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The Other Liz Phair Anniversary this Week

Our exhaustive interview with one of the greatest to ever do it about her much maligned eponymous album that found her working with Avril Lavigne's producers, got a 0.0 from Pitchfork, had a song called "Hot White Cum" on it, and just might be a misunders

No flinching here: Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville is one of rock’s greatest records. Many other remembrances on its 20th anniversary this week will give you whatever’s left to know about it, how its conversational, sharply funny relationship vignettes were diaristic without being sappy, how novel its homespun atmosphere and unusual melodies still sound, how popular music (including “indie”) still has a long way to catch up to its sheer healthiness about unabashed sexuality and self-objectification. Many people mistook the thing as personal when it’s in fact an ideal universal; so many of us strive to be that cool and open “blowjob queen,” to rule the kingdom-or-is-it-queendom of sex while maintaining the supposed humanity that slut-shaming types believe you lose when you so nakedly pine for a servile body part, or heaven forbid, letters and sodas. Exile was a record about maintaining one’s cool by being honest, an equation so many loved because so few believed it could happen to them. Two decades later, Liz Phair’s still honest, telling this prospective interviewer via email that she’s really fucking sick of talking about that record, and doesn’t know what more she could say if she wasn’t.


But this week marks another musical anniversary for her, one that seems to have affected her life more meaningfully: it’s the tenth anniversary of her fourth album, Liz Phair, aka the Indie Betrayal gambit aka her “Judas”/“play fucking loud” moment, the record where she worked with Avril Lavigne’s hit-writers and used Autotune and crashed the top 40 with “Why Can’t I?” a big-enough hit single you can hear in the (pretty good!) Amanda Bynes vehicle She’s the Man among other uncool places. Pitchfork defrocked it with an infamous 0.0 rating and sizeable chunk of the population of Guyville felt particularly, viciously exiled by it. I myself wasn’t happy when I first heard the hit, but didn’t take long to love the record in full, and wasn’t alone—Liz Phair still won enough critical support to sneak into the top 40 of the Village Voice Pazz & Jop critics’ poll, with one fewer supporter than Johnny Cash’s Nine Inch Nails album but edging it out by two points in enthusiasm.

This album Phair was totally game to talk about, because for one thing, people still don’t know what the fuck to make of it. Its place in history is nowhere near as assured as Guyville’s, yet it’s both bigger and more cultish. It represents the end of an era when “pop” was still a dirty word in indie circles, before, as Stereogum noted, Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” attracted fans of Interpol’s flat guitar, before Annie, Peter Bjorn and John or Robyn bridged a gap for many who’d dismissed Stateside hits by Britney Spears or Backstreet Boys, long before world-blurrers like Sky Ferriera or Charli XCX or Dawn Richard relied on hip press as much as chart success.


You can definitely make a case for sexism’s influence on the sheer severity of the Liz Phair reaction; Modest Mouse’s ridiculously optimistic “Float On” exploded the following year with mostly positive support from old fans while “Why Can’t I?” was lambasted for seemingly altering Phair’s values, as if sneaking “We haven’t fucked yet/ But my head’s spinning,” or the less radio-edited “We’re already wet and we’re gonna go swimming” into then-wholesome Amanda Bynes vehicles wasn’t one of the blowjob queen’s classic pop pranks.

The 46-year-old genius singer-songwriter spoke with Noisey about the 10th anniversary of Liz Phair, the pros and cons of major label money, and finding a kindred spirit in Lil Wayne.

So, the self-titled album.
Eponymous. I love that word.

The eponymous album. What’s the biggest misconception about it?
Hmm…the biggest misconception is probably that it was recorded all at once. It was actually recorded in many different studio situations over the course of probably a year and a half.

How much of that was done before The Matrix was brought in as songwriters?
All of it! The Matrix was the last thing that happened. After touring with whitechocolatespaceegg I did some with my band from that record and then I did a few with Pete Yorn’s guy Walt Vincent when I first moved to Los Angeles. Then, when Andy Slater became president of Capitol, he hooked me up with Michael Penn. In the end, I think it was supposed to be all the Michael Penn sessions, but I didn’t really feel like that quite represented me, you know? I remember my A&R guy was Ron Laffitte and he was like, “Well, what would you do differently?” And I said I wanted to use these songs from these other sessions as well, like I just didn’t feel like they represented what I had musically inside me to give. He went back to Capitol and they were like, "Well, you can do that if you work with these sort of hitmakers and give us some hits to work with. Then we’ll sort of let this be some whole other animal." And I had some trepidation going into that, but at the same time I embraced it pretty quickly. I said “sure!” I hadn’t really done any cowrites, and at that point, it wasn’t such a horrifying idea to work with someone else. When I went to meet them, I discovered that I actually knew them, I just didn’t know them as the Matrix. I knew them through friends and people. I remember Lauren [Christy] opened the door and said, "Yeah, I was waiting to see what your reaction would be when I opened the door." And it was such a wonderful feeling because I just had loved them when I’d met them. It’s so funny, [adopts Elaine Benes-style mocking voice] “The Maaaaaaaatriiiix.” It has such a…I don’t know. A sort of branded name. “The Maaaaaaaaaaatriiiiiiix.” And the people involved I already knew and liked very much.


How familiar were you with their other work at the time?
I like Avril Lavigne! I loved “Complicated.” I thought that was a great pop song. I thought she was a cute little punky, quirky chick. When the label says, "We need some hits," you know what it’s going to be like. Duh! It’s going to be like that. Some people expected me to have some sort of aversion to that, which I’ve never had. I’ve always loved hit songs my whole life, that has nothing to do with it, I just write differently than that. When I’m left in a room alone, I sound much more small and personal, and I think my older fans just expected me to have a political feeling about that, that I wouldn’t do something like that. Which is…just not true. I’m much more inclusive, musically, than that. It just was a different thing. Which is how I looked at it. But then of course, the shitstorm began.

Right, the shitstorm. Why do you think people reacted so strongly in this particular case?
Because it meant something more to them and I understand that now. A lot of people making that kind of indie music were doing it because they were against mainstream music. Talking to Steve Albini in the Guyville Redux documentary, he’s a perfect spokesman for them, he’s eloquent. He explains that it has its roots in a business decision, in an alternative economic model that’s based on good faith and sort of a…pure love of music. That makes sense to me now, but the misconception was—and anyone that knew me back when Guyville was first breaking would know this about me, when I was in the suburbs—the reason it sounds like that is because when you stick me in a room just by myself, that’s what’s gonna come out. I write these weird, introverted, conversational, confessional, angry songs. It wasn’t a political decision for me.


I always thought it was funny that the eponymous album is considered this fluffy pop thing but opens with the heaviest guitar you’ve ever put on a record.
But it’s produced! There’s no question you can smell money on it. As a person I’ve always lived this way and will continue until the day I die: there are times when you go to a local bar and hang out with your regular friends, and there are times you get dressed up and you go to a black tie dinner or some fundraising function. It’s still you, you’re just in a different context. I’ve always lived that way, and I think a lot of people do. I love hip-hop, I love jazz. If someone came to me with a budget and said "Let’s do a jazz record!" I’d be like, "Whoa, okay!" I guess that’s not a good example because jazz is cool. But my friend wants me to do this thing that he wants to become a dance hit—and that makes sense to me! This is me, I’m musical to my core. Why not explore? So I felt once we added the old tracks onto the Liz Phair [note: every time Phair says the title of this album aloud she says “Liz Phair Liz Phair,” it’s beyond endearing but too much to ask on the page—ed] disc I thought it was this nice bouquet. There’s some serious roses, but you have some wildflowers in there too.

What happened in the five years following whitechocolatespaceegg and what was going on with the label? That album wasn’t directed by Capitol in any way—
Oh no, it was, it was. Matador had signed with Capitol at that point. I was really pissed off about that, but they sort of paid me out so I was like, fine. It was really awkward promoting that record because they had two labels involved. They’d have these meetings with representatives from the indie label and then there’d representatives from the major label. They were trying to work together but ultimately looking back on it, all those major labels buying up all the indies in the Nirvana period…that was all economic, they just wanted to grab that wave for themselves. And then they had to figure out how to work with them, and that of course didn’t make any sense. They approached working totally differently, so after whitechocolatespaceegg, anything I did would either come from the indie or the major, and sometimes they fought. It was ridiculous, like having two masters.


Obviously that didn’t work out, Matador left Capitol but I got stuck staying on it. I think that was sort of part of the deal when they let Matador go. “Okay, but we’re keeping Liz,” because at that time I was sort of a big name. That felt really daunting; suddenly I was on this label I never intended to be on, never would’ve signed to. But I also had a young child, so that’s sort of the dark matter that’s not obvious. I’d just had my son and touring with a really small child…sometimes it was fun but very emotional, to get tired and cry a lot. I needed that time off in between to even get back to a place where I could function like a touring entity.

Do you remember any specific things Capitol and Matador people argued about?
Not so much, it was just…Matador was great about it and was always so fun. I was watching School of Rock the other day and I love when Jack Black’s like, “Stick it to the man!”—that’s what Matador was all about. Like, the larger the circulation of the publication we were being interviewed by, the more they expected us to kind of lie and bullshit, make up ridiculous answers and see if they would get printed. That kind of spirit was so much fun. Capitol was about servicing as large a venue as you possibly could, with like, please and thank yous. It just was a mess. You know? It was a mess.

It’s odd because Capitol put out OK Computer the year before spaceegg so you’d think they were looking for more weirdness.
Well Gary Gersh was a huge advocate of Radiohead and he probably personally…well, you never know if he became a spokesperson for someone else’s idea—but there was definitely a sense that Radiohead was a smart move, and that they felt smart for having them. But I think Radiohead had friction with them on and off their whole time there.


Do you think the bad reaction to Liz Phair was a gender thing too? Like you were still a really serious guitar player doing these complicated chord sequences and…
Are you saying I was rocking too hard and people couldn’t accept a woman doing it?

Oh no, I’m saying it wasn’t even accepted as a rock album.
The eponymous one was much more pop. It just was, in my catalog. And it was overtly about pop, it was a moment when pop was big. The thing that made the eponymous record what it was, were the Matrix songs. You cannot divorce anything that happened around that record. It also afforded me the ability to stretch my wings in terms of performance. I got places and did things I never would’ve gotten without the Matrix songs. I had my best touring experiences off the Liz Phair record. By far. I played “God Bless America” for the White Sox when they won the World Series that year, on an opening game. Or, I played this amazing Nike concert where this kid who had terminal cancer and couldn’t see anymore got up and played drums on “Why Can’t I?” in front of 5,000 people. There was just a lot of cool experiences…holding the main stage at Bumbershoot. Being big enough to turn a large audience in your favor that maybe weren’t as familiar. It was an amazing time for us. Crazy stuff. Insane amounts of radio. That whole world. I would’ve missed that! For the listener, all they’re hearing is what’s in their house, on their stereo. But for an artist, that was a ticket to ride to faraway places that I really enjoyed. And I grew from, my god! In a weird way, that was the making of me as a performer. Those Matrix songs—another thing important about Liz Phair—is vocally I stretched in ways I never had before. I don’t think anyone had ever heard me sing like that before, or even thought I could. The Guyville stuff is pretty low and it’s a totally different perception of me.


A lot of artists are not that great performers the way you’d think on American Idol or something, and a lot of people are just performers, who can do a great vocal delivery but don’t have much in the songwriting. I was an artist and just had never learned how to do the other thing. I learned to do both and it was a pure joy. Other than the pissed-off old fans in the audience who’d cross their arms and glare daggers at me from the stage, there was so much joy in being able to perform the Matrix songs purely for the vocal. It was like flying.

Were there really people in the audience you could see crossing their arms?
Oh fuck yeah. It was like…it was like an un-wished-for wedding, with one side of the aisle of old fans and one side of new fans and neither would speak to each other. It was challenging like, every night, ‘What can we play? Who’s out there? What would we be able to get away with? Should we play more of the old stuff or new stuff?’ And these poor new fans had no idea where I come from, they just heard one song on the radio. And some of them were like, 12! And that was really tough too, because my lyrics are clearly adult-oriented. I used to get upset like, why are you bringing your nine-year-old to my show? Did you do any research?

Speaking of which, I wanted to ask about your own family or your own kid’s reactions to your lyrics…
There’s only one part of my extended family, my godbrother, him and his family are hilarious and they love my music, which is awesome. But they like to torment me, they’ll just put it on during dinner and make me listen to it. Or they’ll like, only speak to me in my lyrics back, they did that one time. I’ll be like, "That’s funny guys…OK, that’s funny. OK, it’s not funny anymore…’


But most of my family life doesn’t really have anything to do with the music. Like my son, he knows what I do and he knows a little bit about my history but he doesn’t even come into it, it’s weird. I compartmentalize life in a lot of ways. Many sections. They don’t often intermingle. Like, when I go home I’m Elizabeth.

Which is funny because your audience is so compartmentalized, too.
You get what you give, right?

Did the Matrix or any label people object to any of your lyrics?
I think the only time we ever got into word fights was I didn’t want to say the word “underwear” in “Favorite.” It took a week of Lauren [Christy] like, wearing me down. I was like, ‘I can’t say it, I can’t say it.’ So it wasn’t like I was coming up with these tawdry lyrics they wouldn’t allow. That was the biggest word fight, and she won.

What word did you want to use?
I didn’t know! I couldn’t win the fight because I couldn’t come up with an alternative. Can’t say “panties!” I just couldn’t get around it. Every time I think about it I’m just like, I can’t say that word. It’s too corny. I still have trouble with that song, and it’s too bad because I like to sing it…melodically. [laughs] But it’s not my writing style.

And the label didn’t give you shit at all about putting—
Not at all. And we put “Hot White Cum” on that record! There was a definite moment where I was sitting in Ron Laffitte’s office after hours and I’m looking at him and I’m like, “Can we put whatever we want on the rest of the record?” And he’s like, “Now that we’ve got these songs? Yeah!” And I said, “Can we put ‘Hot White Cum’ on the record? And he got this twinkle in his eye and he was like, “Fuck yeah.” [laughs] I guess they’re thinking like, controversy, can’t hurt.


So, “Hot White Cum.” Did you just want to write a song about cum—
[laughs hysterically]

—or did you want to write about something no one had done before…
No, there was none of that. That’s a me song, that’s all me. I was having really good sex and I wrote that song completely spontaneously. I knew it’s funny. There’s a lot of songs I’ve written—and I used to do it more—that were funnier and never saw the light of day, where people would be like, "Cute, Liz." All the way back to Girlysound.

Like “White Babies.”
When I write a song I’m not thinking about marketing at all. There’s no marketing brain in me whatsoever. It just makes sense to me. It isn’t until later when it’s gonna go on a record that I start to get hives and freak out like, “Fuck!”

Does that happen?
That always happens. It’s what makes me different as an artist but it’s also what causes me great difficulty in life. I’m slow on the uptake, I don’t put two and two together. I can’t see far…I’m very in the moment. It’s always a later thing where I’m like, ‘Oh what have I done. Oh, oh my god.’

What causes the anxiety for you? Is it people learning the song’s about them or that people will be evaluating it…
That I’m saying such things in public! [laughs] It’s alwayslater that I realize that I’ve said such things in public. Always later. I never learn. I never ever learn. And there’s always a fevered night where I think like, ‘God, god, god, god.’ And the broader implications of everyone hearing it become crystal clear. It’s a bad night, it really isn’t funny! It’s a really bad night.


Was [Liz Phair follow-up] Somebody’s Miracle supposed to be more subdued in that way, or had you finally reached some pinnacle of…publicly embarrassing yourself, as you put it?
It’s mostly just the kind of songs I was writing. There may have been some of that because I’d just come off this arduous ordeal where I’d had to answer for the eponymous record and I had all these pissed-off fans that I didn’t want to lose, because I didn’t feel any different. Obviously I’d grown up and I’d done different things but I’m a very consistent person in that way. My personality’s always the same except I guess I did less drinking. You know what I mean? Like I’d grown up but I remember feeling a bit bruised and I didn’t want to do something controversial, I remember that. But I also was just writing those kinds of songs.

I feel like that record didn’t set out to piss anyone off and it still got the same cold shoulder.
Well maybe I’ll put this down to gender. Ready for this? People react to me anytime they react to my music, they can’t separate the two. They’re always judging me as a person. They can never just look at my music. And I’m not sure someone like Maroon 5 gets that. You know, "They’re a band, look what they did this time." But women get judged for their personal decisions, like they can’t just take a record as the record, it’s like "Why did she decide to do this right now?" No one says of Paul Simon, "Why did he decide to make that? He politically said this earlier and now he’s going back on it…" There’s too much that people put on me as a woman,and they don’t separate the person from the music, and I do think that is kind of sexist. They think of me as a role model and I can’t think of a male solo artist who gets that kind of personal judgment like that.


If Adam Levine did a song called “Hot White Vagina” it might be an item for like, a week.
It wouldn’t be like smarmy, smug writing. It would be like “What’s up with that?” It’s a double standard.

I don’t think people would use terms like “career suicide.” I think to have a sex song without regret in it…

You mean like Lil Wayne’s “Pussy Monster” which I fucking love? That song’s amazing.
But there’s no difference between that and “Hot White Cum!” Maybe his song’s better because he’s just awesome, but it’s the same spirit. Obviously I love it, too, it’s one of my favorite songs ever. But it’s the same thing. You better not write it that I think my song’s as good as his. But it’s the same exuberance, which is what rock and roll is about. Like, “I’m having awesome sex. Listen to this awesome, kind of funny songwriting but I mean it.”

When Guyville first came out, that was a shitstorm. Indie did not invite that right away. No sir. It was a brutal campaign, because half the people were like, "There’s so many worthy bands, she just came on the scene, nobody’s heard of her. She’s blonde, she’s white, she sells sex, she’s getting all the attention." I was eviscerated multiple times in the indie world until it became…better than what I did later. [laughs] After Pitchfork gave Liz Phair a 0.0 out of 10, the Somebody’s Miracle review said they wasted the zero on the first one.
I’m all for funny hating, I don’t mind. But what I do mind is this fucking box that I can’t win. To be honest, to stick up for myself, you guys are idiots. A hundred years from now, it’s going to be cool that a woman like, said what she thought. It’s cool what I did, it just is, like as a large fact. Falling down, faceplanting, whatever I was doing, it was still rare. And the fact that they couldn’t see that, the fact that they were trying to…well I don’t know what they were trying to do. But they were missing the big picture. I wonder what would’ve happened if Girlysound, which had all these silly songs, if that had come after Guyville instead of before, would it be destroyed as well? Even though now it’s like all the rarities, I wonder what would’ve happened.

Now I’m making a much more, straight-ahead, the-way-I-ought-to kind of record, but not because I’m trying to garner any appreciation, it’s just because that’s what’s up in my creative world next.

Does it bug you that it will probably be regarded as some kind of “comeback” regardless of what the quality is?
No, I’m pretty much at peace. I’m pretty old now. I don’t see how I could be hated more and I don’t see how I could’ve been lauded more.

Do you when it’s coming out?
No, much too early for that. We’re just kind of getting our sound for it.

What’s your favorite album of yours?
I don’t have one, I truly don’t. I’m not a favorite-picker, I’m not a hierarchical lister. I don’t have favorite records of all time, I’m an omnivore. I’m constantly chewing up new real estate. This winter I got super into jazz. I actually am against favorite-picking. Is that a word? Like a lateralist?

Do you have any regrets about Liz Phair?
No, not really. I like that record. I’ve always liked that record. When I listen back to it I usually think, "God that’s so good, what were they pissed about?" I don’t understand what it is to latch onto an artist and then expect them to…see I can’t even articulate it, you’ll have to do that. I wish I could’ve made them feel better; I don’t have a desire to upset people. I have a desire to free and to be provocative, but I came from a visual arts background and that’s what you’re supposed to do. Being challenging is what being an artist means to me. I wish something else could’ve been the focus, like people perceived it to be dumbed down, and I felt bad that’s what we ended up talking about all the time. But there’s more to that record: “Friend of Mine,” “Little Digger”…I thought “Firewalker” was a beautiful song. I’m sorry that’s what the conversation ended up being about all the time, but I don’t know that I could’ve controlled that. Except by not working with the Matrix, and I wouldn’t have given that up for anything in the world.

Dan Weiss hopes his band Dan Ex Machina someday gets a 0.0 from Pitchfork. He's on Twitter - @kissoutthejams