They make rude remarks about me/they wonder just how wild I would be/as they egg me on and keep me mad.” Ten years ago, Liz Phair probably thought she was just documenting her life when she wrote that line for “Help Me Mary,” one of the tracks off her debut Exile in Guyville. Right now, it seems almost prophetic.
See, Phair is currently getting rammed hard, the kind of royal screwing usually reserved for porn stars and corporate scapegoats. Since the release of her pop-heavy self-titled fourth album earlier this month, Phair, once the indie starlet who occupied every critic’s heart, mind and wet dreams, has been getting shafted from fans and the press alike. The reason: She’s making an obvious play for the Big Time. She traded in her diary-cribbed lyrics for simple pop hooks. She hired Avril Lavigne’s producers, The Matrix, to give her a few Top 40 hits. Even the songs she wrote herself are aimed more at high school lunchrooms than hazy bars—well, except for the song “HWC,” about her favorite adult face cream.
As a result, she’s taking a beating. There’s been a slew of jokes, critics labeling her rock’s favorite MILF, re-naming her new record Exile in Avril-ville. Some comments have even been downright nasty, calling her everything from a sellout and middle-aged Britney wannabe to a fame-hungry whore.
But unlike the character in “Help Me Mary,” Phair is refusing to hide in her room and keep her mouth shut. She’s spent the last month adamantly defending her music, her cred, her motivation, unleashing the kind of full-tilt media blitz she opposed for years. It’s sparked some heated debate about Phair, artistic integrity and the willingness of fans to accept evolution. For Phair, it’s just like old times.
“I was just talking with someone else, and I realized that I’ve always stirred up controversy when I’m at my best,” she says with a hint of pride. “I did it with Guyville, that’s for sure. People forget that now, but there were all sorts of debates going on about that record. Is it any good? Can she actually sing? There were actual barstool arguments and fights over that record. And it seems like this record is causing the controversy as well, for a different reason.”
It’s one that Phair is having a hard time understanding, though. She sees her new disc as just another step forward, a logical move foreshadowed by the brighter sheen and more blatant hooks of her last album, Whitechocolatespaceegg. “This is just a real natural move for me,” she says. And she’s got a point. While songs like “Polyester Bride” and “Baby Got Going” weren’t really TRL material, there was a certain slant in the bellowing bass lines and perky choruses that made you wonder if they weren’t more suited for a sorority slumber party than a music geek’s dorm room. The gritty frankness of Guyville had been swallowed by 30-something sarcasm. And her once unchecked sexuality had become more discrete, like a whispered-about affair. It was only a matter of time before Phair had completely shed her early ’90s frank flannel and tried on one of Sheryl Crow’s more revealing numbers.
But most of her fans and critics don’t see it that way. They still want the Phair who was willing to fuck and run, talk dirty and mess with their heads, not a 36-year-old mother who makes pop music because she wants to. Guyville was, and is, a post-feminist monument and testament to the power of bedroom rock. And whether or not Phair has actually delivered on the unspoken promise of that album since, people expect her to offer up her own demons and indiscretions every so often so we can feel better about our own. For some, the fact that with this album she’d rather talk about playing Xbox on her new boyfriend’s floor (“Rock Me”) or ponder the physical side of a crush (“Why Can’t I?”), is a downright insult. Phair says she’s just being true to herself.
“The only thing I feel that I ever did that was fraudulent was try to make Whip-Smart [Phair’s sophomore disc] sound more like Guyville,” she says. “If you go back to the Girlysound tapes that I released before Guyville, it had a totally different voice than anything that I’ve done. It’s really sing-songy and some of the lyrics and really inane. Really awful stuff. But I see art as a chance to create anew. I wasn’t working my whole life up to that sound on Guyville, or anything else for that matter. I’m glad I made that record. I’m glad I got to be apart of something that’s that big and important. But I didn’t stop trying to move forward at that record.”
And if forward means the telegraphed hooks and crumbly lyrics—“You feel like my favorite underwear/and I’m slipping you on again tonight” (“Favorite”)—then Phair has made a quantum leap. Her new disc is loaded with the kind of stuff you’d normally expect from Michelle Branch et al, just done up with a bit midlife crisis mascara. Granted, Phair is smarter about her overt commercialism than most, and she does fall back into old habits now and again—the confessional “Little Digger,” about her son accepting her new boyfriend, and the aforementioned “HWC,” an ode to the money shot. But at its soul, the disc is about getting a guest slot on a Santana record, not hanging out with Jack White. And Phair’s fans are going to have to decide whether that works for them or not. As far as she’s concerned, though, it’s just dandy.
“I have some other goals for this record that I didn’t have before,” Phair admits. “A lot of that have to do with actually working it—showing up, doing all the interviews, working hard and try to make it happen. I’ve never done that before. I never had a real interest in it, but I also wondered why my records weren’t doing better. So now we’ll see what happens. But this is really just a where I was at and what I wanted. And the thing is, I know I’ve made a good record, no matter what anyone says.”