The kindest thing I can say about Liz Phair's eponymous new album--her first in nearly five years--is that it's easy to forget. Produced primarily by the Matrix, the trio of former pop musicians (including a refugee from Haircut 100) responsible for Avril Lavigne's hits, the disc's relentlessly radio-friendly tracks are as mundane as advertising jingles but nowhere near as memorable.
The album's high points evoke Phair's justly canonized Exile in Guyville only by contrast: the buzzy, repetitive strums that introduce "Rock Me" are an amplified and processed echo of the jangling two-note riff that begins "Girls! Girls! Girls!" "Hot White Cum" (known in family newspapers as "H.W.C.") transforms the mumbled, half-jokey, half-bitter gutter-mouth come-on of "Flower" into a Stepford wife anthem: "You're my secret beauty routine / I'm lookin' good and feelin' nice / Baby you're the best magazine advice / Gimme your hot white cum / Gimme your hot white cum / Gimme your hot white cum"--well, you get the idea.
Phair first entered the studio to record the album over two years ago. Since then it's undergone several name changes (including the purposely ambivalent Happy Tragic Thing and the somewhat leering An Evening With Liz Phair), seen at least two tentative release dates pass, and been helmed by three different production teams. When something like this happens in the movie industry you end up with a monumental disaster--think Ishtar. In the music business the result may be just as bloated and unsellable, yet Phair's pitching the new album as a comeback. "I don't want to be some 90s act that was great in my 20s and never did anything else," she's told reporters. That her album so nakedly strives for the sugary pop heights (or cavity-inducing depths, depending on your tastes) of fellow Matrix clients Britney and Avril is, according to Phair, all part of the plan.
Phair told Entertainment Weekly that she wasn't happy with the reception Capitol execs gave the record's first draft, which was produced by Mr. Aimee Mann, Michael Penn. "[They] were like, 'It will be a nice record. It will be critically liked and it will be fine,'" she said. "I'm like, 'It's way too much work to go out and promote a record to hear only that. I'm not leaving the box until you're more excited than that.'" Summing up her motivations, Phair recounted a conversation with collaborator Pete Yorn: "He was like, 'Well, isn't it just about the music?' I looked at him and I'm like, 'Not for me anymore. It's not.'"
Enter the Matrix, and whatever Penn crafted appears to have disappeared down the rabbit hole. Phair's desire to avoid the critically acclaimed route--or, as she put it in the same interview, "be[ing] Wilco"--explains her album's dumbed-down flirtatiousness and frankly embarrassing sex-kitten fillips. Even without the dubiously sensual metaphors ("Not too dirty and not too tight / It just feels right / You're like my favorite underwear"), Phair's attempts to out-Britney Britney come across about as creepy as you'd expect the seduction of teenagers by a thirtysomething to seem, less Mrs. Robinson than Mrs. Roper. "Rock Me" is probably aiming for knowing irony when Phair sings "Your record collection don't exist / You don't even know who Liz Phair is," but after listening to the song, whose chorus relies heavily on a repeated "Baby baby baby baby baby," who'd want to know?
There's almost no reason to think that Guyville was made by the same person that's pictured, legs spread and face hidden, on the cover of Liz Phair. Even the endearing warbling whine that fumbled through the more daunting melodies of Guyville has, on Liz Phair, been so processed and tweaked as to be unrecognizable. Only the transformation of Bart Simpson and his pals into the sweet-voiced Party Posse could be more astonishing.
But Liz Phair also raises the question of whether it's ever been about the music for the erstwhile indie diva. The emptiness of her ambitions, both musically and personally--she also told EW that "I don't like being not liked" and that stardom means "the financial security to stay in California"--makes me wonder if there was ever any there there. Was Guyville's unpolished infectiousness a fluke and has Phair simply been chasing stardom and its attendant financial security all these years?
At least one Chicagoan is on record as having called Phair's aspirations into question a long time ago, and in these very pages: perpetually angry indie engineer Steve Albini. Almost ten years ago he pegged Phair (as well as fellow 1993 break-out artists Urge Overkill and Smashing Pumpkins) as "by, of and for the mainstream." Specifically, he likened Phair to Rickie Lee Jones: "more talked about than heard, a persona completely unrooted in substance, and a fucking chore to listen to." With the clarity of hindsight, I think this comparison was unkind to Jones.
Albini brought his considerable talent for invective to bear on 1993's "alternative" hits after Reader columnist Bill Wyman (now the arts editor at National Public Radio) defended Phair and company against what he perceived as unfair attacks by the antipop "underground." "Few would question the artistic integrity of these acts," Wyman posited, "yet each artist had to grapple with what's supposed to be a dichotomy between being popular and being alternative." Even as the popularity of acts like Phair proved, according to Wyman, that "the fine line between the two was blurring," the underground "tried not only to keep them clear, but to make a big deal out of which side of the line you were on."
Albini, bless his contrarian heart, would have none of this, and he wrote a letter to the editor that ran under the headline "Three Pandering Sluts and Their Music Press Stooge." As concerned as Albini was with deriding how Phair and the rest sounded, he was equally obsessed with the mechanics of their rise to fame and the economic structure of the industry that supported them. It provoked strong reactions at the time: letters responding to it appeared in the Reader for months after Wyman's initial column, and they sketched out almost every possible permutation: pro-Albini, anti-Wyman; anti-Albini, pro-Wyman; and, a favorite, anti-Albini, anti-Wyman.
Recalling what the Reader refers to on its Web site (where the correspondence is archived at www.chicagoreader.com/hitsville/pander.html) as "The Great Steve Albini Letters-to-the-Editor Debate" makes me feel a great deal older than I'd like. This is not so much because of the years that have passed but because it's hard for me to re-create the passion I once felt about the actual substance of Albini's argument, which concerned the corruption of major labels and the importance of indie ones. My ability to argue this point seriously no doubt had something to do with the earnestness that is endemic to undergraduates. Looking back, I think it also stemmed from the relative hopefulness I--and others--had that an indie revolution really was possible. It wasn't long after the year punk broke, remember?
Since 1993, though, the already dismal picture of corporate consolidation and tightly controlled radio playlists has worsened. The 1996 Telecommunications Act set the stage for a massive shift in radio station ownership. A study by the Future of Music Coalition--a think tank/lobbying group founded by Simple Machines impresario Jenny Toomey--found that from 1996 to 2002, while the number of radio stations increased by 5.6 percent, the number of owners decreased by 33 percent. One company, Clear Channel, grew from 40 stations to controlling more than 1,200--30 times the limit set by Congress under the previous guidelines. Playlists themselves have also become more homogeneous, suggesting, if nothing else, that Wyman was correct in contending that there is no difference between what's "popular" and what's "alternative." The same Future of Music Coalition study showed that what's played in "rock" and "alternative" formats now overlaps by as much as 60 percent--a 20 percent change since 1996. And just five media conglomerates control 80 to 100 percent of the releases that comprise those playlists.
There's more music out there than what's on the radio, of course, but the optimism of '93 was all about believing that radio could get better, that music could be good and popular. I grew up in a town where you practically had to special order Pixies albums, so seeing Nevermind on sale at the Coconuts in Hyde Park seemed, at the time, like the start of a revolution. Albini never bought this, and he laid out why in excruciating detail in his much reprinted Baffler essay "The Problem With Music." You may start hearing cool stuff on the radio, Albini argued, but the structure of the industry is such that it wrings creativity out of its artists. There's too much money to be made to risk taking chances.
At the same time, the music industry is suffering from an unprecedented slump in sales. According to Billboard, U.S. album sales fell 10 percent in 2002, and as of March of this year were down another 10 percent. Basically, there is less and less music on the radio and it sounds more and more the same. Apart from this, the current downward trend in sales has put added pressure on companies to look at other ways to deliver profits to shareholders: An analyst quoted by Billboard two months ago predicted the potential for "one more consolidation on a global basis" among major record labels.
All this makes Liz Phair's embrace of the mainstream more understandable--and the generally poor quality of the result even more tragic, because Liz Phair is awful even by mainstream standards. Of course, Phair has a pat answer for the bad reviews she's already been getting. She's told reporters that she expects some fans to reject her new album because, as the New York Times wrote, "the alt-rock establishment" will think "that she has sold out."
She did, but for people who really care about music and how it's made, Phair's sellout is hardly the one we should worry about.