Saturday, March 11, 2006

Liz Phair, unconcerned

Any hipster who denounced Liz Phair when she came out with her 2003 album Liz Phair, should not buy her itunes originals recording, as they will be forced to at least rethink their disdain. In many ways, Liz Phair addresses her intra-song musings on the itunes album to those hipsters, who embraced her previous albums Exile in Guyville (1993) and whitechocolatespaceegg (1998), and yet scorned her efforts on the decidedly more pop-ey 2003 album. I myself was one of the many to cater to feelings of dismay upon hearing the single from Liz Phair, “Why Can’t I?”. The fact is that several of the tracks from the 2003 album were produced by the production team known as The Matrix, a group of three who also produced “hits” for the likes of Avril Lavigne, Britney Spears, Nick Lachey, and Hillary Duff. Regardless of your thoughts on the aforementioned singers, one would not generally expect a singer who wrote and sang a song about feeling sexually exploited since the age of 12 to use the same production team as a singer who “wrote” and sang a song titled “Sk8er Boi”. Granted, Britney has taken some sexually explicit risks throughout her career, but I doubt that anyone would argue that “Hit Me Baby” is at the same level of depth or expression as “Fuck and Run” or “Flower”. Now I’m not saying that these or any producer’s reputations would be completely tarnished just by working with a commercially successful yet intellectually devoid artist (Pharrell would be ruined), but it is plain to see that working with The Matrix definitely brought a final sound to Liz Phair’s work that was difficult for many of her fans to understand.
What Phair strives to explain in the itunes album is the difference in style that the 2003 album brought. She avoids a discussion on her choice of producers, which is really what it comes down to, but she does direct her fans to pay attention to her “musical beginnings”, with the politically minded “Girlysound Tapes” that she started with fresh out of Oberlin College. She talks about how the inspiration for Girlysound was her political theory that the high-pitched, vibrato-less little girl voice was the least authoritative in all society, and when paired with the shocking, obscene lyrics that Phair is so well known for, could become really effective and empowering. So she discusses not only the actual style of the Girlysound Tapes as her musical beginning, but the fact that those tapes featured her lashing out against the pretentious “music heads”, as she calls them, that surrounded her. Phair's first writings were a product of the frustration of always listening to music because it is hip, underground, and anti-mainstream.
Phair herself was abandoned by all those fans because she had become too mainstream. Hence, the irony.
Regardless, Phair is above all, likeable. Her musings on this album stay true to that, as she convinces the listener how unconcerned she is with whether or not her music sounds pop-ey, whether her lyrics are deep enough. She has stayed consistent, in the manner that she has never been pretentious, she has never taken herself very seriously. She’s had plenty of different heavy emotions, and has taken us on a tour of them, but she doesn’t even seem to think about what style she should stay true to.
Last August my sister and I went to see Phair perform at a tiny venue in Alexandria, Virginia, as she promoted her upcoming album Somebody's Miracle. The tickets were something like 20 bucks each, and it was at an absolute hole in the wall place called the Birchmere--a weird name that only got worse when I saw it in cursive neon on the side of what looked to be a barn. We get inside and its literally a big room full of picnic tables, complete with gingham table cloths, and a little stage right up front. Bizarre to say the least, like dinner theatre with a hillbilly twist. But Liz Phair got up there on a little stool with her guitar, and her boyfriend to play and sing back up, and was as charming as ever. She didnt come across like any other artist with ties to The Matrix ever would, I'm sure of that, giving me full confidence that she just does whatever the hell comes into her head. One of her tank top straps kept falling while she was playing, so she had her boyfriend duct tape them together in the back during the performance. She was unexpectedly quirky, like a modern day version of June Carter who happens to sing about her cunt getting wet.
It's refreshing to listen to an artist who writes songs as they come, in a fairly un-self-conscious way. Good music can be difficult, simple, deep, shallow, provocative---any one of those can be a characteristic of a profound or effective song, just as long as it does not condescend. Pretention is the death of expressive music.


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