So in case you didn’t glean this from every single review written for her new album, Liz Phair has sold out. She has abandoned her universally beloved, indie-rock-goddess status in search of platinum records and Maxim covers, and made a shitty, vapid, mindless, generic pop album. She brought on board mercenary producers The Matrix, who wrote everything Avril Lavigne ever did, who then wrote her whole new album and turned her into a second-rate Avril clone. However, it would seem Phair’s misguided attempt to cash in her indie-rock cred for mainstream stardom has backfired completely. Most famously, New York Times critic Meghan O’Rourke called Liz Phair “an embarrassing form of career suicide.” Yep, that’s the story.
And if we say it enough, it will become true.
Of course, Phair’s detractors (which seem to include everyone who’s written about or even heard about her new album, and approximately three times the number who actually bought her first album, Exile in Guyville) do have a point: she ditched the lo-fi, indie-rock digs and made a poppy, radio-friendly album. For those of you keeping score at home, it was called Whip-Smart, and it came out nine years ago. You really can’t get much shinier and bouncier than Phair’s follow-up to Guyville (“Supernova” remains one of the great happy-sex songs of our time, and “Whip-Smart” has hooks aplenty). Phair then followed up with Whitechocolatespaceegg, which contained two of the catchiest songs ever made (“Johnny Feelgood” and “Polyester Bride”) and talked so much about her contentment in marriage (since broken up) and as a new mom that it bordered in parts on being a folk album.
Still, it can’t be denied that Exile in Guyville made waves. Selling an earth-shattering 400,000 copies, the album chronicled Phair’s response to life in the early ‘90s alt-rock community. Trouble is, if you were paying attention, most of it had to do with how said hipsters were all sexist assholes. Truth be told, she never felt at home in that crowd and never felt like one of them. And for the record—“Fuck and Run”? “Divorce Song”? Those are perfect for bobbing your head and singing along.
Actually, this is nothing new. Liz Phair has always been one of those “misunderstood” artists, prone to eliciting really stupid interpretations (like turning the wistful “Fuck and Run” into an anthem of righteous female anger). The way I see it, the unspoken deal was always thus: she has always made bubblegum pop (in the best possible sense of the word), but because she says “fuck” a lot, she always got an incredible amount of indie cred. But then she had to go and louse it up by acting like a damn pop star.
The most interesting thing here, however, has to be the vehemence with which people have reacted to Liz Phair, and the palpable sense of betrayal her “diehard” fans feel when she changes her performance from one album to another. PopMatters’ own Adrien Begrand writes that “[Phair’s] new record is nothing more than a hearty ‘fuck you’ to everyone who bought her first two albums.” This isn’t simply an artist moving in an unfortunate direction—Begrand and his ilk are taking this personally, as if Phair visited Begrand’s house after she heard he’d received the album and kicked him in the balls.
And while it’s easy to laugh at the people getting upset, I can’t pretend to be less emotionally involved. When she came to Philly’s Electric Factory on August 12, I was rooting for my girl to prove them all wrong. And despite the indignity of clearly being the opener for Jason Mraz (which still probably isn’t as bad as being forced to open for Alanis Morissette as part of the “Alanis Tours with Better Artists Whom She Ripped Off and Makes Them Open for Her” concert series), she seemed out to make a point as well.
She opened the 13-song set with “6’1”“, the first song off Guyville, and she played as many songs (five) off her first album as she did off the new one. And besides the hastily apparent fact that she’s been taking voice lessons, the songs from all four albums fit together pretty well. There was never a big divide between the “old stuff” and “new stuff.” She still got the biggest cheers for “Fuck and Run”, which has always been her best-known song, although most of the crowd was clearly not there to see her, so they might just have been cheering for the dirty words (with which Phair, God bless her, came through). The older songs she played were the catchiest and most accessible from those albums; if you’re only going to play three songs off Whip-Smart and Whitechocolatespaceegg, “Johnny Feelgood”, “Polyester Bride”, and “Supernova” are the ones to pick.
For the record, the new songs sounded good too. I’ve never been partial to “Why Can’t I?”, the album’s first single and target of a good share of the criticism for its overdubbed vocals, and I much prefer the songs off Liz Phair she didn’t play, but they all at least rocked, which judging by her company (Mraz and opener Sondre Lerche, who does at least seem to have some potential), was in short supply that night.
All of which is, of course, secondary. I’ve been waiting to see Liz Phair live for years (I discovered her late, but it’s still been a while), so I probably wouldn’t care what she played. She closed with “Flower”, and while I fervently hoped she would segue it into the new album’s “Hot White Cum”, when she walked off the stage, I was grinning. In the end, I was no different from all those critics, cheering her on when I liked her stuff and cursing her out when I didn’t. Of course, if she’d sucked, I probably would have felt the same sense of betrayal. Which I guess is the point: terms like “hero worship” and “projection” get thrown around a lot, but when we listen to an album and make the singer’s emotions our own, it’s more than the immature narcissism we usually make it out to be—it’s the basis of how we understand each other. And with that many Liz-images running around in people’s heads, someone’s feelings are bound to get stepped on. Hence the outrage. So if you’re going around complaining about how much Liz Phair sucks now that she sold out, you do look pretty ridiculous, but the good thing is if you’re pissed off, at least you’re still feeling. At least you still give a shit, which puts you ahead of most of the people out there.
And for the record: Liz Phair is way hotter than Avril. And that’s saying something.