Crow Triumphs Over Phair in Soccer-Mom Death Match

Phair: Enough!
Capitol Records

Liz Phair
Somebody's Miracle

Sheryl Crow

I've spent this entire weekend engaged in a long narcissistic psychodrama about why I hate Liz Phair so much. I trotted out all her albums and listened to them over and over again and gave particular attention to her new one, Somebody's Miracle, which even her fiercest champions seem to find flimsy and marred by few traces of genuine feeling. I read interviews with her and combed over hundreds of Amazon postings in which tearful fanatics describe the bittersweet flavor of "growing up with Liz" and feeling cheered by her early portraits of "emotionally unavailable men." I looked at photos of Liz with butterscotch hair and tanned limbs making that chin-down quasi-defiant face at the camera. I tried to empathize and reorient and reexamine and take myself out of myself. After a lot of labor, I came up with one plausible explanation for my hate.

Liz Phair is not Sheryl Crow.

Permit me to explain.

In the midst of my Liz Phair agonies I left my apartment to visit Starbucks. I should feel guilty about this, but recent experiences at independently owned coffee shops left me bound and determined in my brand allegiance. While there, I was confronted with the latest musical selection displayed next to the row of tiny milk-chocolate bricks, Sheryl Crow's Wildflower. Doubling up on guilt and disillusionment, I gave the "barista" 15 bucks.

Upon listening to Wildflower I was struck by the Jungian duality of Liz and Sheryl's respective archetypes: Tattooed Yoga Mom versus Tattoo-Free Yoga Mom. (Is Sheryl a mom? Can Lance have kids? Doesn't make a difference; stay with me.)

Liz's quasi-sexualizing photo art is always conflicted. She can rarely bear to look at you head-on. Meanwhile, sunshiny, highlighted Sheryl meets your gaze with the asexual frankness of the born salesperson and energetic volunteer--she's somebody who organizes Yoga Moms. Liz introduces inappropriate and unconvincing gobbets of dirtiness into otherwise fortysomething-friendly and expensively produced music, where Sheryl disciplines herself to stick to plants and stars and moons and "nature's poetry." Liz yearns to maintain a texture of rough-hewn aggression while Sheryl aspires and cheerfully fails to emulate Joni Mitchell. Yet, at the end of the day, both Liz and Sheryl have simultaneously created records that seem destined to amplify an unusually sensitive and vulnerable moment on the WB's One Tree Hill. Only one of them is capable of embracing that brute fact with an open heart.

What makes Somebody's Miracle uniquely infuriating is its attempt to clutch some vestige of "authenticity" while peddling cuddle-bug sentiment. So you have "Table for One," an unconvincingly harrowing portrait of a lonely alkie, sitting next to "Stars and Planets," which recruits Sheryl's tranquilizing country-funk to encourage us that "each frog has a prince just waiting inside him." A down-home striptease sashay bobs along the surface of "Got My Own Thing," in which Liz semi-sneers "I'd love to help give you enough rope to hang yourself," only moments before the pseudo-cathartic sunburst of "Giving It All to You," where "All this time you were a part of me/Shining like a star in my galaxy." Not since Jewel Kilcher donned neon-colored plastic pants and drenched herself in electronica has a diva so crucified herself on the altar of conflicted intentions.

Sheryl, by contrast, seems to be a handcrafted jade monument to Buddhist nonattachment. Uncool in the beginning, uncool today, she manufactures forgettable, generic-sounding paeans to romantic perseverance and stress management that hit their targets and make no bones about their agenda or their audience. The chicken-fried acoustic guitars and throbbing strings are familiar to anyone who's seen a movie where Sandra Bullock or Meg Ryan pays a wistful visit to her hometown. The aching diary entry ("Wildflower") appears just before the hopeful up-tempo I-will-love-again anthem ("Lifetimes"), seconds ahead of schedule. There are no surprises or embarrassing revelations. And yet the overall effect is unexpectedly touching. The creator of Wildflower clearly believes in this sweet-smelling, emotionally even-tempered world with every atom of her being. Sheryl made her peace with her non-badass status decades ago. She is a middlebrow your Aunt Myrtle could love; and a surprisingly piercing ballad like "Perfect Lie," circling a small patch of melancholy over and over like an anxious dog, is as indomitably craftsmanlike as the half-caf frappuccino it helps to sell.

Why does Liz's have-cake-and-eat stance infuriate me so? I think it has something to do with an infamous line from "Shitloads of Money" on her 1998 Whitechocolatespaceegg: "It's nice to be liked/But it's better by far to get paid." I can handle that. But if Liz is going to rent herself an Avril Lavigne costume, she should go all the way and stay there. When artists arrive at a place of comfort, acclaim, and personal satisfaction, they needn't agonize over what they've lost. For a case in point, look at the record I've worn out several times over the last few months, Gwen Stefani's Love Angel Music Baby, the greatest imaginable case for sharing one's good fortune with an audience. American music critics don't seem to know what to do with female artists they can't designate as "subversive" or "empowering" or concerned with expressing their "agency"--the pleasure-givers leave them with inappropriate geisha vibes. I could stop hating Liz if she'll give in to the impulse that generated her much-hated 2003 Liz Phair: the desire to give in to cheese. There's a frivolous abandon to that album's shameless struggle to coin hits that beats pretending you still give a shit about "emotionally unavailable men." I could stop hating her if she'd take a page from Sheryl and just eat the goddamn cake.

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