Explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark traveled 6,000 miles, braving starvation, frostbite and treacherous landscape to cross the continental divide on their way to the Pacific Ocean and back. In the minds of the modern indie-rock enthusiast, however, that's nothing compared to the difficulty a darling of the genre faces in attempting to cross the great pop divide. Just ask Liz Phair.
Phair, who created one of the most well-regarded of all indie-rock tomes, 1993's Exile in Guyville, now finds herself a captive of that past with the release of her new self-titled album, a record that seeks to catch the same lightning that zapped Avril Lavigne last year with "Complicated" and "Sk8er Boi." By virtue of the album's pristine pop production, simplistic tunes, and her collaboration with the co-authors of Lavigne's hits, the Matrix, Phair is taking heat from the same elitists who used to deify her.
One article in the New York Times, in which writer Meghan O'Rourke described Phair as "astonishingly tone deaf to her strengths" and Liz Phair as "an embarrassing form of career suicide," prompted Phair to respond with a letter to the editor comparing O'Rourke's overheated outrage to Chicken Little.
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Phair tells New Times that "a few of the reviewers pissed me off, but mostly I don't care what anyone thinks." Still, she castigates her critics for narrow-mindedly failing to appreciate her broad musical tastes.
"You guys, you writers have a hard time accepting that I like other kinds of music," she says from her Manhattan Beach, California, home. "The fact is that I love stuff that's on the radio -- stuff that many people love -- stuff that I like to hear as much as stuff with a different mentality. I think it really pisses you off that I can like obscure music and what's on the radio."
Phair has always had a talent for forthright lyrics and a willingness to bare her soul, warts and all. But after writing more than 50 songs since her 1998 release whitechocolatespaceegg, she found herself still dissatisfied with the album she presented to Capitol Records, her label. Recorded with the help of Michael Penn and Pete Yorn producer R. Walt Vincent, the album she handed to the label is said to have been somewhat dark and depressing, but the label approved and was prepared to release it. Phair, however, prevailed upon Capitol to pay for a session with the Matrix first. Since its success with Lavigne, the songwriting trio has become one of Hollywood's hottest mercenaries.
Phair's session with the Matrix produced four songs, including the lead single, "Why Can't I," the album-opening "Extraordinary," and "Favorite," which insipidly compares a lover to a worn pair of underwear. Remarkably similar to Lavigne's debut, the songs feature several layers of soaring, singsong vocals and "ooh-aahs" over the requisite, big pop drum sound and light acoustic guitar, with choruses as repetitious as the car chases from The Dukes of Hazzard.
Throughout the new album, lyrics such as "I'm extraordinary, if you'd ever get to know me" come off as fumbling teen come-ons against the hard-earned intelligence of "it's harder to be friends than lovers and you shouldn't try to mix the two, 'cause if you do it and you're still unhappy, then you know that the problem is you" (from Exile's "Divorce Song").
Exile's gritty and often spare arrangements -- principally Phair's unembellished voice over rumbling electric guitar -- sound like raw demos, abetting the unvarnished honesty of her songs. Compared to that plain Jane, girl-next-door approach, Liz Phair profiles like the stylized, airbrushed models on the covers of men's magazines. Yet to Phair, the Matrix songs were just what the album needed.
"I felt I needed more of my own exuberance and stupidity. I know that sounds odd. But I felt I needed something that represented me better," says Phair. "I had a real rough time after my divorce, three or four years that were really up and down, and I really, really needed to feel differently. Because when you put out a record, for the next year you're really living the music that you wrote and inhabiting it, and I don't think I could've survived singing those other songs."
Phair describes the intervening five years since her last album as a growing experience, and says that raising her 6-year-old son Nicholas has taught her a lot, helping her to grow more confident and assured.
"It opened me up to not worrying about other people, and being more interested in new challenges, trying to get better at things and kind of gave me freedom from fear of criticism," she says of motherhood. "I used to be very concerned [about] what people thought of me. I was very afraid what they would think if they saw me stumble or fall."
Phair's confection conversion has earned its share of praise amid the criticism. Miles Copeland, whose IRS Records nurtured the careers of artists such as R.E.M. and the Bangles, applauds Phair's pluck.
"No artist wants to make the same record over and over again. And acts that do quickly fade. Who needs to buy the new album when they all sound alike?" offers Copeland, who now runs his own independent label, Ark 21. "The critics are going to fuck you one way or another. If you're making records to please the critics, you're already fucked. You might as well take up residence in a cupboard."
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.
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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 their darling.