ALL'S love and war in Phair.
As in "Liz Phair," the one-time indie-rock heroine's eponymous fourth album, a slick popcentric makeover that has, since its late-June release, inspired some of the most vitriolic music press in ages, with bad (and surprisingly personal) reviews outgunning the occasional good ones by a huge margin. The Village Voice, whose annual Pazz and Jop critics poll named Phair's debut, "Exile in Guyville," its album of the year in 1993, printed three contrasting reviews. The L.A. Weekly ran four. The New York Times accused Phair of "committing an embarrassing form of career suicide."
"It's definitely been an interesting journey, press-wise, 'cause usually my press is always really good," Phair acknowledged cheerfully from a tour-bus caravan headed for Cleveland with herself, Jason Mraz and Sondre Lerche on board (it pulls into the 9:30 club Saturday).
"The fact that everybody went nutso -- well, I knew that old fans were going to be not so much into it, but I didn't realize they were going to be so [p.o.'d] about it," she admits.
A quick history: "Exile in Guyville" is a lo-fi, rough-around-all-edges masterpiece, a punk-feminist commentary on the Rolling Stones' "Exile on Main Street" that skewered the alternative rock boys'-club mentality prevalent in Phair's home town of Chicago in the early '90s and explored difficult relationships in always intelligent, sometimes sexually vivid terms. Reviewers raved, a rash of raw-emotioned imitators followed and the album sold slowly but steadily (it took five years to reach gold status of 500,000 copies). Along the way, Phair became a role model for musically adventurous, sexually assertive women.
"Whip-Smart," "Exile's" 1994 follow-up, also went gold, but 1998's "whitechocolatespacegg" barely broke 250,000 copies. In the meantime, Phair got married, had a son (now 6) and subsequently got divorced. She also abandoned Chicago for Los Angeles, and a beloved independent label (Matador) for a major (Capitol).
These are not her sins.
These are: For "Liz Phair," Phair plugged herself (albeit only partly) into the Matrix in an overt attempt to garner radio hits, spur record sales and achieve pop stardom. This Matrix is, of course, not the sci-fi evil of cinema, but the hi-fi evil of commercial music. The Matrix (Scott Spock, Lauren Christy and Graham Edwards) is the songwriting-production team responsible for hits by Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys and Ricky Martin and, most egregiously, for the multi-platinum career of "Complicated" pop punkette Avril Lavigne. Apparently, the thought of a 36-year-old woman refusing to act, or look, her age, and seemingly competing with the glossy goddaughters of "Exile in Guyville" for precious teen-pop dollars, has been too much for old fans and pop-music gatekeepers alike.
"I can't remember getting incensed over something that wasn't extremely, graphically violent or child pornography," Phair says. "The fact that people can get so angry about this record makes me realize these are people that I don't know. I get the bad reviews -- 'Yeah, it's not my thing,' or, 'I like "Guyville" and now she's in this pop thing and I'm not into that.' But I don't understand the vehemence with which people are going after it."
Phair and the Matrix collaborated on four songs, including "Why Can't I?" That first single, which would not sound out of place on Lavigne's album, has propelled Phair into new territory: Adult Top 40 and Hot Adult Contemporary radio. For the first time in her career, Phair has a video in heavy rotation on VH1. Commercial ambitions that Phair has been very clear about seem to be coming to fruition, though album sales for "Liz Phair" have yet to fall in step with her long-term career plans.
"At this age I wanted to feel more like an entrepreneur, not just a dumb artist," Phair explains. "My whole thing started five years ago, and I wanted the work-to-reward ratio to be more recognizable. I think with many artists there is a gambling spirit -- just get out there and don't watch out for yourself -- and I think it's a very unhealthy attitude to assume that you're not in business when you actually are."
"Liz Phair" went through many drafts and revisions on its journey to pop-friendly product. For this, she also enlisted producers R. Walt Vincent (Pete Yorn) and Michael Penn, though it's the Matrix connection that seems to be the focal point of critical rage. "They're very poorly named and it's made them an easy target," Phair says of the Matrix. "They have that movie reference and in the movie they're actually the machine that's trying to enslave humanity, so there's that subliminal [impression] and whether people know they're reacting to that or not, they probably are."
In fact, Phair's been through something like this before -- with "Exile in Guyville." That album was very much about a 25-year-old woman's feelings of isolation within Chicago's male-dominated alternative music scene, and even as the album drew critical favor, Phair found herself derided as a suburban poseur (wealthy adoptive parents raised her in the affluent suburb of Winnetka and she graduated from Oberlin College with an art degree) with little indie-rock credibility or apparent musical convictions.
"There was a completely weird reaction, and that's what's so ironic about the whole thing," she says. "I remember the very same people who are in an uproar about the Matrix, it's almost like they hold ['Exile'] against me. I can remember walking into the Rainbow [nightclub] and having there be 20 people arguing about me. Half the people were saying that I totally didn't deserve this press because I'd just come on the scene all of a sudden and it was taking away press from other people who deserved it more, and it was because I dyed my hair blond that I was getting all this attention, and there were other people defending me. It was like I was the armchair controversy for about a year."
"Exile in Guyville" was Phair's CD debut, but she had previously released homemade tapes under the name Girlysound (which was how Matador discovered her). Even lower-fi than "Exile," the Girlysound cassettes featured a number of songs that subsequently showed up on "Exile" and one that made its way to "whitechocolatespacegg" and seems particularly prescient today. In "[Expletive]loads of Money," about a man who sells out his ideals for financial security, Phair sang "It's nice to be liked, but it's better by far to get paid."
"Actually, that song goes all the way back to my 19th year of life," Phair says. "It is funny, isn't it? You can definitely go there [the irony angle], but it wouldn't totally be accurate because I just write the songs, I don't really think about their future implications. It's ironic: I wrote a song about a son before I had one, I wrote a song about divorce before I got one. Let's hope '[Expletive]loads of Money' turns out to be true," she says with a hearty laugh.
"I remember where I was with Girlysound, which was probably giddier and more pop than people want to think," adds Phair, pointing out that she's always loved pop radio. "They want to think I started with 'Guyville' and that's fine, but I think I've always had some of that sensibility in me and it certainly shows up on the new record as that freedom from cool."
Actually, Phair has been drifting toward the mainstream all along. "Whip-Smart" was more musically and lyrically conventional than its predecessor, as was "whitechocolatespacegg." What had started as indie-rock intuition and instinct evolved into ever-improving pop craftsmanship, with Phair even taking formal singing lessons to solidify her previously shaky alto.
In the album's hooky opening track, the Matrix-connected "Extraordinary," Phair sounds as if she's anticipating her critics with lines such as, "See me jump through hoops for you / You stand there watching me performing / What exactly do you do? / Have you ever thought it's you who's boring?"
"The lyrics are actually written about a specific person, not about my fans, even though it seems like they are about a person who is not astute, if you will," Phair says, noting that the hook line is "I am extraordinary if you'd ever get to know me . . . I am just your ordinary everyday sane-psycho supergoddess."
And one who mixes the poignant observations of "Good Love Never Dies" and "Little Digger" (about her son dealing with new men in her life) with wickedly humorous songs such as "Favorite" (comparing a lover to "my favorite underwear"), the bawdy "H.W.C." and "Rock Me," a subversive gender spin on having an empty-headed but physically pleasing, Xbox-playing younger lover whose only shortcoming is lacking a sense of music history ("Your record collection don't exist / You don't even know who Liz Phair is").
There's a certain humor to the cover image of "Liz Phair," in which the title subject sits provocatively behind her strategically situated electric guitar, hair teased and flesh abundant. Phair can't help her good looks -- she has modeled for the Gap and Calvin Klein and appeared in a negligee on the cover of Rolling Stone when "Whip-Smart" was released -- and she's surprised at the sniping about her appearance, particularly from women.
"I feel really bad for them because they're going to get to that age and they're not going to want to have to wear granny suits and kick back, either," Phair says. "One of the scariest things about this is when young women look at me and criticize me for still being sexual after having a child and being this age, because it's going to come back to bite them in the ass. I absolutely get behind the idea that my music expands roles for women, and if that includes into their middle age, then so be it, that's fine. I think we need more variation in our culture for what a woman should be comfortably accepted as and I think again there's a huge amount of sexism when you've got bands like Aerosmith and Bon Jovi , the Rolling Stones and Jane's Addiction -- any band that comes out in hot pants and they're on the cover of Spin or Rolling Stone in tight pants -- and they don't get that. Hello?"
LIZ PHAIR -- Appearing Saturday with Jason Mraz and Sondre Lerche at the 9:30 club. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Liz Phair, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8121. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)