Strange Loops: Liz Phair – “Canary”

[10 June 2013]

By Joe Vallese

Ask any familiar listener, casual or diehard, to sing the song’s infamous single-line chorus and invariably you’ll hear back: “Send it up on fire / Death before dawn.” This sinister lyric holds for the track, ostensibly about a submissive wife figure detailing to an oppressive male subject her daily domestic routine in which she “cleans the house…., put[s] all [his] books in an order” and “makes up a colorful border”. The lyric is fitting, the assumed revenge she takes warranted. Phair is comparing herself to a canary (a bird known, apart from its more charming attributes, for its extreme nervousness and restlessness when caged and handled for too long), her accomplishments are tantamount to learning her name and “jump[ing] when [he] circle[s] the cherry”. The imagery is simple, even bordering a touch on clichéd ‘90s-grrl-angst, but Phair sells it with her flat, whispery vocal delivery against the chilly, sparse instrumentation that approaches near crescendo but reliably cops out each time like a weak tide approaching the shore.

“Canary” continues the atmospheric melancholia of its successor “Explain It to Me”, and holds the significance of being the first and only track on the record devoid of Phair’s signature, shaky guitar work, replaced instead by warbling piano chords, a thin but noticeable layer of static hovering over every clink of the keyboard and grunt in Phair’s vocal. These notes repeat and escalate in intensity and volume, underscoring Phair’s eerily staid delivery as the verses unravel; the effect of this singular instrument and its use in the song’s arrangement creates a series of echoes, which further create a sonic representation of the solitude Phair sings of on the track. Quietude, as we know, terrorizes birds, for silence indicates a looming threat, and Phair’s construction of such an environment for the song’s blunt poetry is dead-on. “Canary” is also the first entry in what I affectionately refer to as the “domestic nightmare” trope that recurs on Guyville, the places where Phair expresses both her lack of interest in and fear of failing at conventional American homemaking (see/hear also: “Divorce Song”, “Gunshy”, and just about every track on 1998’s whitechocolatespaceegg).

But here’s where things get tricky: Phair is a meticulous lyricist, so careful and sage in her selection of words, rhymes, images, and entendre. She’s effortlessly researched and intellectually, culturally, and emotionally aware, almost to an uncanny degree. And yet, it is most often, if not always (there’s debate on this, it seems, as per Google), the male bird that sings, making Phair’s declaration that she “sings like a good canary” a bit confounding. I’m no ornithologist, and neither is Phair, but I reject the notion that this is an oversight or a mistake on Phair’s part; she’s too complete and fine a writer for that to be true. She certainly shifts between male and female perspectives from song to song on Guyville, whether in observation or in dialogue or in thought, but that wouldn’t fit the narrative logic of “Canary”. Is it simply a goof—and the album’s allowed a misstep here or there, nothing’s perfect in or on Guyville—or is Phair merely taking artistic license?

And here is what that misunderstood lyric comes back into play. “Send it up on fire / Death before dawn” evokes the sense of a victim acting out, an imploding that is taking place either within her or will literally result in physical destruction as a way out. But, and it took about 15 years for her to do so, Phair herself recently corrected the lyric on long-running fan site Mesmerizing:

“I’d like to just state for the record that the correct lyric on the chorus of ‘Canary’ is ‘deaf before dumb’, not ‘death before dawn’. The latter sounds like the title of a cold war teen flick starring Tom Cruise. And the meaning is: speak truth to power.”

So, while there is in fact a call for escape, and “Canary” is indeed a quiet rallying cry against the very oppressions the song sketches for us, Phair isn’t quite suggesting the violent uprising this misheard lyrics call to mind. And perhaps in naming herself a canary the gender mix-up is not a mix-up at all, but rather a promise that she will display strength instead of cowering in weakness. The notion that she “sing[s] like a good canary”, and all of the other moments in the song that make it seem as if she’s been cornered into achieving what’s expected and demanded of her, may not be a lament at all but rather a promise that she’s picked up the cues, she’s observed from the confines of her cage, found a voice and is intent on using it.

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