Back in high school, I knew of Liz Phair and I knew of her music but back in high school I was a young and foolish boy; one who wasn’t particularly interested in hearing the opening shots of post-feminist rock fired across the bow of the ship of the dying 80s music scene. It would take another few years before a girlfriend of mine formally introduced me to Exile in Guyville; which was one of about twenty CDs that she owned. Eventually, owing at least in part to a 1000 mile solo drive I took, that album grew on me and stuck like a barnacle.
What is it about Liz Phair? She’s not as sultry as Shirley Manson, not as rambunctious as Gwen Stefani, not as sullen as Fiona Apple and not as black as Missy Elliot. When I sat down to compile a mix of the seminal songs by the twenty most important women in rock history, I eventually had to abandon the project; it was impossible because in such a compilation Liz Phair would require a disc all her own. In a word, Liz Phair is amazing. Essentially, this status of amazing is bestowed due to three distinct concepts Liz Phair embodies in a manner that one else ever could.
For one thing, it was Liz Phair who first made me realize that girls, even women, could really be interested in sex. Remember that I discovered Liz Phair’s music when I was a stupid teenager. Back then sex was more like a war; it involved a constant battle and girls were well defended in their indestructible bunkers of pure defense. Back then, every girl seemed to be saving herself for something or other. The plain fact was that they were all around fifteen or so, which with 20/20 hindsight I must say is way too young for sex. But still, we boys wanted what we wanted. And then, there was Liz Phair. There she was saying it blatantly in her songs. She wanted sex, she fantasized about sex, she actually enjoyed sex. It was a revelation. Women could be just as crazed as men. Now, looking back, as I sometimes do, I realize that Ms. Phair was in fact creating a character that would allow her to break out of her naturally shy shell. That didn’t matter when I was seventeen. Sometimes it doesn’t matter now.
Secondly, Liz Phair is the everyman. Perhaps I should be more equality friendly and describe her as the everyperson or everywoman, but you get the idea. Her guitar playing is adequate and her voice is slightly less than so. Her lyrics aren’t the most brilliant thing ever, but they work. The fact is that Liz Phair is basically mediocre. Why then do I spend hours downloading live tracks, rare bootlegs and demo songs of ultra-low quality? I’m not sure, but I bet it has something to do with the fact that we all root for the underdog. In our world where talent and a buck gets you a cup of coffee and where success seems to depend on being tall, blonde and large-breasted, some of us still like to root for that super cool girl next door. Liz Phair is the underdog and she is the girl next door. Except that if she had actually lived next door growing up would have been much more fun. The fact is that she’s not some beauty queen, she’s not a supermodel, she’s just an ordinary girl who never gave up. And, when it really comes down to it, that’s totally hot.
And lastly, Liz Phair never sold out. She actually created one of rock’s greatest albums when she was in her early twenties and has spent the rest of her career constantly dealing with the critics who claim that she’s sold out, she’s gone commercial, she’s left her indie-roots and gone pop. It’s a really silly critique, considering the fact that her 2004 self-titled album actually contained material written prior to her debut Exile in Guyville. She never sold out at all, she just grew up. And for those of us who spent our time growing up with Liz Phair playing on the tape players, boomboxes, stereos and iPods, it’s nice to have someone extraordinary to provide the background noise to our own petty foibles and triumphs.
Her career seems to have gone through three distinct phases; the early shy, vulnerable, free-minded experimental Girlysounds, to the broadside Exile in Guyville; Whipsmart and whitechocolatespaceegg, through the new, grown-up, confident Liz Phair and Somebody’s Miracle. The times have changed, the scene has changed and the world has changed, but she’s always been herself and she was always herself just when we needed her to be Liz Phair. She has always been there for every hook up, every time we were stood up and through every single break up. And she never let us forget that we were all in this together: we’re all horny, obsessed, screwed-up, depressed, hopeful and happy. Every single one of us is somebody’s miracle.