I discovered Liz Phair on WFNX Boston at age sixteen. I realized she was the extremely cool girl in the shimmery silver dress on the cover of Rolling Stone. Somehow, I saw snippets of the “Supernova” video (we didn’t have MTV at home), and Liz was just… cool. A song had never expressed the crushing desires I felt for boys, nor what I thought love and sex would be like once I was having it like a somewhat grown up instead of a highschooler, until I heard her songs.
Whip Smart led me quickly to Exile in Guyville, which I had read about in the music magazines I devoured avidly (of course I had heard of the “blowjob queen” thing) but hadn’t really listened to yet. There wasn’t much of a way to try music out in 1994. If it wasn’t on the radio, and you didn’t have access to college radio (I highly doubt I did in Chelmsford, Massachusetts), you could go someplace like Newbury Comics (twenty minutes north in Nashua, New Hampshire) and see if it was on the listening station. I mean, IF you were at least sixteen and a half and had your driver’s license, or had a friend with one. I relied on WFNX and music magazines for the most part.
I introduced girlfriends to Liz and found in them converts and fellow obsessives. So much of my teen and young adult experience is tied into her music, especially Exile in Guyville. I listened to it as I fell asleep for years – until I was twenty five or twenty six. My Sony Discman had a function that allowed me to select just the mellow tracks. My sleep playlist was:
“Dance of the Seven Veils”
“Explain It to Me”
I remember getting really stoned at Martha’s Vineyard with the guys that introduced me to the Wu Tang (chefs from New York who had Nubian artwork in their house in Oak Bluffs) and listening to “Strange Loop” in the beach house I’d rented with eleven other girlfriends. I heard all kinds of extra sounds and galloping horses in my head phones. It was magical. I even wrote about it in my diary. (I’d like to never be seventeen again, ever, by the way, even if I’m reincarnated.)
Liz, I thought, was the kind of woman I was going to be. So, as much as I was puzzled by my sister’s decision to get married, I was puzzled by Whitechocolatespaceegg, which came out when I was twenty. I remember move out cleaning my first real apartment with my roommate and listening to the album with puzzlement. Liz had definitely changed; she’d gotten married and had a child, and the tone of the songs was different. But of course, I don’t know what made her write anything she did, it’s just that suddenly her music wasn’t me any more, most of it at least. My sister, who was engaged at the time, explained to me that Liz had just grown up. As if it was going to happen to me too.
Bootleg cassettes kept me alive in the four years between Whip Smart and Whitechocolatespaceegg, and it was an even longer wait before Liz Phair came out in 2003. In that time period, I’d graduated from college, moved to Brooklyn and then to Los Angeles, had a life-destructing abusive relationship (around the same time, I found the video for the unreleased track “Down”), left Los Angeles, and moved to Detroit to fulfill my dream of being a gritty rock scene groupie à la the rock bios of the CBGB’s scene I’d been reading. I was hopefully waiting for an album of “Exile” style music, like the “Down” song, to come out.
My closest friend from high school sent me a burned CD of Liz Phair in 2003. Again, I was confused, because to my mind the best songs on the album were the ones that were hidden tracks I had to download online like “Jeremy Engle”. I wouldn’t have admitted to anyone at the time that I was listening to this album – I was knee deep in the Detroit garage rock scene and trying to climb as far in as I could get. Some of the lyrics on Liz Phair were embarrassing, but, they were embarrassing in a familiar way. And I loved “Extraordinary” in spite of myself, as well as many of the lyrics in “Rock Me”, though I was too young to understand dating younger men. I saw Liz live twice on this tour, once in Boston with my high school friend, and once in Detroit by myself, wearing white Dr. Scholl’s, a vintage jean skirt and a heart printed tube top (sorry, that fashion nostalgia was for me). The moment I got to hear her play “Stratford on Guy” solo on stage was what I was there for, but I could tell it wasn’t really her anymore, and it sort of pained her to play it, and how badly people wanted to hear it. “You really want Stratford?” She asked, before she gave in.
Her story is this typical sad story of an artist changing and her fans just getting angry at her. And I was one of them – I felt abandoned by her music. I think what resonated with me the most about Liz’s lyrics and, I guess, her persona as I saw it, is I felt that tug between a good, educated, upper middle class suburban girl, and the hyper-intelligent, pro-sex, dark minded creative, kind of bad girl. It was a struggle I keenly felt myself. At times I thought I would eventually get married at a country club (or be like Madonna someday). I didn’t understand how dichotomous who I was supposed to be and the inside of me really were. I think the super stage-frighted Liz of the 90’s was someone people could relate to – her recordings were so amazing and her lyrics so astute, but she seemed scared up there. Maybe we could all see ourselves as secretly amazing, and just terrified to be so front of the world.
I completely ignored Liz’s next release and was only excited for Funstyle because of the one early track, “Oh Bangladesh” I’d heard which, again, sounded like her old stuff. I thought she had finally broken free from her major label purgatory and would be Liz again. Once Funstyle came out, the first song turned me off so much it was too painful to listen to the whole album. Why didn’t she just make an album of “Bangladeshes”?
Over the years I have missed Liz like a best friend I’m no longer in touch with. This is probably why I decided to listen to her last two releases again this week, Somebody’s Miracle and Funstyle. I’m not going to subject you to an album review, but, Somebody’s Miracle is a well-written, well-produced album. It just doesn’t sound like the Liz Phair that turned us all into her obsessed pretend BFFs back in the 90’s. And Funstyle actually has some really good tracks, and the rest of it (to me) sounds like someone goofing off who doesn’t really give a shit what people think. And maybe this is the big difference. The Liz we all loved so much was an unhappy young adult who did want to impress people. As dark and personal as the lyrics on “Exile” seemed, without making assumptions about what they really meant, we do know the album was a calculated response to Exile on Mainstreet. Who wouldn’t be scared to perform that? I read recently that “Canary”, for a long time, would make Liz cry. And, I’ve read more than once that “Guyville” was written from pain. Liz is happy now. And people hate that.
To be honest, a couple of the songs on Funstyle I haven’t listened to in entirety because they do grate on me a little bit – but they initially sound like statements of somebody who has been abused by press, record companies, and former fans for years – almost like an art project statement about it. Like, the shit was funny. It just served to remind me how fucking smart Liz is. And personally, I write joke rap songs so I can’t really get down on her for Funstyle.
It is not lost on me that I am now the age Liz was when I really felt abandoned by her, and that I’m in a relationship with someone eight years younger than I am (people gave Liz a fair amount of flack for that). The difference is, I never did the marriage kids thing, I never went back to the suburbs, and I never got divorced. I’ve been here the whole time.
I was reminded of an article I read when Liz Phair came out where Liz said she wanted women to not be embarrassed of their thoughts. I haven’t found it online, but I’m fairly sure it was in response to criticism of the song “Favorite”, which, truly, makes me cringe because I like people to think that I’m cool for the most part. It’s brave to be okay with singing about your underwear and comparing a boyfriend to them. I mean, no one else was doing it, that’s for sure. At any rate, it always stuck with me. “One thing I want is for women to not be ashamed of their thoughts.” (I’m quoting from memory.) That’s major. I was thirty five when I started my “personal” blog and was finally prepared to deal with what might happen if people knew what I really think. And I’ve been a bedroom guitar player/songwriter since I was fifteen. I.e. the only people who heard my songs were my close friend from high school (hopefully she never blackmails me with cassette tapes) and another friend I tried to start a band with.
I feel the restrictions put on women as I advance in age and career – that we maybe can’t be quite as honest as men, people really don’t like it when we don’t act the way we’re supposed to, and, when we get older, we’re much less valuable. Though I, obviously, do the same thing to other women. I was unhappy with Liz – I was the indie girl wanting her to stay lo fi. And then I got mad at her again when she got all weird and it wasn’t the weird I liked. I realize she’s doing exactly what she wants – not being ashamed of her thoughts. And then I read her defense of Lana Del Rey, which reminded me of maybe the most important thing to me about Liz Phair – she taught me how to be a feminist.
And, though I still struggle with it – all phases of Liz showed me that I could, in her words, “give myself a part to play”.
Liz is in her forties, raising a teenage son, working a day job, going to the Grand Canyon with friends (yes she actually posts things like this from her Twitter account), making weird albums and occasionally touring, being blond and using social media like other famous people. I mean, why can’t she be all of these things and still be the person that made Exile in Guyville? I love this quote from Liz’s Lana Del Rey piece: “Well, as a recording artist, I’ve been hated, I’ve been ridiculed, and, conversely, hailed as the second coming. All that matters in the end is that I’ve been heard.”
It kills me that lizphair.com is nothing but a landing page right now, that apparently Exile in Guyville was out of print at some point!!! (Personally I’ve had two compact discs and the double album on vinyl.) And that I was one of the assholes that caused this retreat… if in fact Liz has retreated slightly. So I’ll keep following her on Twitter, and honestly, listening to her voice – I promise this voice is just as important to me as it was in 1994. And for real, thank you Liz Phair.