Liz Phair is a staunch woman. And she's no stranger to controversy: Her seminal album Exile in Guyville was heralded as both groundbreaking and depraved. And ever since she began recording the Girly Sound tapes in 1991, Phair has played with using the female voice as a subversive tool. "Would you hear it," she recalls of her early work, "if I say these awful things in this really sweet and innocent way?" In some of these early tracks she even turned the pitch up on her vocals, to sweeten her trademark deadpan intonation. Phair, whether she meant to or not, was a beacon of self-aware insecurity and sexual independence to an entire generation of women. But how is it possible to maintain your edge in the music industry when punk rock isn't even punk rock anymore?
In a recent conversation with the Scene, Phair paints a disarmingly frank portrait of her love-hate relationship with the world of music. It started, perhaps not surprisingly, with The Rolling Stones. Intensely masculine, the Stones represent raw male sexuality in a full-on, intoxicating way; Phair's music has always been about giving a female voice to that same primal sexual power, to the extent that she declared Exile in Guyville was a song-by-song response to the Stones' Exile on Main Street.
When The New York Times approached Phair to write the review of Keith Richards' autobiography Life, released in October, she was ecstatic: "I said 'yes,' but like with 15 exclamation points behind that yes," she says. In her review, Phair writes that the book "should awaken (if you have a pulse and an IQ north of 100) a little bit of the rock star in you." But the connection between Phair and Richards goes deeper than just music. If, as Phair posits, music is at the core of Life, "as it is at the core of Keith," then booze and drugs are angrily stirring its surface. Phair, too, has been open about her use and abuse of drugs during her younger years, and her inability to re-create Exile in Guyville, which she calls "stoner-driven rock."
"For years when people asked me, 'Why can't you do Guyville again?' I would say, because I can't go back into that miserable existence. Why do you want me to be a liar and unhappy? Acting out and deceiving people and doing really hurtful things, and being hurt in return? I don't ask that you like what I'm making, but why can't you let me go?"
Phair says she needed to distance herself from the hard-partying lifestyle in order to restore her sense of well-being, throwing out old ideas about creativity, pain and fitting into the rock 'n' roll mentality.
"If you don't live sober enough to be in enough pain, you can just mask everything, and you'll never actually achieve happiness," she says. "You never learn how to deal."
For her part, Phair has used music to deal.
"I was so angry," she says. "How can I feel and think the way I do on the inside, and yet be expected by everyone everywhere to manifest a lie? I don't know how to get rid of these things that I think just comfort men and subjugate women. Every girl who was a kid knows that all we talk about is boys and sex. We all pruned ourselves and changed to be popular and successful in such a way that truncated our true beings."
Phair's need for honesty is so deep-rooted that she has turned her career upside-down several times, reinventing herself not for commercial recognition alone, but because that's who she really is. Deep down, Liz Phair is not as cool as we think she is. She is much more interesting than that.
This recalcitrant attitude has persisted throughout Phair's career, throughout even her "selling-out" period, when she partnered with the Matrix (of Avril Lavigne and Katy Perry fame) to create some pretty vanilla Top-40-style flops. But the voice she used in her earlier records is ever-present — the obstinate fuck-you-if-you-don't-get-it mentality.
Her direct-to-Internet album Funstyle is a mix of well-written pop songs — "Oh, Bangladesh" and "And He Slayed Me" are standouts — and rants against the recording industry: "Smoke," the Internet-infamous rap track "Bollywood," and "U Hate It," which includes at least one line that made this writer laugh and cringe at the same time.
"If they're dismissing it because it's not an 'important' work that is going to change anything, well, I did call it Funstyle," she says with a laugh. "Not everything you do has to have the same implication, or even the same impact." You can almost hear her shake her head as she says, "I think people are still waiting for me to somehow save the world."
The same critics who praised Phair for the defiant attitude of her early work are scratching their heads at her continued defiance, as if surprised that the songwriter's cardinal trait has remained intact. They've either underestimated Liz Phair's strength of character or overestimated their own ability to appreciate a ballsy girl.
"My aim has always been to be heard, and to log on as a female living my life, with all its ups and downs, because I'm appalled that for so many centuries we're just invisible. We don't have to get it right, we don't have to be perfect, we don't have to live up to anyone's expectations, we just have to be there."