Few in 1993 would have ever believed that singer-songwriter Liz Phair -- debuting that year with the indie sensation, Exile in Guyville -- would one day score a Top 40 single ("Why Can't I?") co-written by a trio of behind-the-scenes pop songwriters.
Then again, few would have believed that, a year later, she'd score a Rolling Stone cover story. Back then, Phair became the queen of the indie scene, having wowed some 200,000 music fans with Exile -- a purported song-by-song answer to the Rolling Stones classic Exile on Main Street -- which was simultaneously lo-fi and ambitious, confident and vulnerable, sexy and serious.
Fast forward to 2003 when, after two albums (Whip-Smart, Whitechocolatespaceegg) that were not as well-received as Exile, Phair decided to go pop with her fourth, self-titled album, which used the talents of the Matrix, a team of songwriting collaborators most famous for penning Avril Lavigne's hits. With her sexy promo pics and radio-ready hits, she seemed to make a very clear statement: I want this album heard.
It was heard, all right. No sooner had the advance copies stopped playing in the critics' stereos than the (often scathing) reviews bombarded the music press. The New York Times called it "career suicide," prompting the artist to answer the review with a Chicken Little letter to the editor. L.A. Weekly published not one but four different commentaries about the album. Online music source Pitchfork gave it a 0 out of 10. A second wave of articles aggressively defending her followed.
Now that the hubbub has largely died down, Phair seems to enjoy philosophizing about the press' obsession with her. "It was the Oberlin [College] way: make provocative art and spark a collective discussion," she says. "What is it about older women, sexuality, commercialism, artists, the exchange between art and commerce -- what is all this stuff about? I come from a politicized, undergrad background, and so [I'm] into that. If you've touched a nerve, you've done your job."
Most pop artists would have been protected by their publicists and kept response to a minimum. Phair did exactly the opposite -- for every published lambasting, she was responding to the criticism in another interview.
"I felt like, honestly, people had issues to be worked out," she says. "Seriously, some of the people got so hyper about stuff. It was clear to me that something else was going on. It wasn't just about the record. So what, you hate the record? Don't buy it. No problem. But there was this whole, 'What does Liz Phair stand for?' and I'm kind of learning that along with [the journalists]. I'm not the Liz Phair doll in real life."
Much of the artist's motives with Liz Phair were rooted in her attempts to ditch her label, Capitol, and be more "entrepreneurial", as she puts it. But when that didn't happen, she decided that if she couldn't beat them, she'd use their resources to accomplish her goals. If some were crying "sellout", she was proving them right, but less figuratively and more pragmatically. She now looks at Capitol as a "business partner" available to her.
Not surprisingly, Phair looks forward to her next musical endeavor being a little more effortless -- both artistically and promotionally. "I really enjoy writing my stupid little songs," says Phair. "I don't know, maybe I've always wanted to put out [something] stupid and simple that appeals to me. But I don't think I want to work that record!"