The Liz Phair Conundrum What Do You Call A Sell-Out Without Sales?
Published Sep 01, 2003"It's nice to be liked, but it's better by far to get paid." So sang Liz Phair on 1998's "Shitloads of Money," but with her eponymous new album, the indie darling has achieved neither fame nor fortune. The Illinois native has never shied away from controversy, but no previous flare-up can match the ferocity of the shitstorm surrounding Liz Phair, the release of which has reignited debates about gender and profit motives in pop music.
Since hitting the streets in June, Liz Phair has suffered a critical thrashing, earning 2003's lowest aggregate score on MetaCritic.com. That pop-wary journalists don't like the singer's fourth album was predictable, for it is, by Phair's own admission, a bald-faced attempt at commercial success. The trouble is, Liz Phair barely cracked Billboard's Top 50 during its first week on the charts and subsequently drifted off the sales radar, seemingly for good.
Ever since she emerged from Chicago's suburbs with 1993's Exile in Guyville, Phair has been hailed as an indie goddess whose candid sexuality provided a rejoinder to frail, Lilith-approved singer-songwriters. With its frank adult themes and fractured lo-fi sensibility, Exile was adored by indie snobs, an ironic development given Phair's stated intention to deliver a "fuck you" to her then-contemporaries in Chicago's rock community.
The singer's two subsequent albums reinforced her hatred of scenesterism, but Phair's attempts to commercialize her sound rankled her core audience without winning converts in the mainstream. Featuring four songs co-written by the Matrix (the hitmakers behind Avril Lavigne), Liz Phair is replete with insistent hooks and sparkling digital effects, making for a glossy contrast to her lo-fi reputation.
One of the most controversial aspects of the album is the manipulation of Phair's voice, which has been meticulously pitch-adjusted and echo-effected. While these techniques compensate for Phair's vocal shortcomings, they also spay her distinctive nasality in the Matrix's hands, Phair has been reduced to a pop cipher, one whose occasional bursts of aggression are compromised by her sanitised delivery.
For all its shortcomings, Liz Phair is a resolutely inoffensive record, a fact that makes its harsh critical reception quite puzzling. The online indie bible, PitchforkMedia.com, gave the LP an absurd 0.0 rating, calling the album "so ultimately unnecessary, it might as well not even exist."
While the backlash from Phair's former indie supporters is predictable, the wider critical response suggests a community uncomfortable with 36-year-old mothers singing about sex with college boys. Witness this ageist critique from the New York Times' Meghan O'Rourke, who opined that "the album has some of the same weird self-oblivion of a middle-aged man in a midlife crisis and a new Corvette." More troubling was GQ's dismissive conclusion that Phair is "being marketed like Tampax or Maybelline."
Even the critics who liked the album couldn't help but get some shots in at Phair's overt sexuality. See, for example, the Village Voice's Robert Christgau, who wrote of her Matrix collaboration that "artists will sleep with anybody they think is good for a ride with Liz Phair, that goes double."
The sexist undertones of these criticisms are positively outrageous, offering reason to believe that journos might not be ready for a woman whose lyrics are both sexually liberated and aimed at the mainstream. Pre-packaged sexpots like Britney Spears are forgiven their commercial aspirations only because their lyrics paint them as lovelorn and submissive young women. The reception given Phair's album suggests that, unlike her male counterparts, she can't have it both ways; as an indie icon, she could be as liberated as she pleased, but once she entered the commercial domain, the range of allowable female expression became severely narrowed. In the pop realm, women can be sexual only so long as they are subservient.
Unsurprisingly, the response to Liz Phair generated a sizeable meta-discussion, most vociferously led by the feminist writer Gina Arnold, who contended that the album precipitated "the greatest example of raging idiocy in rock criticism since the press decried Elvis Presley for wiggling his hips." Arnold also suggested that Phair's grasping at radio success was justified by the economic reality of life as a single mom. Maybe so, but Arnold's contention of rampant misogyny in the critical community is itself a reductive rhetorical ploy, just as easily dismissed as GQ's immature witticisms.
On her new album's first track, "Extraordinary," Phair vows that "I'll make you love me." Whether she was directing that statement to the press, her indie supporters or mainstream listeners, she has undoubtedly failed. But in producing one of the great pop duds of the year, she sure has given us plenty to talk about.