"There are no second acts in American lives," F. Scott Fitzgerald said, but that's not really true. Most of us have second -- and third and fourth and, if we're really lucky, even fifth -- acts, which have the capacity to haunt or horrify us. Singer Liz Phair is no exception. Because she hired the producers responsible for hits by prefab pop stars like Avril Lavigne and Mariah Carey, her fourth LP, Liz Phair, has received possibly the worst reviews that any once-beloved indie rock act has ever garnered, ranging from The New York Times' accusation that she's "committing career suicide" to GQ's more passive gibe that she's "being marketed like Tampax or Maybelline."
These and other, ruder barbs (a perfect 0.0 review on Pitchfork Media, for example) have obscured the fact that Liz Phair is that rarest of items: a work of art about an adult woman's life. The last time we saw a girl get such a public pink belly, Ronald Reagan was in office, so it's well worth examining why the collected media of the world are bent on keeping her down.
If Liz Phair's new record really sucked, it'd be one thing. But this is more hypocritical than that -- the scarlet letter, circa now.
The criticism of Liz Phair, and not the album itself, sucks beyond measure, particularly in its exposure of 21st-century America as a place where you still can't be a smart, sexy woman whose main aim in life is to please yourself rather than please men -- at least not in public. (Please take note, Hillary Clinton.) It highlights the failure of rock criticism to move beyond the whole lo-fi/highbrow paradigm, whereby good music sounds bad, and vice versa. Understandably, critics don't like to feel manipulated, but all this hysteria begs an obvious question: If Liz Phair can still shock and appall people, in what way is she selling out?
Liz Phair has presented the world with a conundrum: a commercial record by an edgy artist. As such, it has created the greatest example of raging idiocy in rock criticism since the mainstream press decried Elvis Presley for wiggling his hips. Perhaps this was inevitable since, like Presley before her, Phair is a breaker of gender stereotypes -- from the outset she has written great, true songs about what assholes guys are, and how it feels to be female. Given the society we live in, it's not surprising that she wasn't embraced by the mainstream for doing so. Back in 1993, at the height of Phair's endlessly adored debut, Exile in Guyville, she was featured in the lowest newsstand-selling Rolling Stone issue ever. What's more depressing is that ten years later, things haven't progressed. Now, in addition to commercially stiffing, she's being vilified for existing, and not just by men who think her free-spiritedness is intimidating.
Of course, it's all being couched in other terms: Her enemies insist Liz Phair is "bad" -- particularly, it "sounds bad." This is a particularly insidious fallacy, since a re-creation of Exile's grungy lo-fi rock sound would have sounded ridiculous on the radio. Whether the record is "bad" is, of course, open to discussion, but in fact, few reviews focus on the music, concentrating instead on the so-called "reinvention" of Phair herself. The idea being bandied about is that Liz was once super-hip and cool and groovy, but now she's dull and boring and trying really hard to sound like Britney Spears.
This line of reasoning merely points out (among other things) the incredibly short memory of rock critics. Guyville is now universally acknowledged as one of the best LPs of the '90s, but when it first came out, the record -- or, more accurately, Phair herself -- was also excoriated by (mostly male) critics who found her persona (smart, blonde, sexy, self-aware) too threatening for their weak little brains to contemplate. Indeed, before the sheer force of her talent was reluctantly acknowledged by all and sundry, Guyville was slammed in Spin by a writer (one Peter Margusak) who was angry in real life at Phair for breaking up with his best friend.
At the time, Phair wrote a letter to Spin complaining about their biased choice of critics, thus cementing her reputation as a "difficult" blonde. That was ten years ago, but history repeats: Recently, the Times published a letter from her -- structured as an off-the-wall parable comparing whiny critics to Chicken Little -- protesting the paper's scathing "career suicide" review of Liz Phair. Phair doesn't really mind criticism of her new record; she takes umbrage at all the criticism leveled at her.
Too old to be sexy
"People forget what a shitstorm my first record created," she sighs, ringing in from the road on her current headlining tour. "It was totally the same thing: a bunch of people attacking me and not the music, saying I couldn't carry a tune or whatever. I have radar now about when it's too personal, and what really irked me about The New York Times [review] was just that it seemed so ill-informed. That girl [writer Meghan O'Rourke] had all these comments about my life, but she didn't have anything to say about the music. You know, if a critic says, 'I'm not into this record,' that's fair: you're a critic, you need an opinion. But that's not what that review said."
"Ms. Phair often sounds desperate or clueless," O'Rourke wrote. "The album has some of the same weird self-oblivion of a middle-aged man in a midlife crisis and a new Corvette."
"It was weird," Phair continues. "I actually wrote that [New York Times] letter to Meghan, not to the readers of the Times, because I wanted her to feel what it felt like to be criticized as a person, and not as a writer."
That feeling, alas, is something that Phair has had to get used to. Her strength in the face of so much misdirected ire has percolated into her musical decisions. Yes, Liz Phair is aimed at a more mainstream audience than previous LPs, but although she's dropped the indie rock sonics, she hasn't yet resorted to the phony, glitzy emotions that really make hits hit. Instead, each song tells a story about what it's like to be a 36-year-old divorced mom, and as such, its perspective is about far from the pop canon as Sandra Bernhard is from Jane Austen.
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