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Sellout. Fake. Phony. Career killer. Catastrophe.
Those are some of the words used recently to describe Liz Phair, the artist, and Liz Phair, the June-released album from Capitol Records. In the annals of the New York Times, Timemagazine and Pitchfork Media, among many others, it's been decided that the once-vital Phair has become an embarrassment to herself and to the fans who used to revere her as a free-spirited and foul-mouthed champion of indie-rock ethos.
How does she answer the charges?
"Really, the longer it goes on, the harder it is for me to figure out exactly what people are so upset about," Phair says over the phone from Los Angeles, sounding a little weary of the whole damn thing. "It's kind of like they involve me in some kind of political scenario. It's like, 'Oh, no! She changed her platform! This isn't what she campaigned on!' Which is good, because it means that they were really attached to the earlier work. But, ultimately, I just made one record here, and I've made others, and I'll make others. This is one aspect of my personality that maybe they haven't seen before, but that doesn't mean it wasn't there."
Phair may have a hard time understanding why her new album has come as a jolt to the critical army and her longstanding fans, but the reasons are actually quite comprehendible to anyone who's followed her career over the past decade. A common thread runs through most of the indictments: In 1993, at age 26, Phair released Exile in Guyville, an important record that mated an abundant sexuality with intelligence and good, old-fashioned hooks -- and that ultimately helped to change perceptions about the fairer sex's ability to write a song and then crank it on a guitar. Today, however, she's released an unabashedly commercial effort that recasts her as a shadow of her formerly fierce self.
Phair didn't just provide plenty of ammo for this argument; she practically loaded the cannon herself. Newly backed by Capitol Records after a five-year hiatus and a three-album run with Matador, Phair announced -- without the slightest glimmer of apology, embarrassment or irony -- that she wanted to become a staple of commercial pop radio and, along the way, to sell a million copies of Liz Phair. It was a particularly bold, possibly harebrained, statement. Exile in Guyville sold roughly half that; the two releases that followed, 1994's Whip-Smart and 1998's whitechocolatespaceegg, each sold progressively less. Radio was never particularly kind to her, either, and the medium has only gotten more unfriendly since she left the ring. The niche she helped carve for smart, song-driven female rockers had been almost entirely bricked up by the likes of Christina Aguilera, Avril Lavigne and Pink, artists with whom she has very little in common.
Or with whom she used to have very little in common. Once a staunchly autonomous songwriter, Phair enlisted the help of not just one collaborator, but a team of songwriter/ producers for the new album; worse, that team was the Matrix, the hit-making force behind pop starlets such as Lavigne and Aguilera. The resultant lead single, "Why Can't I?" boasts ooh-ooh-baby choruses, a thick production gloss and a video, replete with seizure-inducing strobe-style edits, skin aplenty, and the slightly unnerving sight of Phair writhing around on the floor like a horny toddler.
Phair called it a comeback. But practically everyone else was soon calling it the last stand of a woman on the brink of total career oblivion. Who was this wannabe pop tart, and what had she done with our once-and-future indie goddess? The way Phair sees it, her only crime was revealing a part of herself that was there all along.
"I'm actually happy to thumb my nose at those people -- to say, 'Yeah, I feel completely comfortable with the idea that I can enjoy something that's totally off-the-wall obscure, but I can also get really into cranking up Shakira on the radio,'" she says. "That's my territory, too.
"I've always had this extreme irritation with indieville. That's what I wrote Guyville about," she continues. "It was these people who were so rigid: You could like this and you couldn't like that. And I could never really participate in it, because then I would have to admit that I liked listening to the Police."
Liz Phair does not represent Phair's first foray into pop territory. Even Exile in Guyville had its commercial strivings, however modest; the uncharacteristically radio-friendly (and expletive-free) "Never Said" served as the album's most-pushed single. Whip-Smart had some overt pop ambitions, as well: The single "Supernova" was maddeningly catchy, about as deep as a slop bucket, and a thoroughly fun listen. The problem with Liz Phair isn't so much that Phair's making a bid for the mainstream; it's that she hasn't done so particularly well. The singles "Extraordinary" and "Why Can't I?" sound desperate, and they're irritating where they should be confident and hooky. Stylistically, the recording has the consistency of a gravel milkshake, and it spends too much time being oversexed and silly ("Rock Me," a paean to younger men and Xboxes), and sometimes just plain base. "H.W.C.," for example, celebrates the curative powers of spunk: "It's the fountain of youth/It's the meaning of life/Baby, you're the best magazine advice."