As one of the last intelligent, high-profile women rockers from the early '90s who is still standing and making good music, Liz Phair shoulders too much of the cultural burden she once shared with shooting-stars-turned-burnouts like Courtney Love and brilliant, unreachable ciphers like PJ Harvey. Phair's scarlet flower remains embroidered on her baby T-shirt -- for all but her most recent converts, she will always embody sex-positive feminism, rebellion against indie-rock patriarchy, and the secret, unspoken, nasty imaginings of girls who go to Oberlin. But Phair shouldn't be put in a spotlight this bright, although one must credit her for reinventing herself in a fashion that guarantees press and controversy as well as a little more money. Her slick new album and subsequent bid for real, Top of the Pops stardom is nothing to get upset about because A) she's not quite as talented as she appears and B) she was gonna do it anyway. She helped sing Christmas carols for a Gap commercial a couple of years ago. How could anyone not see this coming?
From the beginning, Phair has had to deal with unusual doses of hype, pressure, and expectations. Her debut was immediately misunderstood because it had 18 songs and shared the same first word in its title as the greatest album of all time. The party line on 1993's Exile in Guyville is that it blew the hinges off the door of female sexuality in popular music. It was a long-overdue response to the overt cocksmanship of Mick Jagger & Co. because, apparently, women who sang about sex were mute and invisible until the Clinton presidency.
Aside from the fact that Guyville's whole concept-album angle is a total sham, any dip into rock-and-roll history will reveal that Phair is not the first female rocker to want some cock. The list of lusty, upfront women in rock does not begin with her. It goes from Chrissie Hynde to Deborah Harry and Poly Styrene to those crazy Swedish chicks in Liliput, all the way back to Dinah Washington in the '50s begging for "that big old long sliding thing." These ladies were leading sexual lives on record for everyone to hear; Hynde even sang a song about rockin' into motherhood, a dilemma that Phair has taken on as well.
It is true that Phair put her words and music before her body in the notoriously white male Amerindie subculture. Or she tried to. But heard today, all of Guyville's references to blow-job queens, cunts in springtime, and "I'll fuck you 'til your dick is blue" are more calculating than sexy, and even in her de facto set-closer "Fuck and Run," the naughty words themselves seem to exist outside what each song is saying, put there by Phair's then-flat, muttering retreat of a voice. Every single obscenity or innuendo in her songs since then sounds forced and a little desperate, as if she's trying to impress the boys first with her pottymouth because they won't pay attention to her poetry.
I'm not bashing Phair for being sensitive or ambitious. I'll leave that to the other critics and fans who continue to pigeonhole and objectify her as some platonic ideal of Smart Sexual Discourse. As music critic Christina Schmitt wrote in a review of Liz Phair, "[G]rowing up could still bring inspired revelations to her music. Such epiphanies don't have to come through fucking -- but hey, there's no reason to stop doing it now." Except for the fact that Phair is much more suited to wider-ranging singer-songwriting than she is to spouting off songs about the moisturizing power of semen like a West Coast hipster version of Kim Cattrall.
Phair's lyrical reach has been apparent and regularly ignored throughout her career. But it's one aspect of her persona I keep returning to. One of my favorite songs on Guyville is about little more than flying into Chicago late at night. And I love the rogues' gallery of disaffected men, women, and relatives on 1998's Whitechocolatespaceegg; she reaches some kind of peak as a character artist on that record's "Only Son," a first-person sketch about a young male runaway. She also writes pretty well about her own identity. There is a high percentage of songs on Phair's first three albums that are choppy, diaphanous sound fragments from a hypersensitive consciousness obsessed with escape, dislocation, abandonment, and being something else. The most memorable moments of her songwriting career take the form of two pleas from two albums spaced five years apart: "I wanna be mesmerizing, too," and "I wanna be cool, tall, vulnerable and luscious/I could have it all if I only had this much."
This obsession with role-playing might almost put her in a class with Emily Dickinson, another strong, smart poet whose personality is further clarified with every new attempt to wriggle out of her skin. Of course, that obscures the fact that Dickinson was a brilliant poet while Phair can and does write some of the most embarrassing lyrics I've ever heard. I still wince whenever I recall lines like, "You need not heed the neighbors now" or "And I asked Henry, my bartending friend/If I should bother dating unfamous men." On Liz Phair, she tops herself with "Favorite," an old-panties-as-former-lover metaphor that makes no literal or metaphorical sense when it's not annoying the piss out of me. But she makes even these gaffes work because she has a true, genuine talent that has taken a long time to be discovered: She can really embrace a melody.
This eponymous new LP is her most straightforward offering yet. Her voice is huge and confident, and the guitars are cranked up until they're almost hard. She sounds like Madonna on the opening track and actually sings "Rock me all night long," which is one of those public-domain rock tropes that almost always sounds silly; here it sounds nearly perfect. When she's not living off borrowed or handmade melodic and vocal ideas from The Matrix and Michael Penn, she writes her best lyric ever about how her life as a single mom intersects with her life as a single woman. Part of me thinks this album is her best because it's straight with itself. Its tunes cannot be missed. It sounds like it should be played everywhere for everybody. I like it for the same reason I like Whitechocolatespaceegg and other moments from her fairly significant career: The songs stay in my head after I play them, and they offer just enough surprises to keep me on my toes. I hope her fans don't miss out on her, because she's still got lots of personas left. I also hope she finds one that makes her shitloads of money someday.