Plenty of artists with cult followings go mainstream and become popular.
R.E.M. went from highly-regarded college band to one of the biggest and most acclaimed groups in the world. Metallica slowly and steadily built up a passionate fan base that kept growing in size and intensity until they exploded in popularity in the early 90s. Genesis established itself as a highly inventive artistic and progressive rock band before transitioning to FM superstardom.
In fact, these days, many “indie” acts are actually mainstream and do all sorts of things that artists like Fugazi and Neil Young would have considered “selling out.” Allowing your music to be used in commercials, TV shows and movies? Check. Praising pop stars and being influenced by their hit songs? Check. Working with hit-making producers and songwriters? Check and check.
Yet when indie queen Liz Phair did all those things in 2003, she provoked a furious, almost personal backlash that tanked her career. Maybe she was simply a few years too early. Or maybe she was never going to succeed because the same factors that led to her rise helped keep her down.
Or maybe it was because her self-titled 2003 album wasn’t as good as it could have been.
Until 2003, I had only known of Liz Phair by her reputation as the reigning queen of low-fi indie music. That and the fact that many of my female classmates in high school and college loved her.
Her landmark 1993 debut, Exile in Guyville, has been acclaimed as one of the most important and influential albums of all time. Her songs, both witty and sexually explicit, stunned the musical establishment, giving Phair instant credibility and notoriety. With personal and provocative songs like “Fuck and Run” and “Flower,” Phair shattered a long-held taboo in popular music that women were not supposed to sing openly and honestly about sex. Artists like Madonna could make oblique references to their sexuality – and were welcome to provide titillating imagery and performances. But singing about it, especially with frankness and gusto, was still a no-no.
‘Guyville’ was a specific scene in Chicago — predominately male, indie-rock — and they had their little establishment of, like, who was cool, who was in it, who played in what band. Each one wore their record collection, so to speak, like a badge of honor. Like, ‘This is my identity, this is what I’m into, and I know a lot about it.’ It was just like: ‘Really? OK, so you guys are into music. Watch — I can make music.Liz Phair, interview, Village Voice, June 17, 2008.
Subsequent albums, Whip-Smart (1994) and Whitechocolatespaceegg (1998) received less acclaim and sold poorly, but that just seemed to reinforce her street cred. Nevertheless, Phair made clear during interviews leading up to her 2003 self-titled album that she had never wanted to be “Queen of the Indies.” In fact, Exile had been a giant middle finger to the indie scene, which Phair found to be elitist, sexist and exclusionary. As she told SPIN in 2003: “Everyone in that scene thought I was too suburban and liked mainstream music too much and never cared who was in Green River. All my boyfriends were big music heads, so that’s how I acquired good taste in music–but I always liked radio songs. They’re all purists in the indie world, and I hate that.”
And what better way to stick it to that scene than make a pop album? To be fair, Phair (to be Phair?) said she was not trying to make any kind of statement with her 2003 album. Instead, the circumstances behind the record are fairly transactional in nature. She did recording sessions with producers Michael Penn and R. Walt Vincent, exhausted her budget, asked her label for more money and they basically said “only if you work the Matrix to produce a few radio-friendly singles.”
Rather than interpret this statement as executive meddling, Phair embraced the opportunity of working with the Matrix, as well as the challenge of writing pop songs with general themes and strict structures – something she hadn’t done before. She even praised Avril Lavigne, who had previously worked with the Matrix (The New York Times, in a particularly scathing review, referred to Liz Phair as “Exile in Avril-ville”),” and hoped for a similar result.
“Complicated” was confrontational, and I liked that. And there were four hooky parts in the song. Just when you thought you had heard the main hook, another vocal line would come flying in, and it would arch to a new high point. It was like, “Damn! Are you kidding me?” Maybe that doesn’t excite you, or it’s horrifying to you that I’m excited by that, but I was totally blown away. I just remember feeling a pang of jealousy, thinking I’d love to have a song like that.“Liz Phair Complicates Her Sound By Going Pop,” The Chicago Tribune, June 22, 2003.
Plus, Phair has stated in multiple interviews that her new pop sound was true to who she was at the time: a newly single mom who was looking to expand her horizons, take on a new challenge and yes, get paid. Arguably, Phair had telegraphed her move for years. Whip-Smart’s lead single, “Supernova,” is almost a pop song and could have broken her through had things gone differently and the most notable thing she did leading into the release of her self-titled album was singing backup on Sheryl Crow’s 2002 hit “Soak Up the Sun.” She even had a song on Whitechocolatespaceegg entitled “Shitloads of Money,” which contained lines like “It’s nice to be liked, but it’s better by far to get paid” and “I know that most of the friends that I have don’t really see it that way.” It’s hard to tell whether she’s being sincere or sarcastic; her limited range and dry vocal delivery, particularly on her low-fi recordings, often make her sound snarky.
Given where she took her 2003 self-titled album, it seems like that sentiment was sincere. Liz Phair is her most accessible album, full of catchy hooks, ear worms, sing-a-long choruses and high production quality. Thanks to Autotune, her voice has never sounded better and allows her to overcome some of her limitations as a vocalist and believably sing some of the more earnest songs on this album. While the Matrix effect has been well-documented, there are plenty of other catchy pop tunes on this record that could have been hit singles (“Red Light Fever” is an especially good song, and “It’s Sweet” and “Take a Look” will get stuck in your head – all three of those songs were produced by Penn). Throw in the slick packaging focusing heavily on Phair’s good looks and sex appeal, and it’s clear that this record was designed to catapult the Queen of the Indies to the top of the Billboard charts.
Except that it didn’t. Obviously, this album was always going to alienate Phair’s longtime fans, but why didn’t it catch on with a larger audience?
For one reason, Liz Phair isn’t quite a pop album – at least not compared to Lavigne’s Let Go or any of the other popular mainstream records at the time (for reference, the best selling albums by a female singer that year were Come Away With Me by Norah Jones, Up! by Shania Twain and the aforementioned Let Go). Phair may have been trying to write for a wider audience, however, her idiosyncratic style and penchant for writing about adult themes permeate throughout the record, setting her brand of pop far apart from her new contemporaries. “Little Digger” is about her son walking in on her in bed with another man. “It’s Sweet” is about an affair that the woman sees as casual but the man is far more emotionally invested than he should be. “Rock Me,” one of the Matrix songs, is an age-old tale about a cougar and her boytoy, and contains the line “I wanna play X-Box on your floor” that many critics singled out for criticism. Her vocal delivery on the line “rock me” also sounds like she’s saying something else that sounds similar but is more direct and less PG. And, of course, the most controversial song on the record (and the one that probably got the most attention from critics and fans – apart from the Matrix songs), “H.W.C.,” is an ode to male ejaculate.
Even her big radio hit, lead single “Why Can’t I?” has the line “we haven’t fucked yet but my head’s swimming,” which comes out of nowhere and is out of step with the rest of the otherwise sincere and sweet song. Maybe she was trying to make the album more authentic or hoping to push the boundaries of mainstream pop while dragging some of her hardcore fans to where she was at the time. But it makes for an awkward listening experience – and ensured that the record would have a limited reach, especially with the TRL crowd.
Which is a shame, since there is some real quality on this record. “Why Can’t I?” may have pissed off the die-hards, but it’s a great song that became the radio hit Phair wanted. Another Matrix-song, second single “Extraordinary,” is an equally catchy and uplifting song about empowerment. Both songs got licensed out, which probably added to some of the backlash towards this record. The former being used in the Jennifer Garner/Mark Ruffalo romantic comedy 13 Going On 30, among other things, while the latter was used in commercials and TV shows, as well as the Kate Hudson film Raising Helen. Other songs have, since, received the acclaim they deserve, including “Red Light Fever,” “Firewalker,” and “Little Digger.”
Obviously, it’s not a perfect album – or even a great one. Like many records from that era, it gets bogged down by filler and runs about three songs long (she probably should have ended with the 11th track, the aforementioned “H.W.C.” – the peppy melody provides a nice contrast with the explicit lyrics and is a great way for the album to, well, finish). Nevertheless, if you listen to the album in a vacuum and without any preconceptions about how Phair should or ought to sound, then you’ll probably enjoy this album for what it is: a good but flawed pop album. Indeed, as Slate put it, it’s not a bad album, but it’s an album that’s easy to say bad things about.
And boy, did that turn out to be the truth. While some retroactive reviews for Liz Phair have been pretty good, that certainly wasn’t the case when the album was released. Given the outcry from critics, you’d think she recorded an album of Limp Bizkit covers or something. The aforementioned NY Times review was just the tip of the iceberg. Pitchfork infamously gave her a 0.0 out of 10 (the critic has, since, apologized to Phair over that), stating wistfully that “Liz Phair’s greatest asset has always been her inability to write a perfect pop song” – a setup line that allowed the critic to say that hadn’t changed.
The Guardian called her record “audio pornography, splattered messily with her thoughts on shagging, lust and underwear” while wondering if she had “fallen under the influence of an evil Svengali armed with personality-warping drugs,” as if she had no agency of her own. No Ripcord pulled the “act your age!” card and criticized the 36 year-old Phair for having the audacity to write about such churlish and ribald things like semen or seducing younger men.
“There’s some quite embarrassing stuff about dating younger guys, and the very first song goes ‘I’m just your ordinary, average, everyday, sane / psycho super-goddess.’ What the… ? It sounds like a line from Dawson’s Creek. The woman is 36 years old!” Sally Pryor wrote, calling the album “the ultimate finger” to her longtime fans.
In fact, that sense of betrayal was prevalent throughout many of the bad reviews for this album. For many of these critics, there was a sense of “we made you, and this is how you repay us?” mixed in with “your new fans will never love you like we did.”
I really felt like I had to be this kind of therapist for these people, and let them vent their frustration at me. It was about me representing a movement for them or representing a type of person who was anti-establishment, who wouldn’t be party to such mainstream-y music. They felt like I was a political candidate in a way.Liz Phair interview from Deconstructing: Liz Phair And Indie Rock Poptimism, June 24, 2013.
If that were the case, then Liz Phair went about as well as George McGovern’s 1972 Presidential campaign. Her album peaked at #27 on the Billboard 200 and only went gold, failing to outsell Guyville and denying her the pop stardom that she had hoped for. Worse, she alienated her longtime fans, essentially putting her back at square one. In the years since, she’s recorded two little-noticed albums, written a bunch of music for TV shows, released her acclaimed memoirs, and re-released Guyville.
She doesn’t seem to regret her foray into pop. Despite the fact that her follow-up to Liz Phair, 2005’s Somebody’s Miracle, was hailed as a return to form for the former indie queen, she denied that it was an attempt to make up for its predecessor. “I think people liked that I stood up for myself and said, ‘Fuck it, I’m doing this.’ They were like, ‘That’s the old Liz Phair,’ ” she said in 2005. “I just needed not to be the victim anymore. I was coming out of a really bad relationship and I made an album that would drag my sorry ass out of the mess I was in.”
And it’s not like Liz Phair cost her her management and record deal. That would come with 2010’s Funstyle, which some critics have labeled as a “novelty album” and a hilarious joke – much like how Lou Reed once put out an album full of headache inducing noises. Among the album’s “highlights” include a bad attempt at rap that caused many to long for the good old days of “Why Can’t I?” Say what you will about Liz Phair, but when she sticks out her middle finger, she does it with gusto.