Liz Phair Goes Pop, Setting Off Debate
NEW YORK – The first time Liz Phair pooled her allowance money to buy a record, years before she became an indie rock queen, she bought “Saturday Night” by the bubblegum band Bay City Rollers.
That’s worth remembering now that the 36-year-old singer has set off an extraordinary debate in the rock world simply by making a disc designed to be enjoyed by as many people as possible.
Some fans feel betrayed, others intrigued. All can judge for themselves when the disc, her first in five years, is released today (Tuesday).
Titled “Liz Phair,” the cover features the star with teased blonde hair and a semi-dressed pose covered up by a strategically placed guitar. Among the 14 glossy pop-rock songs are four co-written with the Matrix, the hitmaking songwriting team behind Avril Lavigne’s smash, “Complicated.”
Her debut a decade ago, on the other hand, was decidedly lo-fi. Complete with frank sexual talk, “Exile in Guyville” was a brash, feminine response to a classic Rolling Stones album. Critics and hipsters loved it, saying it captured the mood of many women in their 20s.
Will the real Liz Phair please stand up?
“I’m the same person I always was,” Phair told The Associated Press in a recent interview. “I just lost the whole `cool school’ thing.”
By courting pop success, some critics have essentially called her a sellout. In a lengthy essay in The New York Times on Sunday, writer Meghan O’Rourke said Phair “has committed an embarrassing form of career suicide.”
“Ms. Phair often sounds desperate or clueless,” O’Rourke wrote. “The album has some of the same weird self-oblivion of a middle-aged man in a mid-life crisis and a new Corvette.”
Others differ. Jim Farber in the New York Daily News said the disc’s slickness covers up Phair’s weaknesses as a singer and player. “The added elements have made her songs catchier and her vocals more compelling,” he wrote.
Phair recorded and shelved three different albums in the past five years, as she got divorced and moved with her 6-year-old son from her native Chicago area to Los Angeles, the cradle of stardom.
The last try was a somewhat depressing disc produced by Michael Penn, husband of mopey songwriter Aimee Mann. Phair took it to the president of Capitol Records, Andy Slater, who said it was a good album critics would like.
Phair knew a lukewarm record company usually dooms an album to failure. “I really wanted you to be a little more excited than, `It’ll be fine,'” she told Slater.
As a single mom living in an expensive new area, Phair was eager to take a big swing at success and agreed to work with the Matrix. “Exile in Guyville” and its 1994 followup, “Whip Smart,” both sold just under 400,000 copies, and 1998’s “whitechocolatespaceegg” sold 266,000 copies √≥ respectable if you’re a struggling artist-type, but not on the level of a major star.
Phair believes working with others has amplified, not concealed, her personality. She said she’s not turning her back on the woman who wrote “Exile in Guyville.”
“What did you do in your 20s?” she said. “Oh, I wrote one of the most influential albums of the ’90s. It’s awesome. But it shouldn’t stop you” from trying different things, she said.
Worrying about critics can be as much of a trap as overthinking the pop marketplace. Phair said she occasionally felt paralyzed as a writer in the mid-1990s worrying whether her songs were hip enough.
Still, she doesn’t dismiss fans who don’t like what she’s doing.
“Of course, I care,” she said. “I like them and I’d like them to like me. If they don’t, that’s fine. I don’t like every record. I hope they don’t reject me as a lifelong artist. I think that’s a little bit spastic.”
Phair talked just hours before attending a concert by Radiohead, the ultimate critic’s band. But she’s still in touch with the little girl who sang along to “Saturday Night.”
“I would never want to give up my `indie-ness,'” she said. “I just don’t understand why you have to be one or the other. I like highbrow and lowbrow.”
Phair is less eager to talk about the provocative photos being used to sell her disc, saying they weren’t her idea. She’s never been shy about using her sexuality; on `Exile,’ she doctored her vocals to sound as girlish as possible when talking dirty.
The new album has one song explicit enough to make Mick Jagger blush. She also sings about picking up a guy nine years younger for sex and about the allure of infidelity.
Yet a song with nothing to do about sex packs the biggest emotional wallop. “Little Digger” describes the wrenching confusion of a young boy seeing his divorced mom with another man for the first time.
“My goal, if I have one as an artist, has always been to expand the acceptable rules for women and girls,” Phair said.
“One of the things that was hard for me growing up was older women who did not talk about things that they felt outside of an accepted way of talking,” she said. “I think it’s important to allow yourself to say things that are not OK.”
Liz Phair Goes Pop, Setting Off Debate