Phair Game

The indie-rock cult may hate it, but Liz Phair is perfectly happy making lovey-dovey pop

If the old advertising axiom that there's no such thing as bad publicity holds, then all the critical heat and umbrage expressed in the press ought to only help Phair's career, especially given how each of her albums since Exile have been greeted with greater ambivalence and less frequent, more tepid reviews.

Yet even as Phair is burned in snotty effigy, another "independent" artist has made an even bolder leap into the pop mainstream. Hippie songstress Jewel established herself as super-serious coffee-shop crooner, bred by bus-driving folk singers in whose footsteps she followed. However, put on Jewel's new album, 0304, and you're suddenly soaking in a clattering, inch-deep wash of overdriven dance pop.

Like Phair, whose album release has been accompanied by a passel of bottle-blond coquettish schoolgirl, sex-kitten come-on photos perfect for the pages of Maxim, Jewel receives a complete makeover for the album, appearing on the cover with long, wind-blown locks, in bright form-fitting summer pastels and bulky bracelets like some juvenile Flashdance parody. Jewel's transformation, in contrast to Phair's, hasn't engendered nearly as much protest. Artemis Records head Danny Goldberg, who managed Nirvana back in the day and worked on both Phair and Jewel's debuts while at Atlantic (Phair was signed to Matador, which at that time was distributed by Warner Music, Atlantic's parent company), thinks he knows why.

"Feel this comfortable": Liz Phair indulges her pop fancy with Avril's producers.
"Feel this comfortable": Liz Phair indulges her pop fancy with Avril's producers.

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"It's a press thing. Jewel was not a critical darling," Goldberg says. "Her albums do better, she's a bigger star, but Jewel's success came from having two big hit songs and videos and her appearances on TV shows and touring, while Liz Phair's success was launched by rock critics. And Liz Phair continues to be someone who's fascinating to the people who write about music. I understand why -- she's such a brilliant lyricist, she's very sexual and provocative in a very unique and intelligent way, and it's fun to write about her. Jewel is a mass appeal big star who is just not covered by the same type of critics."

Phair's songs do have a tendency to sound almost like diary entries, and her usually smart, sassy and unflinching lyrics can seduce the faithful, making them blind to other dimensions of her personality. Phair, after all, is the adopted daughter of a Chicago physician, raised in the Illinois suburb of Winnetka -- setting for John Hughes' teen movies. True to that cinematic microcosm, Phair has always displayed an almost painful need to be loved and appreciated. But, to borrow Hughes' Pretty in Pink for a moment, while she's played the foil for years to the indie-rock Duckie, could it be she was just waiting for the opportunity to bed the popular rich kid Blane, betraying an unspoken bond we thought she shared?

"It isn't really about selling more records. I really made the record that I wanted to make. I've never been able to put on a record and feel this comfortable," Phair says. "It was a long time coming."

With "Why Can't I" already slipping off the Billboard charts, perhaps it's a good thing she's happy, because it doesn't appear her play for the average listener will make her theirdarling.

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