By Douglas Wolk
“Marriage and motherhood don’t seem to have mellowed singer-songwriter/cult heroine Liz Phair,” the Boston Globe’s review of her new Whitechocolatespaceegg begins. “Now she’s a new mom, a mellow mom,” argues the Tennessean. “Motherhood hasn’t mellowed rock’s bad girl,” Newsweek claims, and Denver’s Rocky Mountain News chimes in, “Motherhood hasn’t mellowed the singer’s racy spirit.” Ah, but the on-line magazine Salon disagrees: “Yes, motherhood has mellowed Liz Phair.”
Beginning to sense a pattern here?
From the very start of her career, six years ago, Phair has provoked a certain kind of dick-first criticism from men and women alike. That infamous line from Exile in Guyville’s “Flower” (you know the one I mean) has endured a longer tour of duty than anything since “Hope I die before I get old.” But the reviews of Whitechocolate-spaceegg have mostly set a new standard for boneheaded, sexist music writing, proceeding from the assumptions that marriage and childbirth have been the most important changes in Phair’s work–as opposed to her life–and that she’s incapable of considering anything other than firsthand experience.
That’s a weird way to approach an artist who often writes in first-person personae that are implicitly or explicitly not her and likes to play is-this-me-or-isn’t-it games with the photos on her album sleeves. Robert Christgau (the only writer I’ll name here, in the interest of protecting the guilty) gets it right in the Village Voice: “To assume Phair’s sex lyrics were strictly autobiographical was always to forget how songwriters of her caliber work–projecting, fictionalizing, stealing other people’s stories, making stuff up out of whole cloth.” Exile in Guyville’s “Divorce Song” is a dead-on snapshot of the moment a marriage collapses: you don’t need to have been married to understand that, and, more to the point, Phair didn’t need to have been married to write it. But the suburban Daily Herald notes that the chorus of “Shitloads of Money” (“It’s nice to be liked / But it’s better by far to get paid”) “smacks with the practicality only a new mother can have.” Actually that chorus first appeared in “Combo Platter,” the B side of “Supernova,” in 1994, before Phair’s son was even a gleam in her eye. The title track of Phair’s middle album, Whip-Smart, also from 1994, is a goofy, disturbing fantasia on raising a kid (“I’m gonna lock my son up in a tower till he learns to let his hair down far enough to climb outside”); you can bet that if it were on the new album, it would be held up likewise.
Whitechocolatespaceegg’s reviewers by and large just don’t get the idea of persona. They’re the same people who are convinced that Nabokov was a child molester and Bret Easton Ellis must be a serial killer. “Phair declares, ‘I’m a complicated communicator,'” reads a review in the Palm Beach Post. First of all, it’s “I can be a complicated communicator.” It’s in a song that begins, “I’m a big tall man”–is there a clearer signal that this is fiction?–and it’s preceded by the non-sequiturial “My left eye hurts,” which the reviewer doesn’t even try to interpret. “Ever the confessional songwriter, Phair continues to write her life,” Rolling Stone burbles, going on to suggest that “Phair the wife revisits her tumultuous teenage self” in “Polyester Bride”–a song wherein, the Columbus Dispatch says, “Phair wonders about the social status of her future lovers.” But is the barfly of the song, who wonders if she “should bother dating unfamous men,” necessarily its author? On an album where at least three songs, and maybe more, are written in male voices?
Even when Phair’s reviewers aren’t exactly mapping her characters onto herself, they’re getting things just plain wrong. In Florida’s Stuart News/Port St. Lucie News, we read that “Girls’ Room” is about “a kid in the proverbial candy store at his sister’s slumber party.” How do you get that from “Me and Tiffany / Dressing up pretty / We love to ride, we love to canter”? The Rocky Mountain News again: “On ‘Headache’ Phair takes on the persona of a prostitute.” Must have extrapolated that from “You can take me home but I will never be your girl.” Meanwhile, the Miami New Times seems to have just noticed that her songs aren’t simply pages from her diary: “Having mastered the art of self-obsession, she’s finally learning to look at the world from someplace other than her own bedroom window.”
Mostly, though, the press seems utterly fixated on Phair’s family. The Daily Herald claims that “the most timely news surrounding ‘Egg,’ of course, is the son Phair gave birth to during its recording.” Of course? The headline from the Toronto Star: “Liz Phair Matures: Marriage, son haven’t dampened lust for life, just refined it a bit.” A Los Angeles Times interview with her is headlined “A Double Life: Rocker-Mom.” Four of the six questions they ask her are about motherhood. A photo caption in the Washington Post notes that the album “came after she married and had a baby.” Certainly this is a statement of fact, but if you don’t see why it’s sexist, try to find a review of Nirvana’s In Utero–whose title is a way more explicit fetus reference than Whitechocolatespaceegg–with a photo caption that says it came after Kurt Cobain married and had a baby.
What nobody seems to have said, at least not in print, about Whitechoco-latespaceegg is what an astonishingly weird record it is, with its half-successful slicked-up production, its unexpected flashes of lyrical disconnection (“Yes, I’m careening down! / Winding the canyons, now! / Yes, I am broadcasting myself!”), its alarming failures of craft (on four songs in a row she can’t hit the lowest notes she’s written), and its sly games of perspective (“Sticks and stones can break my bones / And boys can make me kick and moan” reads like a Phair parody, but surrounding it with references to death and capping off the song with a cheer of “Positive T-cell / Regeneration!” recontextualize it pretty drastically). But it’s hard to pay attention to such complicated communications when you’re busy trying to read someone’s imagination as autobiography.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by James Crump/ album cover.