Phair Treatment

From indie queen to glamour gal, Liz Phair searches for a happy medium.

click to enlarge FREEDOM: "All I really want is to feel like I'm not working for someone else," says Phair. - Dusan Reljin
Dusan Reljin
FREEDOM: "All I really want is to feel like I'm not working for someone else," says Phair.

Liz Phair (and band)

When you're Liz Phair, and you start your career writing songs about fucking and the carnage of love, and your pervasive anger makes the critics and indie boys and neo-fems think you're the shit, well, it can be hard transitioning into something of a sophisticated glamour gal. And when you're Liz Phair, and you had the audacity to end up on a major label and go from lo-fi to hi-gloss, well that just compounds your sins.

Phair went through quite an evolution from her visceral 1993 debut Exile in Guyville (Matador) to the shiny shot at stardom called Liz Phair 10 years later. When it all shook out, the Chicago-reared singer-songwriter had alienated a good portion of her early fans, while not quite scoring the desired commercial success.

Regrets? If there are, Liz Phair ain't sayin'.

"I am coming to terms with it," she said in a phone interview. "I think I understand what people have been so hyper about. I came from a visual arts background and everyone would warn you, 'Don't just paint the green paintings 'cause they sell.' You had to push beyond that to get somewhere else. They said great [visual] artists go through five periods in a career. That's not true for music. People don't like that.

"It wasn't until 25 or 26 that I went into music, because they were willing to pay me, but I kept the visual art ethos — that you have to constantly cover new ground. That's your job. I was critically acclaimed from the outset, but I never thought I was supposed to repeat that. It would be so inauthentic."

Well, that was the plan anyway. Over time, Phair says, she ended up "parodying myself. Right before [1998's] Whitechocolatespaceegg, I was sickened by the songs. They were all clever, literate and hooky, but they all had this kind of deadness on the inside emotionally. It was like when you take a VHS copy of a VHS copy, and another copy of that."

Phair says that she broke the malaise by writing with other people. "When you're faced with someone else sitting there, you can't believe your own bullshit," she says. "It opens you up to new stuff, makes you start to spout things that surprise even yourself."

Unfortunately (at least in the backlashers' view), Phair chose as one of her collaborators The Matrix, the team behind Avril Lavigne. They masterminded the singles "I Am Extraordinary" and "Why Can't I?" which helped push Liz Phair to a respectable No. 27 on the Billboard album survey. During the promotional push for that disc, Phair, then 36, made noise during interviews about mixing it up with youngsters like Lavigne and Ashlee Simpson for chart supremacy.

To some of us, it was refreshing: a former indie queen defiantly coming clean about commercial aspirations. Two years on, Phair is in a position to clarify. "The last record, I just really wanted to get to a place ... back then I thought radio was gonna take me to that place," she says. "It was not fame; let me clarify. It was autonomy, freedom- and reputation-wise. All I really want is to feel like I'm not working for someone else, that I'm allowed the creativity to propel my life along, that I'm, not mega-rich, but have financial security. That's what I hate about our profession. It's so feast or famine. You're continually on the brink of disaster."

Phair may have found a happy medium, artistically at least, with her spanking-new CD Somebody's Miracle. It's chock full of the instantly infectious melodies that have long been the hallmark of her pop-rock milieu — plus she sings solidly in tune and layers vocal harmonies — but the music lacks much of the formulaic veneer of Liz Phair.

The lyrics cut a winning swath of themes and emotions, from songs of romantic commitment and self-awareness to an ode, "Table for One," about alcoholic despair. It seems as if she's traded rage and provocation for heart. "I learned a lot on the [Liz Phair] record," she says. "When we narrowed it down to a more cohesive thing, with one emotional tone, I couldn't do it. It sucked the soul out of me. I'm interested in a wide-ranging slice of life."

So you're Liz Phair in 2005, divorced with a 10-year-old son and a new, younger boyfriend. You smile instead of sneer, you like nice stuff and will talk at length about your fashion sensibilities with W magazine. You don't sing about fucking anymore, but sexuality is still an irrepressible part of your presence. You're Liz Phair, you're 38, and you're still hot.

She's tinkered with her image over the years, posing in just a negligee on the cover of Rolling Stone, straddling a guitar on the cover of Liz Phair, tastefully showing off sculpted thighs and knees in her latest publicity shot.

"In the beginning of my career, [my sexual image] was invasive and traumatizing," she reveals. "I was handled, and I was completely unprepared for it. I felt violated by a lot of photos I had to take. What ended up happening was that I phased it into a different discussion. I took it over. You want sex, I'll give you my sex. You were going to see my perspective looking back at you. My sexuality. It put it out toward them rather than have them look at my ass. That worked really well until my current boyfriend began to sort of bring it up. We have kind of like this ongoing discussion about how I'm gonna use this. It's an open question."

This is just one of many issues in a life that seems to be in constant flux. "I don't know what the answers will be for me," Phair says. "I'll muddle through. It's what I've been doing my whole life. I'm a survivor. I'd like to be a builder, but I'm not sure I have the right skills. Sometimes it seems I do things in the hardest possible way."

About The Author

Eric Snider

Eric Snider is the dean of Bay area music critics. He started in the early 1980s as one of the founding members of Music magazine, a free bi-monthly. He was the pop music critic for the then-St. Petersburg Times from ‘87-’93. Snider was the music critic, arts editor and senior editor of Weekly Planet/Creative...
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