Sometimes I lament that the heroic struggles over pop feminism are behind us.
I reminisce about the great Veruca Salt Wars of 1994 or the Battle of Alanis, when mighty armies mobilized on the field of public opinion. I wax nostalgic for an age when voicing a preference for En Vogue over Mecca Normal could reduce a horn-rimmed junior mandarin to splutters. But inevitably some crisis of “authenticity” stirs up the ghosts of that era, and then I remember: The '90s were truly, deeply stupid.
I'm very sorry, but yeah, I'm going to talk about Liz Phair now.
A celebrity interview is largely a formality, the journalist a conduit for a winningly recited press release. Every CD has its official story. “I'm becoming a woman,” Brandy announces. “We're getting back to our bar band roots,” Sugar Ray informs us. “My old fans will hate this,” Liz Phair crows of her work with Avril Lavigne's production crew, the Matrix, and the glossies happily relay the chosen narrative of Liz Phair: Onetime indie princess dives headfirst into chartpop perdition. Phair's old fans (who barely registered an opinion on 1998's far-from-unslick whitechocolatespaceegg) dutifully respond “We hate this.” “Of course you do,” smirk pomo popsters, celebrating Liz Phair as an overdue knee in the groin of indie orthodoxy. Facile discussions of sexism and ageism and rockism and jism percolate, and if you think Phair didn't see it coming, you're underestimating the promotional instincts of the least famous human ever to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone.
This marketing stroke has encouraged everyone from the New York Times' arbiters of middlebrow to Pitchfork's h8r bois to pontificate (how long, O Lord?) on what it means to sell out; we may never see so much vacuous cultural exegesis again, unless Springsteen replaces Jonny Greenwood in Radiohead. For the average pop consumer who's never heard of Liz Phair, the debate must be as indecipherable as a cable feed of the Kazakhstanian Parliament. Me, I'm just pissed that Phair has encouraged us to reduce an album that's had me jumping on my bed for months to some sort of ideological litmus test. There are lots of reasons not to like a record and lots to like it, and maybe I like Liz Phair because I suspect Phair and I like Lavigne's “Complicated” for similar reasons.
Most anyone who can play three chords on a guitar has gone to a music store and plugged into a Rockman, a device invented by Tom Scholz of crystalline classic rockers Boston that has the somewhat limited use of making you sound like Tom Scholz. But it's a rush: With minimal effort, you've shaved away your imperfections to be subsumed into a sound bigger and truer and purer than yourself. Immaculately groomed pop like “Complicated” packs the same punch as “More Than a Feeling,” and Liz Phair sounds like the record of an artist who's felt that wallop, who lusts for the power that slickness bestows, who wants to hear her voice autotuned to Avrilific perfection.
In the face of an avant-garde that insists we need to be repeatedly jolted out of the ordinary, Liz Phair maintains that the ordinary contains plenty of jolts if you listen up. On the opening track, “Extraordinary,” Phair implies that beneath everywoman's normal exterior are mysteries most men will never take the time to discover. The surface of megapop is just as deceptive—you never know when a carefully trimmed bit of feedback will poke out of a song that's otherwise perfect for the climactic shopping montage in the next Amanda Bynes flick.
Phair's faith that the same tricks, slightly tweaked, can remain fresh might seem delusional. Then again, as Haydn or Holland-Dozier-Holland always knew, there are devices (a shift in dynamics, a certain modulation) that work precisely because we expect them, like the first plunge on a roller coaster—or, since we're talking about Liz Phair here, like an orgasm. Your first time is a shock, just like your first real exposure to pop music, and you can spend a lifetime trying to recapture that element of surprise. Or, as in Phair's “Favorite,'” you can explore the intense joy of the familiar. The song compares her lover to her old, most comfy undies, and Phair slides down into the chorus with “like we will be doing it once more” as if determined to revive the adolescent rush of the phrase “doing it”—though without ever being so fool as to think you can ever again feel, how do you say, like a virgin.
For a certain puritan contingent that sees any adult interest in youth culture as inevitably resulting in pop for pedophilophiles, “Rock Me,” in which Liz jumps a younger and stupider man, has become the disc's lightning rod. But the kid Phair's narrator is straddling is just “give or take nine years” younger, which, if we assume said narrator is Phair's age, would make him a toddling 27. The song's unstated (and, when you think about it, depressing) joke is that she can safely assume people will be shocked by this age difference. And that's the MO on Liz Phair: to couch the mundane beneath the ostensibly shocking. On “H.W.C.” she talks nasty (the title stands for “hot white cum”; the sing-song “all you do is fuck me every day and night” should draw 15-year-old giggles), but the uncontroversial stance underneath is that good sex keeps you feeling young and therefore looking young.
Sooner or later, the foxiest of us will have to embrace the titillation of the ordinary. The alternatives are either too depressing (a post-orgasmic old age) or exhausting (continually recruiting new bedmates, devising strenuous new techniques, incorporating innovative technology). The jaded boast “I scored again last night” on “Bionic Eyes” is in the spirit of “the old Liz Phair” her former admirers wish would return, but the song rocks with weary persistence that underlines the futility of following that course. By contrast, the plasticity of pop insists that you don't have to look to others for excitement because you can constantly reinvent yourself and your surroundings. Phair has immersed herself in the sound of “Complicated” as a way of rejecting the moral of “Complicated”: The most important thing in the world is to, like, always be yourself and stuff. Maybe Liz's detractors have more in common with Avril than they think.