Rock and roll should be a little bit filthy; otherwise, why go to the bother? Traditionally, from Elvis’s hips to the “Hand Jive” and one-eyed cats peeping into seafood stores, there has always been room for the raunchy in rock’s bawdy corridors. Big Mama Thornton aside (in her original lyric, the hound dog in question was not crying all the time, but rather “snooping around her door,” and presumably not for table scraps) most innuendo has historically come from male musicians.
In 1993 this lyrical double-standard was effectively shattered by a new artist from Chicago named Liz Phair, and her ambitious album Exile in Guyville. A sprawling 18-track epic, which in the days of vinyl would have been a double album, but in the more forgiving ‘90s was simply called a CD, Guyville was conceived as a song-by song response to the Rolling Stones’ 1972 Exile on Main Street, and introduced Phair to an audience hungry for artists ready to say something novel.
Say something novel Phair did. The album struts in on platform heels with “6’1””, a stately rocker full of as much bravado and sexual electricity as Main Street’s suggestive opener, “Rocks Off.” “I bet you fall in bed too easily with the beautiful girls who are shyly brave, and you sell yourself as a man to save” she posits to an unknown subject, her voice insinuating that she’s already been there and done that.
Phair’s vocals and guitar-playing were notable for their simplicity and immediacy, as if the girl next door had picked up a guitar and set the contents of her secret diary to music. The artist herself, once her audience got a load of her in the flesh, seemed an intriguing contradiction. A diminutive liberal art-school grad with clean cut good looks, with shiny, sandy-blonde hair worn in a preppy flip, she wrote frankly sexual lyrics of a sort never sung before by a woman (and seldom by a man).
Although “Fuck and Run” (an amusingly dirty tale of being consistently loved and left) introduced a note of unusual sexual frankness, the album’s standout in terms of overt sexuality was “Flower.” Over a subterranean-sounding plucked guitar, Phair treated “Flower” like her personal Penthouse Forum, telling her partner exactly what she would like to do to him at their next encounter. In an angelic monotone, Phair stated “I want to fuck you like a dog; I’ll take you home and make you like it,” ending the song with the indelible statement “I’ll fuck you ‘til your dick is blue.” Little need for reading between the lines required here!
Like potshards uncovered during an archaeological dig, certain songs from Guyville, including this one, appeared half-formed, not fully-fledged rock songs but intriguing, X-rated fragments from deep in the artist’s unconscious. “Mesmerizing,” an especially Rolling Stones-esque number, included snippets of random studio conversation in the background, and faded out with the sound of a dog growling.
Who was this woman who wanted to be our blow job queen, and seemed to be challenging Mick Jagger in rock and roll one-upmanship? In live performances, Phair stood gamely behind a Telecaster seemingly almost as big as she was herself. The music press quickly made Phair an indie darling, with Rolling Stone featuring her on their cover in October of 1994 under the headline “A Star is Born.” No pressure there!
That same year, Phair released the highly-anticipated Whip Smart, a seemingly more mature and polished endeavor missing the intriguing murk and half-baked depths of Guyville. To uppity 25-year-olds with high standards, it may have constituted a let-down, but in hindsight, the album was full of spirited intelligence. “Your eyelashes sparkle like gilded grass, and your lips are sweet and slippery like a cherub’s bare, wet ass,” Phair flatters in “Supernova,” going on to tell her inamorato that he (or she? Quién sabe?) “fucks like a volcano.” Which I guess is a compliment.
Overall, the album lacked the lyrical sharpness of her first album (“It was the funnest time letting you go,” Phair sings insipidly on “Cinco De Mayo”, possibly inspiring Oberlin College to wonder if it was too to retract her diploma) but offered some enjoyment in the form of songs like “Go West,” a road-trip/coming-of-age anthem delivered with her trademark charming vocal flatness.
Several musically dreary, boy-band heavy years passed, until in 1998 Phair released Whitechocolatespaceegg. In the interim, she’d married and had a child. To this writer, at the time, motherhood seemed remote and, frankly, uninteresting. The late ‘90s found me reaching for spiritual development in some odd places. “Hmm, I bet this next Liz Phair album is going to be wimpy,” I thought as I tended the misfit flower garden I had planted in the strip of dirt between my apartment building and the one next door .
In some ways the album was wimpy, though not in the ways I had feared. There were no songs directly about her child (yawn) or how motherhood had changed her in ways she could not have imagined (snore) aside from the title track — “White Chocolate Space Egg” was the term Phair used to describe her son’s head at birth — which featured the kind of sappy lyrics I had been dreading (“Purple, yellow, reddish-brown, Once I felt you, I couldn’t lay you down, Don’t be shy, baby, don’t be careful with me”). Still, a suburban malaise hovered over the album, with songs about mowing the grass (“Big Tall Man”) and letting your husband go to a party alone without you (“Go On Ahead”) painting a dull picture.
Although the album received mostly good reviews, with critics praising Phair’s mature, impressionistic lyrics, something seemed decidedly off. The former preppy wild-child with Tourette’s Syndrome had morphed into a Midwest mommy, and it didn’t feel at all right. However, a September 1998 concert at the Mayan Theater in Los Angeles proved to be one of the most compelling live concerts this writer has ever seen, with Liz sounding at the top of her game, vital and fresh, swaying against the backdrop of carved gods and temples in a beautiful silk dress like a rock goddess.
Dear reader, have you ever had the experience of listening to a piece of music and beseeching the sky, “What the fuck did I just hear?” That, in a nutshell, sums up my experience of hearing Phair’s fourth studio album (nauseatingly entitled Liz Phair, as though it were a magnum opus intended to wipe away everything that came before it). From Track One, “Extraordinary,” it was plain that something was rotten in the state of Denmark. Phair’s voice had been produced to a fare-thee-well, resulting in an Auto-tuned, glossy pile of plastic garbage. The pretentiously named production team The Matrix, responsible for similar schlock by Avril Levigne and Hilary Duff, was at fault for this train wreck.
By the end of the third song on the album, “Why Can’t I?” this writer was apoplectic (and this listening session occurred behind the wheel of a car, so it was really not a good thing). What the hell was this mess?? Apparently written from the perspective of a Real Housewife of Beverly Hills getting ready to cheat on her sugar-daddy husband with some other douchebag, “Why Can’t I?” is both ribald (“We haven’t fucked yet, why is my head spinning?” and saccharine (“Isn't this the best part of breaking up/Finding someone else you can't get enough of/Someone who wants to be with you, too.”( Where were the quirky observations and wry anecdotes? In “Favorite,” Phair compares her lover to…a pair of old underwear. “Oh baby, know what you’re like? You're like my favorite underwear/It just feels right, you know it.” Grounds for an immediate break-up!!
But the worst was still to come on the album. In an apparent attempt to get back to her X-rated roots, and to cash in on Top 40 market shares at the same time, Phair brings us the nadir of her career, a pop song called “H.W.C.” (an abbreviation for “Hot White Cum”; (yes, really)), in which she asks her lover to help her reap the cosmetic benefits of getting an, ahem, facial. It was simultaneously smutty and inane, and, worst of all, mind-blowingly stupid.
Phair’s target audience remains anyone’s guess. She’s too pop for the indie fans, and too dirty for the mommy crowd; Maybe some future artist can pull off such a union of opposites, but this was not it; Phair’s attempt to bridge two dissimilar musical worlds resulted in a catastrophically misguided effort. Her later albums ring out like a false chord, a resoundingly maladroit attempt to become something she was not (or worse yet, to step into what she was all along, which left us feeling foolish and deceived). What had become of the authentic, organically controversial artist with something to say about the sex lives of women?
This year marks the 25th anniversary of Exile in Guyville, the realization of which makes one feel incredibly old, and nostalgic for the strange magic that was the ‘90s. Phair has released a box set commemorating the occasion, featuring remastered versions of the album tracks, as well as sundry other tunes from her early career. I have not run out to purchase it (maybe if the library gets a copy, I will give it a whirl). More promisingly, Phair has confirmed that she is currently in the recording studio making an album with Ryan Adams (another ‘90s indie darling), which could be just enough of a departure to reignite her career (please, God, no references to worn-out underwear or HWC!) Although Ryan Adams is not my cup of tea musically, he is respected by musicians whom I respect, and he appears to be operating from a solid base of integrity and craftsmanship. I will definitely give the album an open-minded listen, and Godspeed. But when I feel these days like listening to some Liz Phair music, I usually put on an album by 20-year-old Sophie Allison from Nashville, better known as Soccer Mommy. She’s the real deal that Liz Phair is no longer.