Phair Trade

The critical response to the new Liz Phair album is senseless, sexist and stupid

"Ms. Phair often sounds desperate or clueless," O'Rourke wrote. "The album has some of the same weird self-oblivion of a middle-aged man in a midlife crisis and a new Corvette."

"It was weird," Phair continues. "I actually wrote that letter to Meghan, not to the readers of the Times, because I wanted her to feel what it felt like to be criticized as a person, and not as a writer."

That feeling, alas, is something that Phair has had to get used to. Her strength in the face of so much misdirected ire has percolated into her musical decisions. Yes, Liz Phair is aimed at a more mainstream audience than previous LPs, but although Phair has dropped the indie-rock sonics, she hasn't yet resorted to the phony, glitzy emotions that really make hits hit. Instead, each song tells a story about what it's like to be a 36-year-old divorced mom, and as such, its perspective is about as far from the pop canon as Sandra Bernhard is from Jane Austen.

Liz Phair, preparing for her Hot White Comeback
Phil Poynter
Liz Phair, preparing for her Hot White Comeback

True, it's produced and in parts co-written by the same people who write for Britney and Avril and Mariah and Ricky, but the content of these songs can't be compared to the work of those singers and, indeed, can't be compared to the equally dumb musings of older female songwriters such as Sheryl Crow or Jewel. And that's the problem: Hardly a single critic in America can honestly endorse the work of those artists, but have they embraced Phair for bringing another voice to the table? No.

Instead, every article penned by these deep thinkers expresses outrage at Phair's attire (or lack of attire). According to the cabal, not only is the singer flaunting her sexuality and good looks by appearing nearly naked on MTV and on her CD cover, she's doing so at the age of 36. This, apparently, is a far more criminal act than doing so when you're seventeen, or fifteen, or thirteen, or ten, when flashing your tits is de rigueur. Women who are older than 30, and particularly those whom we know to be moms, should just shut up and die. It's surprising to hear such bullshit coming from smart writers in places such as the normally rational Times, rather than dumb writers from Conflict, Forced Exposure and Spin. Besides, this time the sin of ageism is being added to the more obvious sin of sexism: Each review seems to suggest that Phair isn't being seemly.

Worse, the critics reasoning this way aren't all male. That women writers are now her biggest detractors is highly disturbing, a fact Phair acknowledges. "I have a younger female friend who says that young women today are really wary of the word 'feminist,'" she says. "It's not like I'm a heavy-duty one, but having attended Oberlin in the era that I did [the late '80s], I'm really cognizant of gender roles and stereotypes and the types of things that make people what they are. It scares me to see the generation beneath us educated in such a way that they want to shut down that part of themselves.

"The subtext of my whole career," she adds sadly, "has always been to empower give them a voice and a place to use it. To expand their roles in rock and expand what it's okay to think about and talk about and feel and say and do out loud."

Once, Phair's fans had hoped that she had succeeded in doing just that, but the hostility toward Liz Phair proves otherwise. Most casual listeners approach the record after reading quite a bit of nasty stuff, and there's reason to expect the worst -- not because of the bad press, but because she is not prolific. Her last two records (Whip-Smart and Whitechocolatespaceegg) both contained tracks culled from her very first demo tape, Girly Sound. She appears to be one of those artists -- like Lord Byron or J.D. Salinger -- who had a sudden burst of youthful creativity. For Phair, this burst poured out of her on Exile and dried up soon after.

Given the circumstances, Phair's impulse to hire help is entirely understandable, and the truth is, the songs on Liz Phair are better-crafted and sonically more fun than anything since Exile. Much has been made of the fact that her voice seems to have been digitally equalized, like Avril's or Britney's or Shania's. It may have been, but it still sounds like Liz, which is all to the good.

As for the songs' subject matter, it's not as if she's hiding anything about herself, and therein lies the rub, apparently. On "Rock Me," she takes a younger guy for a lover and gently mocks his lifestyle while still enjoying the sex. On "My Bionic Eyes," she talks about how, when you're an older woman, you can see through a guy's lies all the better. And on "Hot White Cum" -- a particularly hostile flashpoint for critics -- she sings a sweetly pretty song about the joys of getting laid every night, and she does so with complete sincerity.

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