Liz Phair

Liz Phair Knew Pop Was a Cultural Construct Before You Did

Liz Phair turned away from indie rock and toward teen-influenced pop-rock 20 years ago on her self-titled album. Critics were harsh, but the LP now seems prescient.

Liz Phair
Liz Phair
24 June 2003

This June, two studio albums by Liz Phair celebrated significant anniversaries. The first, her debut LP, Exile in Guyville, which was immensely influential on the indie rock scene of the 1990s, turned 30. Her lo-fi growl undoubtedly gave way to female anger with lighter images found in the work of Alanis Morissette or Sheryl Crow and is still heard now in the likes of Billie Eilish or Olivia Rodrigo. Today, the album is still ranked among the decade’s best records. Ten years and two days after Guyville, Phair released her self-titled fourth album, which was less favorably received, to say the least.

By the time the singer released Liz Phair in 2003, Capitol Records had acquired the independent label Matador, which had released all of the singer’s previous work. As a result, her previous LP Whitechocolatespacegg saw the mark of both labels. However, Liz Phair was released solely by Capitol, marking her transition into a territory most rock purists would still refer to as career suicide: Top 40. Indeed, with the success of the lead single “Why Can’t I?”, beloved for its use in the romantic comedy film 13 Going on 30 the following year, Phair found herself less in the “women in rock” lane and more so in that of Avril Lavigne or Hilary Duff. Or, as the loudest male critics of the time put it, pop rock for teens.

While Liz Phair’s sound may have departed pointedly from the indie rock of her earlier work, it was far from giving up and doing whatever would sell best at that moment. The staff she’d had at Matador no longer worked for Capitol by that time, so Phair described herself as being surrounded by manufactured pop acts. By her account, Capitol’s CEO Andy Slater told her, “I’m giving you a shot, and if you don’t take the shot, there’s nothing much I can do for you.”

“I hate when I’m at the caboose, and everyone’s driving my career at this way and that. I’m just whipping around at the back,” Phair said in 2021. “So, I stepped into more of [a mindset like], ‘Let’s grow.'” She saw the push to go more mainstream as a challenge than anything else, especially since Phair was the only artist that Capitol kept on their roster when Matador officially folded. “I felt a pressure in the early aughts. I’m watching these huge, multi-person pop manufactured bands ascending, and I don’t have my indie-cool group to tell me how to do this or where to go, what to do.”

It’s an important distinction to make, though: when it came time to commit to the pop rock record her label wanted, Phair was the one who sought out the hitmakers. She had recorded an album with Michael Penn at Capitol’s behest, but she found it didn’t really sound like her. “I just needed more room to be myself and the way I bought that for myself was by doing the pop songs,” she said. “My experience with the Liz Phair record was actually challenging but good. I grew a lot as a performer.”

At the time, Phair prioritized the concept of growth when speaking about the album. She described her time working with the Matrix, who produced four tracks on the album, as “just as rewarding” as when she writes songs solo, in an interview with the now-defunct magazine Women Who Rock in 2003. “It allowed me to vocalize feelings in a grandiose formula that thrilled me. It’s very exciting for me.” It certainly paid off in terms of chart performance, as “Why Can’t I?” became Phair’s first and only single to make the Top 40 in the United States. Both singles released from Liz Phair, including “Extraordinary”, saw success on adult contemporary radio.

But 20 years ago, rock critics did not take kindly to Phair’s descent into what they perceived as the land of teenyboppers. Indeed, a New York Times headline infamously referred to Liz Phair as “Exile in Avril-ville” and declared it “an embarrassing form of career suicide”. The Guardian dismissed it as a “grotesque exercise in self-parody”. But the most malicious review would come in the form of a 0.0 rating from Pitchfork, who claimed that Phair had reduced herself to “cheap publicity stunts and hyper-commercialized pop”.

These snobbish, misogynistic reviews should come as no surprise in our current era, especially when looking back upon an era in music, the early aughts, that was acutely unkind to women who dared to try something new. Had Phair recorded and released Liz Phair in 2023, she would have been mostly lauded for her attempt at broadening her musical horizons, even if it was ultimately a mainstream recording contract pushing her to do so.

But what so much of the existing literature surrounding Liz Phair leaves out is that the singer managed to put her own twist on an existing formula. You should probably know that while you’re singing along to “Why Can’t I?” as Jenna and Matty dance in 13 Going on 30, the supposedly hyper-commercialized teen pop song contains the lyrics, “Here we go, we’re at the beginning / We haven’t fucked yet, but my head’s spinning.” I, too, only recently discovered those were the actual lyrics.

What critics in 2003 failed to credit Phair for was her skill at shifting gears and being herself no matter what genre she was tackling, something that would have been given much more notice today. Take what should have been the album’s most controversial track if people hadn’t been too busy writing it off: “H.W.C.”, an acronym for “hot white cum”.

Record executives tried to get her to change it to mean “hot white love”, so she left it out of the track listing before reversing course. She decided that she was never worried about hurting men’s feelings or offending their masculinity in the past, so she decided to throw caution to the wind and include “H.W.C.” on Liz Phair. “If I can’t be wild, if I can’t put a song like that on my record, then I’m kind of blowing my own aims for what art is supposed to be, which is a place to be free,” she said in 2003.

The singer noted how personally many critics took her shift in genres on Liz Phair. “It’s like [I was] a politician who campaigned with Guyville, but now I’ve changed my platform,” she told the Austin-American Statesman at the time. Some have since changed their minds about the record, with Matt LeMay famously apologizing for and changing his Pitchfork review in 2019. “The idea that ‘indie rock’ and ‘radio pop’ are both cultural constructs? Languages to play with? Masks for an artist to try on? Yeah. I certainly did not get that. [Liz Phair] DID get that — way before many of us did,” he wrote on Twitter.

The criticism of the album at the time unfortunately was not limited to men and their feelings, however. Meghan O’Rourke, who wrote the New York Times piece that panned the album, also attempted to shame Phair for continuing to display her sexuality when she was 36 and a newly divorced single mother. The singer did not take kindly to that: while she saw the 0.0 Pitchfork review as a badge of honor, Phair believed O’Rourke’s commentary crossed the line. “She was literally trying to shame me to not be sexual as a mother and to make me feel sorry for trying to reach a broader audience,” she explained.

The Liz Phair album should be remembered for much more than just a display of Phair trying on a different hat for size. As LeMay noted in his apology for his negative review, the singer was at least a decade ahead of pop culture in coming to terms with the fact that set genres and labels for artists at large are merely cultural constructs and female musicians’ attempts at playing around with them for effect have since generated praise. Lana Del Rey and Marina Diamandis, among others, enjoyed a great deal of acclaim for this very concept in the 2010s.

“Maybe it was too ahead of its time for certain people,” famously said Christina Aguilera in regard to her album Bionic. The same can be said for Liz Phair. Perhaps her attempt at broadcasting her freedom as a woman, artist, and mother offended critics 20 years ago. “Now hipsters listen to Carly Rae Jepsen, and no one thinks about it. But Liz Phair was pretty ahead of that curve,” Travis Morrison told Slate in 2018. Just as it suddenly became cool for pop culture to hate Anne Hathaway when she heavily campaigned for the Oscar she would end up winning, it was easy to look down upon Liz Phair in 2003 for the same reasons.

But even then, she knew she was ahead of her time and held all the power. When told by The A.V. Club in 2003 that it was unusual for an artist to openly admit that she was changing course in search of a wider fanbase and more radio play, she said, “It makes my life less complicated if I just kind of straightforwardly say what I’m doing. You watch a lot of people sort of posing, and I just say what I’m doing.”