Put on "Extraordinary," the opening cut to Liz Phairís homonymous June 24 release on Capitol, and you may have to brace yourself as the ground shifts under your ears. The song opens with a heavy rock-guitar riff, but thatís not where the vertigo hits: after it repeats for two bars, Phair steps up to the mike to banish every hint of heaviness for the remainder of the 14-cut album. Heretofore an infamously pitch-challenged singer, she now sounds the way a liquid-screen TV looks ó disconcertingly smooth and luscious, so vivid it feels fake. In fact, as the song goes on, it becomes clear that everything about the 36-year-old singer-songwriter has been polished and brightened, turned into 3-D Pixar animation. "Extraordinary" rolls across a sunny plain with music as clean-scrubbed as anything by the latest crop of tough-chick popsters, like Pink or Shakira or maybe Avril Lavigne. As it turns out, thatís because "Extraordinary" and three other tracks were produced and co-written by Lavigneís team of production pros, the Matrix.
Even so, the wooziest jolt comes from the shift in something that remains Phairís own creation: the words. Theyíre uncommonly uncomplicated for Liz Phair lyrics, edged with a new brazen smugness. Theyíre not just in your face, the way sheís always been, but facing you, talking directly to you, as she plays the extraordinary rock star that she really is. "See me jumping through hoops for you, you stand there watching me performing," she sings, climaxing the verse with a long, derisive "Who the hell are you?"
A full decade ago, Phair was equally brazen, but in a totally different way. Her celebrated 1993 debut, Exile in Guyville (Matador), challenged indie rockís macho conventions with a startlingly explicit and disarmingly intimate dissection of heterosexual female desire and boy/girl politics. And yet she didnít storm the ramparts of patriarchy, like Bikini Kill; or rally a radical community, like Sleater-Kinney; or flip the psychosexual tables with man-sized rock, like PJ Harvey; or, like Hole, just flip the bird. Even when declaring herself a real "cunt in spring" or some guyís blow-job queen, Liz Phair remained conventionally feminine, almost demure. That was an essential part of her liberating thrill ó she wasnít Lydia Lunch redux, she was Joni Mitchell gone post-punk and feminist (finally!). The distinction probably helped her, too, as she amassed critical acclaim and reached a cohort of educated, liberal-minded rock fans that was broader, if not absolutely bigger, than anything her louder female peers had achieved.
It wasnít enough, however, to make her a star. Joni Mitchell had platinum albums and Top 10 hits. Liz Phair has never broken the Billboard Top 20 albums, and it took Exile in Guyville five years just to go gold. Even so, her traditionalism was still enough to provide the singer-songwriter an escape route from alterna-rockís collapsing building. After two wider-ranging Matador albums (1994ís merely very good Whip Smart and 1998ís masterful Whitechocolatespaceegg), it was only logical that her next move would be to try to become "Extraordinary" in commercial terms as well as artistic ones.
"That was a conscious decision to survive right now," she says over the phone from Capitolís New York offices. "Like, part of the four-year hiatus [after Whitechocolatespaceegg], there was a part in which I waged a campaign to get off my major label. And thatís because itís frustrating in the business as it is right now. You get paid in a very weird system thatís not in the artistís favor, really. Then Andy [Slater, Capitolís new president] came in, and I saw a chance. And Iím like, okay, this is the guy who produced and managed Fiona Apple, the Wallflowers, and Macy Gray, all for their first records, which I loved every one. And I thought, ĎJesus Christ, this is it. This is the wave. If there has ever been a wave that I can take in the major-label arena, that would work, it would be this one.í So instead of trying to get away from that, I decided, ĎOkay, Iím going to give them a record that is strongly me, but that they will be excited by.í You know what I mean?"
But why, then, does she again rip fissures in the ground, seeming to challenge her listenerís very right to exist in the first cut? "No, ĎExtraordinaryí is not to my fans at all," Phair says slowly, with a hint of disbelief, as if she were trying to assure me that Alaska is indeed a state. "Itís to a particular guy."
"Oh," is all I can muster in reply. Itís true that, for most of our brief, strictly timed interview, my repartee is hardly more articulate. From the first question, Phair dominates the conversation with a cool condescension that makes me think of a stereotypical hyper-professional female boss ó which is exactly what a man might think when heís being bested. As Vic Chesnutt suggests on his new "Girls Say," women have lots of different stock lines when talking to the opposite sex, but men always end up with just one: "Why you wanna be a bitch?"
Phairís persona is so powerful, itís no wonder that Iíve sensed that attitude in numerous guys when they dismiss her music. But Iíve never sensed it as pungently as I do in the rising chorus of complaints against the pop "sellout" of the new Liz Phair. Chuck Klosterman eventually spins away from it in his Spin review, but he opens by disapproving of Phairís libidinal homage to younger men, "Rock Me," and suggesting that her new songs are barely even catchy. Stephen Thomas Erlewine lets his disgust fly in his review for allmusic.com, damning every song with adjectives like "insipid," "banal," "condescending," and "painfully trite."
Now when arguing about a subject as slippery and subjective as popular music, itís always tempting but rarely constructive to impugn a critic for his supposed internal motives rather than attack his stated reasoning. But Liz Phair is such a daring and disorienting album that it seems to leave us clutching at little more than our prejudices. "Even when I made Guyville, I was hating indie then," Phair told Entertainment Weekly recently. "The whole album was about how much I hated indie. You know I liked radio hits my whole life, including when I was cool. When Shakira goes [she sings], ĎUnderneath your clothes,í that works on me."
It works on me, too, as does almost every song on Liz Phair, not despite the unabashed shallowness but because of it. Avril Lavigne has always struck me as a cheesy mall-punkette-by-committee. But Phair agreed to use the Matrix because they were old friends whose presence would ensure a larger budget for the album. The music they wrote for "Why Canít I?" might be pop-by-numbers obvious, but the lyric belies its romantic chorus ó "Why canít I breathe whenever I think about you?" ó with a gritty back story: she and the guy are both cheating, and doing it to escape failing relationships.
As it turns out, Phair tells me, that song is about the same guy as "Extraordinary," but given that almost every song is about sexual matters, it seems obvious sheís been more busy than that of late. And why not? After all, she recently divorced film editor Jim Staskausas, to whom she was married for five years and bore a son, Nicholas, now six. "I think Iíve just been writing more sexual stuff lately because Iím single again," she confirms. "When youíre single, that whole dynamic between men and women becomes pertinent again. Youíre having to encounter yourself through the eyes of different people, encounters that make you look at yourself and be, like, ĎOh, I guess Iím this way and other people arenít.í
"I donít think people on Guyville gave me the credit for being capable of doing anything more than diary entries. What I think is scary is that the new album, quite a bit of it is very real to what my life is. I donít know what to make of that. Because people feel that Guyville is more true, and Iím looking at the new record seeing how true each song is and thinking, ĎWell . . . í "
This autobiographical collection is, then, almost by definition narrower than Guyvilleís feminist portrait of contemporary bohemia. Yet Phairís model here is no longer Joni Mitchell but Madonna, the last artist who really challenged popís limits with frank sex talk. Both come off in their art as extroverted sexual omnivores. (Phair insists, "Iím not sexually aggressive at all. In no way if you knew me would you ever find me being like, ĎHey buddy, letís hit it.í I just happen to have enjoyed the attention.") Both demonstrate an intense concentration on detail and clarity in their music that often creates a breathtaking combination of the obvious and the revolutionary. Both have a pliable talent that shines through their musical collaborations. Both risk ridicule as they assert prerogatives that men have resented in women since the dawn of time. And both are, without a doubt, total bitches. If you canít understand why theyíd wanna be, the key to Guyville is yours.