The Horror and the Humor in Liz Phair’s ‘Horror Stories’

In her music industry memoir, Horror Stories, Liz Phair has a knack for imbuing the ordinary with a weighty and relatable significance.

Horror Stories
Liz Phair
Random House
October 2019

“I’m only twenty-six years old and I’ve known three friends who killed themselves, a dozen girls with eating disorders, seven guys who went to rehab, and more people that I can count who’ve been sexually assaulted and never talk about it. I want to hear the truth.” (Liz Phair – Horror Stories, p. 115)

In 1993, 26-year -old Liz Phair released
Exile in Guyville, a starkly frank and spectacularly self-assured album that eventually went gold, becoming Matador Records’ most successful release to that point. It ended the year at #1 on both the Village Voice Pazz and Jop and Spin Magazine year-end critics polls, an instantly canonized debut from a sexually brazen, emotionally candid artist with a disarming blend of songwriting depth and lyrical forthrightness.

Twenty-six years later, Phair is still confidently pulling back the curtain, but this time with her memoir
Horror Stories, a poignant collection of 17 non-linear essays of everyday “horrors”. It opens with a malignantly banal run-in with the bystander effect in the form of a passed-out, possibly alcohol-poisoned, and definitely pants-shitting woman lying unconscious on a club’s crowded bathroom floor. It closes with musings on aging and death.

In between, Phair touches on infidelity, childbirth, sexual harassment, sexual assault, deeply ingrained childhood phobias, and an epic tale pitting woman against nature. So rich is her description that feature-length film could chronicle the drama of Phair’s struggle to make it back to her hotel after an NYC show during the blizzard of 2010.

Phair’s focus on the horrors of daily living most damningly highlights the ordinariness of the harm we do to one another. It emphasizes the lasting impressions made by the episodes that stalk our subconscious, sneaking up on us during our most vulnerable moments.

Phair counts a couple of relationships among her 17 horror stories, revealing how her infidelity ended her marriage during a chapter on her affair with her manager. In another chapter, she describes the traumatic ending of a relationship upon discovering that her boyfriend had impregnated his ex-girlfriend, and she had just given birth to his child.

Phair spends surprisingly little time orienting the reader to her life as a musician, with some exceptions. One such exception is the chapter on her aforementioned journey from Music Hall of Williamsburg to her Manhattan hotel room during the blizzard of 2010. She recounts another NYC experience — a cancelled show during a city-wide (and beyond) power outage in 2003.

These two episodes are among the few in which Phair mentions what she does for a living. In addition to the two compromised NYC performances, she also describes a disastrous NBC live performance in which she lost her place singing along to a backing track of “Winter Wonderland” during the 2003 Tree Lighting Ceremony at Rockefeller Center. She was fighting a fever and had trashed her voice at a prior show (a smoke-filled night in Paris). She was further distracted from the after-feelings of a bikini wax. To make matters worse, “Shirley Temple ringlets” were forced on her follicles in the Green Room.

In another chapter, she details a major photoshoot for a feature that “will run in a hip New York teen magazine”; one of these images will eventually grace the cover of the 1990s volume of Getty Images Decades of the Twentieth Century series.

“I feel uninhibited and free. But this journey has a destination, and the photographer has a road map for how to get us there. Each subsequent setup is more intense than the last, until we reach the boundary of my comfort zone. She wants me to make a bold statement about the subjugation of female power, to inhabit a role that makes me truly vulnerable. She wants me to embrace bondage.” (Horror Stories, pp. 38-39)

She focuses one of the essays, “Hold This For Me”, on dealing with fame, based on an experience on a flight in which she runs into a high school acquaintance while flying first class. The man wants to reconnect with her — and asks her to carry his prosthetic leg to his connecting flight. In a chapter on childbirth, she touches on fame’s intrusiveness. She describes how she couldn’t give birth without her anesthesiologist repeatedly professing his admiration for her musicianship, asking questions about her gear, and requesting an autograph while she was actively in labor.

Horror Stories is only tangentially about Phair’s identity as a musician. Much of the memoir recounts the experiences of Liz Phair the person, instead: the child, the student, the intern, the friend, the wife, the mother, the alumni, the tourist, the adulterer. Liz Phair the musician does, however, provide an indispensable glimpse at just how commonplace sexual harassment in the industry truly is. In the book’s most essential chapter on sexual harassment and assault, “Hashtag”, she recounts an endless litany of her experiences with sexual harassment and assault, as a young woman and musician, while navigating an industry structurally inclined toward embracing its misogyny and absorbing its predators.

Indeed, Phair’s countless examples of casual harassment and assault are indicative of yet another male-dominated industry structured to protect abusers. The music industry is an ecosystem in which power is concentrated in relatively few hands, and its most ordinary transactions require late nights in alcohol-fueled environments. Opportunities for women require successfully navigating this hazardous environment.

Ryan Adams, the producer of Phair’s scrapped 2017 album, went unnamed in
Horror Stories as she described learning of the many allegations against him. In addition to sharing her experiences with the disgraced Adams, “Hashtag”, serves to spotlight the ordinariness and pervasive mundanity of the #MeToo problem across the culture at large but especially in the music industry.

Horror Stories is positioned as the dark “yin” to forthcoming follow-up Fairy Tales‘ glistening rock star “yang”. But like Phair’s debut album, Exile in Guyville, which was patterned after The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St., the format’s conceit is but a charming asterisk. What she ultimately ends up hanging the work on is simply her own way with words, and her prose is just as stirring as her lyrics. Phair has a knack for imbuing the ordinary with a weighty and relatable significance, and as reluctant as she might have been to shine a light on these experiences, her disclosures humanize her as an artist and add a vital voice to an ongoing cultural reckoning.

“It’s like Camus says in
The Plague,…you can either do nothing or continue to push to do the best you can. And the best you can do is just do the decent thing. There’s no payoff. The good people of the world are those who, in spite of there being no payoff, do the decent thing anyway.” (Horror Stories, p. 120)

RATING 7 / 10