After two-plus months of listening (and re-listening) to and scoring five other people’s “Best of 2008” albums for the Institute of Idle Time’s annual compilation (due out January 24, 2009, along with Issue #3 of the Idle Times zine), I am finally free to listen to music of my own choice again. This means a gleeful, Nestea-like plunge into the back catalog. I’ve been gorging myself on Bob Dylan and Prince, who are really two sides to the same coin, approaching similar levels of iconoclasm from two very different paths. Both artists have had their songs covered by others numerous times, but both remain the best interpreters of their own material. Compare that to Kris Kristofferson, who can’t sing a lick but writes good songs that only really come alive when others perform them.
Some artists, though, have such a personal voice that it seems impossible to imagine anyone else doing justice to their songs. 2008 marked the 15th anniversary of Liz Phair’s Exile In Guyville, which was reissued in a deluxe format this past summer. Like Kris, Phair is a writer who can’t really sing all that well, but unlike Kris, she writes songs perfectly suited to her vocal limitations, to the point where no one else could put them across with the same level of truth and intensity.
The songs on Exile were intended to be a response to the Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street, although having listened to both hundreds of times, I’ll be damned if I can see a specific connection. Phair’s Exile sounded like a series of diary entries from a very damaged soul. And I mean that in the best way. Phair’s innate sense of…well, taste is the wrong word for the self-described Blowjob Queen…I guess a certain lack of ego or self-obsession keeps her from going off the rails, lyrically. Korn songs sound like damaged-soul diary entries, too, but…yeesh.
Exile In Guyville quickly gained Phair a lot of notice among musical tastemakers of the early 90s. And at no time were musical tastemakers less fun to be around than the early 90s. “Credibility” and deadpan seriousness were everything. In 1995, Spin magazine (a few years before it became essentially Rolling Stone Jr.) even put out a glossy Alternative Record Guide which, naturally, I bought the day it came out. The Spin guide was so desperate to distance itself from the uncool dinosaur bones of classic rock that it insisted Phair’s Exile In Guyville was a response to noise-rock act Pussy Galore’s track-by-track re-recording of Exile On Main Street (limited to 550 cassette copies) rather than the Stones’ original. That perfectly illustrates the level of hardcore music snobbery one was forced to deal with back then. Thank goodness those days are over.
Phair finished out the 1990s with two more pretty well-regarded albums (1998’s whitechocolatespaceegg featured “Polyester Bride,” which I think is one of the best songs of the decade), then, in 2003, committed one of the most gloriously jaw-dropping acts of career suicide ever witnessed in my lifetime. She signed to Capitol Records, abandoned her old producer Brad Whatshisnose and hired slicky-boy producer Michael (“No Myth”) Penn, ditched every aspect of her songwriting that made her special, posed for a series of photos where she’s basically naked as a jaybird, and lunged gloriously for the brass ring of pop-chart success…and fell flat on her face.
Her old fans abandoned her like rats fleeing a sinking ship, and she did not acquire new fans in any noticeable quantity. Even Capitol Records decided Penn’s production wasn’t “commercial” enough (imagine!), and sent Phair back into the studio with a production team known as “The Matrix” who had recently guided Avril Lavigne to superstardom. Lavigne, of course, made her reputation by pretending to be as rebellious and honest as Phair really once was. And instead of nursing wounded feelings at home alone or driving alone from nowhere to nowhere, Lavigne nurses hers at the mall. Y’know, with all her friends.
I guess we can’t begrudge Phair’s attempt to tap into Lavigne’s audience and go for the big bucks. Every performer wants as wide an audience as possible, and don’t let them tell you they don’t. (Although as a widely respected recording artist for Matador Records and a popular touring act, I don’t think she was exactly starving on the streets as her old self.) And this isn’t the early 90s anymore. Slick, commercial pop in the Pink or Gwen Stefani tradition isn’t viewed as inherently terrible, or the antithesis of true art anymore. It’s actually pretty fun. But Phair’s journey from what she was to what she is is sad because of its brazen crassness. The honesty that has always served her well in her early songs compels her to admit in interviews that selling out is exactly what she’s done. And she also admits, in a roundabout way, that she has stopped writing songs with any meaning:
“Rod Stewart—I mean, he used to make, like, brilliant music, right? And then he kind of went the whole celebrity route, and he stopped making brilliant music. But I wasn’t mad at him. I didn’t go, like: ‘You fuckhead! You fuckwit!’ I don’t get that. I just stopped buying [his] records, which to me is the appropriate response.”
I’m not mad at you, Liz. But I will respond appropriately.
(OK, I actually didn’t intend for this little good-bye message to 2008 to turn into a lengthy screed on an artist who ranks pretty far down on my favorites list, but that’s where it went. So be it. Maybe if I hired a “production team” that went by a single-word moniker I could stay on track…)
Coming Soon: My Top 20 Albums of 2008 (#11-20)…