Liz Phair wants you to smile, even though you don’t want to.
A lot of purposefully cruel articles and reviews have been written about Liz Phair in the past 13 years. What’s really amazing about this ongoing, and never-ending, dialogue surrounding her albums, is the vehement obsession so many critics have in trying to prove that her music is really not worth wasting your time on—even though they waste their time on to it. That is why this reviewer is going out on a limb and saying that her languorously self-released sixth album, Funstyle, is actually quite good.
Without any fanfare or media blitz Liz Phair released Funstyle, on July 3rd for $5.99 on her website (the only place you can buy the album). What ensued was a firestorm of backlash (for the fourth time!) from everyone hell-bent on tearing her to pieces for not turning out to be the singer they all thought she was. There are some strong aversions to this album, so, let’s talk about it. Many are touting the absurdity of the four experimental tracks, and tentatively trying to suggest that somewhere in the album is a really great EP. However, to pick away at this 11-song aggregate by attempting to salvage the tiny bits you feel more comfortable ingesting is like throwing away the bone in an Angus steak before it’s cooked, an inedible but essential part of the meal. All the necessary elements work to create an amalgamated cohesion, that is not necessarily hermetically sealed, but definitely an entity of its own.
When I bought the album, my iTunes began playing “Smoke” first, even though “Satisfied” was erroneously positioned before it. “Satisfied” is supposed to be track 10, but for me the album begins here, almost as if it’s track negative one. “Satisfied, as infectious a pop tune as it is, is a reminder of the blandness that was its predecessor, 2005’s Somebody’s Miracle. Possibly the most boring Liz Phair album, due mainly to her insistence on remaining straight-faced through every song, earnest in her intention to be serious. “Satisfied” implies her dissonance with attempting to cater to the industry-driven music pressures—an adult-contemporary pop song, that is tired of itself, and tired of what it’s trying to be.
“Smoke” is the first surprise, mostly for the shrill and discorded harmony vocals that precede the synthesized spoken word verses. In the first “verse” we hear Liz Phair’s little voice of self-doubt. In the second, she’s hilariously trying to get into a boat party only to be denied: “Fine fuck you”! Phair spews, “Have fun on land”, a synthesized Phair-as-party-bouncer responds. I laugh every time. The indiscernible chorus is either “Let us smoke all night / let us smoke all night”, or “There’s smoke on that / there’s smoke on that”—either way it’s unintelligible, but still very enjoyable. What’s most striking about this song is how much fun Phair is having. She’s trying to get you to have fun too.
“Bollywood”, the first single, features a “rapping” 40-something, mommy, white-girl Phair, who goes on about scoring a television series to secure a better paycheck to feed her child. (How dare she declare her desire to make money from something she loves to do?!?! Doesn’t she know that creating art is it’s own reward?!?!) Is she explaining this to ask for sympathy? No. Is this song some kind of catharsis? Absolutely not. Why is she singing this? Because it’s a funny story, and yes, she might have gotten burnt by this real-life scenario, but clearly she’s laughing at herself. The sincerity in the song is not in it’s supposed seriousness, but rather in its humor. And now we’re three songs in, and it’s become abundantly clear that Phair wants to have a party. Not the kind that is littered with half-baked vacuous Ke$ha’s, but rather an intimate gathering of old friends to reminisce on the past and laugh at some of the more recent ridiculous experiences that her life has thrown her.
Phair’s downfall is probably her much revered, and massively misunderstood, 1993 debut record Exile in Guyville. The dead-panned flatness in her vocals, which have the smallest range I have ever heard, gave people the impression that she was cathartically expunging her inner demons by singing tunes like “Fuck and Run”, or “Flower”. And although there were some genuine insights on that record, there is no possible way she didn’t have her tongue in her cheek, or wasn’t winking at you when she proclaimed: “Everything you say is so obnoxious funny true and mean / I want to be your blow-job queen.” If you think she was being sincere, you’re operating under a misconception. This trend of clever and humorous insight continued throughout her career: “Chopsticks”, “Johnny Feelgood”, “Rock Me”, “HWC”, and the most hilarious track on Funstyle, “Beat Is Up”.
All the evidence is there, her marvelously attuned and astute lyrics have always been tempered with light-hearted and well-intentioned humor—the problem is, no one takes them with the intention that is, um, well, intended. This is not to imply that Phair is always joking, or even that the point is always humorous—one need only listen to the melancholic sincerity of “Bang, Bang!” or the deglamorized off-key “You Should Know Me”, to realize this. Instead, what Funstyle suggests is that her situation and circumstances are never as dire as the Exile diehards want to believe it is. When critics discuss Exile in Guyville, Phair is applauded for being so magnificently raw and self-confessional. And in the same beat is lambasted for her audacity at being self-indulgent. Me thinks she has been trapped in a catch-22, and Funstyle is the only possible response she could have.
There are many ideas spinning around the internet about Liz Phair at the moment: Liz Phair is trying to alienate her fans; Liz Phair is a brilliant songwriter, but she just can’t write a good song; Liz Phair’s music is so cathartic, so why is she rapping?; Liz Phair is awful. This album deserves a reclamation of Liz Phair. The Liz Phair that never goes away, no matter how loudly people are screaming for her to leave. The Liz Phair that does care what you think, but wants you to be happy anyway. The Liz Phair that is not trying to spit on you, or get you to not like her. The Liz Phair that people can’t stop writing about and can’t stop listening to. Funstyle has been constructed as a work-in-progress, from top to bottom, a loose sketch of a piece of work that is clearly defined in its lack of definition. Syncopated, often off-key, backing vocals tune in and out, guitars jump back and forth, drums beat rhythmlessly at times, and a collection of male and female voices fill in the lacunas.
Although the four infamous tracks might be regarded as novelties in the Liz Phair repertoire, the entire album plays as a fascinating experimental work of an artist trying to dodge your negative abuses by coming at it from unexpected angles. Phair is in control of this flawed record, and what makes it so compelling is how she manages her (and other’s) perceptions. Music journalists, bloggers, and fans alike have been trying to shove Liz Phair into a box for nearly a decade. Funstyle suggests Liz’s response: “Ok guys, I get it, but before you burn me at the stake, could you smile?... Just once?”