusing her of betrayal – betrayal of her artistic integrity, betrayal of her fans, betrayal of her debut album, “Exile in Guyville.” Some examples:

“In recent interviews, Phair has been upfront about her hopes of mainstream success, and claims full awareness that Liz Phair is likely to alienate many of her original fans. What she doesn't seem to realize is that a collection of utterly generic rocked-out pop songs isn't likely to win her many new ones. It's sad that an artist as groundbreaking as Phair would be reduced to cheap publicity stunts and hyper-commercialized teen-pop. But then, this is "the album she has always wanted to make"-- one in which all of her quirks and limitations are absorbed into well-tested clichés, and ultimately, one that may as well not even exist.”

- Matt LeMay, Pitchfork

“Now fast forward ahead ten years. Liz Phair now has a mere four albums under her belt, and today, this once-adored darling of indie rock is a mere shadow of her former self. She's left Chicago, gotten divorced, moved to Los Angeles, has taken singing lessons, and has employed some high-priced teen pop producers to help her sell albums. The resulting album, Liz Phair, is a highly overproduced, shallow, soulless, confused, pop-by-numbers disaster that betrays everything the woman stood for a decade ago, and most heinously, betrays all her original fans. In contrast to her of her infamous, audacious "flashing" cover photo for Exile in Guyvile, Phair's new album cover has her sitting, legs spread-eagled, a guitar placed suggestively between her legs, her hair stylishly tousled, looking like a cheesy Maxim photo shoot. It's an album by a woman who has completely lost touch with what made her music so great in the past; Ms. Phair has never been one to shy away from speaking her mind, and her new record is nothing more than a hearty "fuck you" to everyone who bought her first two albums, as she tries to become the next Avril Lavigne. Only, she fails at that, too, in spectacular fashion.”

- Adrien Begrand, PopMatters

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the first paragraphs of both reviews make reference to the indie success that Phair enjoyed with her debut album. That’s what really matters to both critics, and that’s why what they wrote about “Liz Phair” strikes me as so dishonest. In their own minds, they have defined what Phair was, what she stood for, and though they would probably deny it, the kind of music that she should have kept right on making. Confronted with something different (and my God, she used Avril Lavigne’s producers! Heresy!), they don’t know what to do, because ultimately the success of such a record would negate everything that they stand for.

And what’s really bullshit is the way that the latter review blasts Phair for her “stylishly tousled hair” and a “cheesy Maxim photo shoot,” when I’d be willing to be that half of the little indie punks fantasized for years about them being the ones having fun with “the blowjob queen.” The way this album was treated has always pissed me off, and it still does.

If “Liz Phair” was a crappy record, that would be one thing. But it isn’t – it’s a great record, and it can stand right alongside “Guyville” as her best work. If Phair did anything wrong, it was to stupidly say that the record would alienate her original fan base. That was like adding gasoline to the fire, and if she probably should have just stuck with something like “well, I hope they like it, but if they don’t, cool.”


“Red Light Fever”

“Rock Me”

The other song I want to mention is "Little Digger," which Phair wrote about her young son's first encounter with her new boyfriend. How anyone in their right mind could call such a song a "betrayal" of anything is beyond me.

Believe it or not, I’m really not the only person in the world who thinks this. None other than Robert Christgau loved the album (the only major critic I’ve ever been able to find who did):

“Scandalized? How dumb. I can't explain the technical stuff, but I'd describe the Matrix's sound with Lavigne as "generalized." No matter who produced what (which since I did get all five right must mean something), that's how “Liz Phair” comes across--keybs everywhere, voice big and in tune. Only with Phair, this generalization--while definitely ambitious, tsk tsk--is also an act of love (toward Christina fans and such) and a reaffirmation of the sexual appetites she's indulged since she was exiled in Guyville, a sobriquet she devised to insult the indie world oh so long ago. Five years later, she put in quality time as a matron-artiste; now, single again at 36, she further insults the indie world by successfully fusing the personal and the universal, challenging lowest-common-denominator values even as it fellates them. You want her to express herself? She just did.”

You tell ‘em, Robert.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I don't know much about Liz, but you are right. Little Digger is an outstanding song. Lyrics, music, and voice all blend into a compelling tune.

Depending on your point of view and stage in life - it's a powerful song. Thanks Jeff - never would have found it if you had not given it to me.