Critics trade blows over Liz Phair, but listeners aren't coming.

Welfare Mother 

Critics trade blows over Liz Phair, but listeners aren't coming.

In the five years between Liz Phair's third album, 1998's Whitechocolatespaceegg, and this year's self-titled disc, she got divorced and continued raising her son. She started writing fiction. She took singing lessons. She won a small role in the movie Cherish. She tried to escape her Capitol Records contract after that company dissolved its relationship with Matador, the label that had released her previous albums. She fired her manager. And she recorded about fifty songs -- most of which must be better than the bulk of Liz Phair.

The album isn't played or sung poorly. It's not devoid of melody or carelessly produced. Instead, it's calculated, formulaic, unconvincing. It adds a handful of pretty good songs to the underrated songs from Phair's second and third albums that together make up a three-star follow-up to Phair's five-star 1993 debut, Exile in Guyville. Some reviewers have taken this slip personally because Phair seems to have reconciled herself to the role of mass-market widget. As if Phair never cared about success.

"That's an arrogant assumption from people who buy music, and especially from people who download music," Phair tells the Pitch. "I didn't have a kid to support [in 1993]. I wasn't 36. I've been working for eight months now, and I haven't received a single check."

Phair owes Capitol for recording and touring advances. Even if Liz Phair takes off (and so far, it hasn't; the album hasn't been certified gold), she says she's unlikely to bank anything until next summer. And there's still the contract to fulfill.

"This is a gambling sport," she says. "I think not caring [about sales] is for young people. I defy you to show me more than a handful of people over the age of thirty who don't care."

Phair brushes aside the suggestion that financial limbo and general upheaval have made the past few years a roller coaster, though. "This has been by far the most fun, synergistic experience of my career," she says of making and promoting Liz Phair.

She says that includes even the effect her album has had on some critics. Capping the poles are Meghan O'Rourke's June 22 New York Times pan of Liz Phair and Gina Arnold's defensive philippic in the July 16 East Bay Express (like the Pitch, a New Times weekly).

O'Rourke writes that, with Liz Phair, the artist has "committed an embarrassing form of career suicide." The rest of the piece neatly summarizes both the appeal of Phair's earlier work and the shrugging professionalism that backlights the new disc: "Her fantastically expressive diffidence has been replaced with a smooth and characterless tunefulness, pitch-corrected all the way through."

Arnold, meanwhile, mistakes a few reviewers' suggestion that Phair's pilot light has blown out with the Hindenburg explosion: "The controversy surrounding [Liz Phair] only goes to show what's sadly lacking in the music industry, in music criticism, and maybe even in humanity itself."

There's plenty wrong with the music industry, music criticism and humanity itself, but when it comes to defending Phair's new disc, I wouldn't want to die on that hill. And I especially wouldn't want to fall on my sword for the Phair self-parody "H.W.C." (that Phair has abbreviated the title "Hot White Come" illustrates the not-very-arbitrary boundary of an artist Arnold calls "edgy"), a paean to male potency that reduces Phair to extolling semen as the meaning of life. Arnold calls it "sweetly pretty." I say a harmonica solo in a song about jizz is hopelessly redundant.

Arnold huffs that criticism of the album is "the scarlet letter, circa now." But the point isn't that Phair's recent pandering photo shoots -- all guppy-mouthed pout and panty-revealing tug -- are somehow taboo; it's that what they really show off is a marketing cynicism deserving of disdain. Guyville said, "You can't have me." Liz Phair says, "OK, now you can have me."

Despite Arnold's carping, though, critical response to Liz Phair has been generally favorable in mainstream outlets, especially from male critics, who seem happy to characterize Phair's careerism as a cheerful update to her persona. With Phair, though, it's never been the negative reviews that have signaled condescension. Male writers who glimpsed Phair's blurred areola on Guyville's cover and heard her sing I wanna be your blow-job queen wondered: How can I admit that I want to fuck Liz Phair when I know that, even though she says she likes sex, she's laughing at me for wanting to fuck her? The answer turned out to be simple: Canonize Guyville -- not for its considerable merits but because doing so was easier than parsing the contradictions in Phair's songwriting and in their own reactions to it. But the titillation-courting Liz Phair makes it hard to keep track of who's talking down to whom.

Phair's own response to O'Rourke, which appeared as a letter to the editor in the June 22 Times, cast the critic as Chicken Little in a rambling ("a fork of lightning licked the trees") allegory that likened the disc to "a warm, summer rain falling steady as a heartbeat."

"The record is the warm summer rain," Phair says. "Liz Phair came back and had a record that's really very pleasant to listen to and is only there for your enjoyment. After reading the review, I thought, You fucking bitch. I felt this person needed to know what it felt like to be misconstrued in the press. The things she said were so greatly retarded and ignorant of the industry. Her misogyny was disturbing. I went to Oberlin. I know that type of person. She's Socratic or Platonic or whatever.

"I've always been too brainy," Phair continues. "The Guyville noose I'm trying to get out of is that everything had to be of such a high caliber, it had to be noble or incredibly well-worded and Teflon to critics. That's not me. I'm sort of half dumb blonde, half serious intellectual. I wrote Guyville because I hated that I couldn't like what was on the radio. I don't need to prove that I'm smart to anybody. I'm just writing for me. They're fucking songs. You can't make judgments on who I am as a mother or a person based on a song."

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