Liz Phair: Liz Phair

NZ Listener

LIZ PHAIR, Liz Phair (Capitol)

"It’s nice to be liked/but it’s better by far to get paid…" When Liz Phair sang those words in a song titled ‘Shitloads Of Money’ she was still the queen of the underground; a twenty-something from Chicago who had redefined indie-rock from a female perspective in an audacious irony-filled debut she called Exile In Guyville. In the savviest pop move of the 90s she explained the disc was her rewrite of Exile On Main Street, the Stones’ classic, from a girl’s point-of-view. The post-modern ploy was perfectly timed. Phair was virtually giving reviewers their copy already written, and in the process guaranteeing herself countless column inches. She made the cover of Rolling Stone.

But ten years after Guyville, Phair doesn’t occupy the prominent place in pop one might expect, given such an auspicious start. Her tenure as the voice of Gen-X girlhood was quickly usurped by less ambiguous, far more commodifiable females like Alanis Morrisette. And she released only two more albums in a decade, which in spite of some great individual songs led her back into the underground.

And this is partly why the newly released Liz Phair made me laugh out loud. As a bid for the overground it couldn’t be more blatant. Phair greets us on the cover wrapped in little more than her guitar; a rock-girl pose with no satire intended. And from the opening track the music has the same veneer of artifice. Her traditionally shaky vocals have been pitch-corrected almost beyond recognition; guitars and drums sound like they have been pumped with steroids.

It’s no surprise to learn that a third of the disc was produced by the Matrix, the three-person production team behind the biggest hits of current teen idol Avril Lavigne. And although Phair’s sound is more crunchy and guitar-driven, there’s no mistaking that all the same devices have been used to ensure its suitability for MTV and commercial radio.

Predictably the critics have hated it as much as they loved Guyville. But isn’t that just pop snobbery? Why deny Liz her shot at the mainstream? Surely a little outpost of Guyville in the middle of Avril-world wouldn’t be a bad thing?

Yet as a Phair fan who was not only seduced by Guyville’s ruse but remained loyal right through to the underrated Whitechocolatespaceegg, I want to see Liz with her dignity intact. And dignity is what is lacking from this album. The libidinous themes of her earlier discs have been reduced to clunking cliches or else calculated attention-grabbers. There’s one track called "Rock Me" – top marks for originality there - while another is titled "H.W.C", which, one soon discovers, is an acronym for ‘hot white cum’.

There are moments when she almost acknowledges the absurdity of courting an audience of teenyboppers. "Oh baby you’re young but that’s okay/what’s give or take nine years anyway?’ the 36-year-old sings in a song addressed to an X-box playing youth too young to have a record collection or "even know who Liz Phair is."

But for the most part wit takes second place to desperation in this bid for pop power and position in a shrinking commercial market. Liz Phair has pursued her old mentors the Stones into self-parody. She made her Exile; this is her Voodoo Lounge.

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