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What the Phuck?

Liz Phair's last defenders confront the indefensible.

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LIZ PHAIR FUNSTYLE

In the 17 years since Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville made her an alt-rock icon and a touchstone for fuck-me feminism, fans and critics alike have made minor sport of trying to pinpoint the precise moment when she irrevocably betrayed the promise of her brilliant debut—when follow-up became synonymous with failure, when hope turned to resignation, when, in short, she started to suck. A few haters would suggest this happened even before Exile, when she stopped making Girlysound cassettes and had the temerity to start recording for Matador Records under her own name. Most would suggest it came later, when she was doing her bawdy Sheryl Crow routine on 2005's Somebody's Miracle. But even in the depths of her bland, ham-fisted attempts at resurrection, her shameless post-90s MILF-outs, she still had one thing going for her: she wasn't rapping.

Then, two weeks ago, out of the clear blue sky, Phair released a new album, Funstyle, and posted its lead single, "Bollywood," on her website. And guess what?

Phair's idea of "rapping" is not, say, Lil Wayne's idea of rapping. Or, say, a rap fan's idea of rapping. Or even, like, a generous Peaches fan's idea of rapping. It's more like that day in the late 80s or early 90s when your parents walked in on you watching The Box and attempted an imitation. (Though, in fairness, Phair's rapping is heavier on both content and musicality than my mom's, and I can only guesstimate your parents' skills based on those of my own.)

"Bollywood" is a very hard song to hear. It's hard to hear because then you can't unhear it. You can't deny that here, now, Liz Phair, who has skated—not undeservingly!—for nigh on 17 years on the brilliance of Exile, can no longer do so. Funstyle is just the album to bulldoze your nostalgia. On top of that, it'll give you a good case of what my fellow Reader critic Miles Raymer calls the douchechills.

After unleashing the single (for free) and the album ($5.99 via her classic-Geocities-style website), Phair drew a collective "what the fuck" from the Internet and took to her site to defend the new work as unfiltered, from-the-spleen Liz. Her unpunctuated rant drives the final nail: "You were never supposed to hear these songs. These songs lost me my management, my record deal and a lot of nights of sleep. Yes, I rapped one of them. Im as surprised as you are. But here is the thing you need to know about these songs and the ones coming next: These are all me. Love them, or hate them, but dont mistake them for anything other than an entirely personal, un-tethered-from-the-machine, free for all view of the world, refracted through my own crazy lens. This is my journey. Ill keep sending you postcards."

About that record deal: Phair had recently signed with Dave Matthews's ATO Records. In 2008 the label reissued Exile to much fanfare. Then Phair submitted an actual new album, and the label dropped her. That album was Funstyle, and the label's move will come as no surprise to anyone who's heard it—except, apparently, to Phair. The lyrics to "Bollywood" find her waking up in 2010 to the idea that the music industry is a cruel, complicated place where artists are manipulated and ripped off. "After a series of phone calls to the great publishing houses of Ursa Minor, I reached my representative," she enunciates, "Who pulled out the contract from the file cabinet /On microfiche / In the form of tablets made of stone / Then he said, 'Let me see it's here in my folder / Oh shit you're 20 years older/ Still hot but gettin' a lot colder, and you wanna cut a what with me?' . . . CBS is outta R-E-S-P-E-C-T." That this well-worn complaint, as old as recorded music itself, is first occurring to Phair nearly two decades into her career says more about her than it does the system.

It's also strange because the latter half of Phair's career—starting with 2003's Liz Phair, where she worked with Top 40 teen-pop auteurs the Matrix—was nothing if not a deliberate attempt to join that system. Then again, maybe Capitol deserves our collective thanks for forcing her into such cynical moves, if Phair's truest artistic statements amount to Funstyle, a vainglorious joke album about rock stardom seemingly inspired by the music of Luscious Jackson. Another funky ode to the heartaches of fame, "My My," on which she laments "Coulda been a good girl / But I'm not," sounds like early Har Mar Superstar meets late Lenny Kravitz. (When she croons, "Bitch got style!" it's unclear if she's still referring to herself.)

For much of the album, Phair's lyrics are wrapped up in couldas: the career she coulda had, the money she coulda had, the acclaim she coulda won from the idiot marketplace. Not unlike recent albums from M.I.A. and Courtney Love, Funstyle is an iconic woman reckoning with her iconicness—detonating our idea of her, teasing out her awareness of her art as product, fucking with her place as cog in the corpo machine.

But where Love and M.I.A. are sinister, Phair is sad. The disparate currents running through the album—the "funky" vignettes, the rapping, the few songs that actually sound like her—all evoke the same strange kind of longing. On "Satisfied," she sings to an old beau, "You've got the world at your feet / With everything you need / Tell me are you satisfied? / It all comes easily to you / With everything you do / Tell me are you satisfied?" As she reframes Paul Westerberg's famous query, you hear both frustration and envy. Funstyle isn't just death of a dream—it's what life is like when you wake up and realize all you lost to the fantasy, a nostalgia for what never was.   

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