Most Un-Phair

An indie-rock goddess falls to Earth--in her panties.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Esteemed TW rock critics Stephen Seigel and Annie Holub recently got together over a six-pack of Tequiza and a pack of allergy pills to listen to the new self-titled Liz Phair album. A transcript of the conversation follows.

Stephen Seigel: Maybe we should start this out by explaining to people who aren't familiar with Liz Phair why any of this matters.

Annie Holub: Because Liz Phair's first record, Exile in Guyville, which is now 10 years old, was not only one of the best records of the '90s, it was revolutionary. It was messy, off-key, low-fi, and because of those qualities, it stood out. Liz Phair was like the older sister I never had.

SS: Every girl I know wore that album--still does, in fact--like a banner. It was the first album that seemed to address what it was like to be a woman in the '90s, and gave women a sense of empowerment that hadn't really been heard before. And it was totally frank, completely unfiltered, as though anyone I know could have written it if she just had the capacity to express those things. She was just a sheltered suburban girl saying whatever the hell she felt like.

AH: Exactly. I was 14 when I heard the record for the first time, and even though my friends and I didn't really understand the emotional complexities behind the songs, we thought we almost did. We had to grow into those songs, and we loved them all the more for the challenge they presented. And I think because of that, there are more women now who are successful musicians, who aren't building their success on their image only, who write their own songs and play them themselves. I know if it hadn't been for musicians like Liz Phair, it would have taken me much longer to get the guts to be in a band.

SS: Yeah, again the key word seems to be empowerment, the sense that even though you're your own woman, there's a nation of women thinking the same things as you and that it's OK to talk about them. When Alanis Morissette's first album came out it seemed like a more radio-friendly version of Exile in Guyville. Which reminds me, Exile only got cooler once I heard that it was a song-by-song response to the Stones' Exile on Main Street. I always thought that was total genius.

AH: Yeah, Liz Phair's music had depth. The songs weren't just catchy, they had an agenda. Which brings us to why her new record is the disappointment of the century, young as it is. It's as if Liz Phair had some sort of lobotomy--she's plastered all over the record, wearing only a guitar, which she doesn't even play on the record. The songs are catchy, but in an over-produced way, compliments of the Matrix, Avril Lavigne's production team. And the lyrics are embarrassingly bad. The sense of empowerment is gone. She's abandoned herself completely to the sexy side and lost the thoughtfulness. She may be singing, but she's not in control.

SS: She's trying way too hard on all fronts. I got nervous when I heard she was working with the Matrix, then even more nervous when every photo to promote this album had her scantily clad, trying to look sexy. Her sexiness came from her honesty, of which there's absolutely none here. She's a divorced single mom. She could have written an album about what that's like. Instead, we get vapid bullshit about playing Xbox on her younger boyfriend's floor. That's no different than that godawful "Sk8er Boi" song by Avril Lavigne. I guess that's my biggest problem with this album--there's absolutely no substance. If I'm gonna have to listen to crap like this, I'd rather hear an old Olivia Newton-John record. "I'm starting to think that young guys rule" makes "Have you never been mellow" sound like fucking James Joyce. I just can't listen to this album without cringing every 15 seconds because the lyrics are so, so bad.

AH: In almost every song there's a moment where she completely gives up her own sexual power. She used to not care what everyone else thought, now that's all she's singing about. "Extraordinary" is all about her trying to convince some guy she's interesting; in "Good Love Never Dies" she actually says, "I'm so terrified you'll see through my act." It really is all an act, which is why it's so transparent. Before, when she sang really raunchy lyrics, your reaction was like, fuck yeah. Now, it's just gross. I have this impulse to cover my ears. She does have one song written for her son, but it's about how her son tells her boyfriends "my mother is mine"--it just brushes the surface of that whole dilemma. The song's not so much about her son as it's about Phair feeling like she's the "damaged one." Again with the approval seeking! What is she, a teenager? I think she really wants to be a teenager.

SS: Which reminds me, the other night, I was watching that Musicians show on Bravo, where a music critic interviews different, uh, musicians. Anyway, Sheryl Crow was on and she was talking about how, for an album or two, she lost sight of who her audience was, so she decided that she was going to make an album for people like her, who listen to Lynyrd Skynyrd and drink Budweiser. Now, I think that may be a bit misguided--those people are probably listening to Kid Rock or something these days. But at least she was thinking about who her audience is. I can't help thinking that this Liz Phair record is an album without an audience. Who did she make this for? The old fans are going to completely hate it for the same reasons we do, while the teen-pop kids she's trying to appeal to are going to be like, who the hell is this old lady talking about playing Xbox? They're just waiting for that next Avril album; they don't care about Liz Phair.

AH: I really think she's just trying to play out some weird teenage rock star fantasy. All the pictures with her in studded belts and tight punk T-shirts are just screaming, "Look at me, I'm so rock and roll!" But really she just looks like an airbrushed Vanity Fair reject. So I think she's making it for herself, to sort of prove to herself that she can play that pop-star role. But yeah, no one's going to buy it. But then again, Jewel did the same thing; I remember seeing one of those six-story-high billboards in Times Square and Jewel's airbrushed teeth took up almost a whole floor-to-ceiling window, and I thought, "Well, perhaps she thinks if she covers up her bad teeth, everyone will think she's sexy." Liz Phair seems to be thinking if she covers up her bad-girl past, the kids will think she's cool and let her play Grand Theft Auto. She's like Drew Barrymore, trying to have a second childhood because she was robbed of her first one or something. And that, of course, never works.

SS: Yeah, and the irony is that while she's posing for glamour shots in those CBGBs T-shirts--and she has them in two colors, I might add; black and baby blue--she sings the entire album through a pitch corrector, a decidedly un-punk rock thing to do. I could sound like Liz Phair if you put my vocals through enough effects. Not that I'd want to, I'm just saying. But again, part of the charm of her early stuff was that she hit some bum notes and she didn't give a damn. Oh my god, did she really just sing, "You're like my favorite underwear/It just feels right?"

AH: She did, and she keeps repeating it! Make it stop! Anyway, so many female musicians end up having to have their vocals enhanced because there's some sort of societal myth that all girls have to sing pretty. Liz Phair was the anti-sing-pretty girl, in the era of Tori Amos and that horrible girl from the Cranberries, what was her name? Delores something. It also angers me that she's not even playing guitar anymore; again, it's like she's turning her back on everything she once stood for. I feel like I've been abandoned. She's singing, "I've given up," and it's so sad that even Liz Phair could give up. But oh well. We don't need her anymore. She can go ahead and sing her silly sappy songs if it makes her happy, but she shouldn't try to call it art. If she's really making this record for herself, she should have kept it to herself.

SS: If you're thinking about buying this record, let us know. We've got one for sale. Cheap.