BY ELIZABETH BARKER
A little while ago I found this absolute goldmine of a Geocities site, and read through 37 magazine/newspaper articles written about Liz Phair in the mid-'90s. I learned that Whip-Smart was nearly titled Jump Rope Songs, and that Liz quit smoking in part by eating green apples all the time. I found a thing where she talks about her first kiss ("In freshman year, I had to French-kiss, and it was totally disgusting. It took me a weekend to get over it"), and some dirt about going to summer camp with Julia Roberts ("She was tall and bossy and fun....We stopped speaking because she was always calling me collect, and it pissed me off. I'm like, 'What are you fucking calling me collect for? Your parents are rich enough'"). And I read beautiful Liz quotes like this one, from LA Weekly in '93: "I got exiled from the indie crowd because I have a lot of mainstream trappings, a lot of obnoxious tendencies for the sake of reacting against indieness, embracing Diet Coke and beaches and convertibles."
Another good thing I came across was this little bit from a Chicago Tribune article published right after Whip-Smart was released:
The songs on Exile and Whip-Smart rarely embrace one emotion, their "raw honesty" seldom can be distilled into bumper-sticker platitudes. Instead, the overall mood is one of ambivalence and irresolution, each song like one view from a merry-go-round, the perspective ever-changing.
I agree about Liz Phair being a person of emotional depth and complexity, but what I love most is the idea of Whip-Smart being a merry-go-round. I'm picturing some grandiose carousel, with lighted mirrors and oil paintings and a chariot, and the detailing on every horse's mane is like the baroque curlicues of some extravagantly frosted birthday cake. Whip-Smart is a very ornate album, with lots of goodies and treasures and prizes packed inside; I think you could listen forever and still keep noticing some little hidden gem you hadn't picked up on before. Here is everything I love about it right now:
i. CHOPSTICKS. "Chopsticks" is 110 words long and it's got more drama and intrigue than basically any novel I read this year. The part I want to zoom in on here is when she sings "It was 4 a.m. and the light was gray, like it always is in paperbacks." So much of why I love Whip-Smart has to do with light quality, with the way it lights up the inside of your brain. The light in "Chopsticks" is drab but for most of the album it's so bright and shiny; it even has the words "shiny old bauble."
A while back I had an idea about writing some big thing about the qualities of light I associate with my favorite music. Stuff like: "Murmur by R.E.M. sounds like golden-hour sunlight filtered through a jar of honey left on the windowsill of some rickety old house in the country, on a blessedly non-humid day in late August." But with Whip-Smart it would be hard to land on just one type of light. Sometimes the songs sound like spelling out your name with a burning sparkler, sometimes they're twinkle lights on a Christmas tree long after Christmas is over, sometimes they're the shine of a girl's lips when she's just put lipgloss on. Exile in Guyville sounds like a very dark room almost all the way through, but Whip-Smart feels like every type of light you could imagine, and that's why I love it best.
ii. SUPERNOVA. Freshman year of college my best friend was a poet and mostly listened to suburban-poet-girl music, like [REDACTED]*. My friend had attitude about Liz Phair; I remember her telling me the line "Your lips are sweet and slippery like a cherub's bare wet ass" was uncouth. When you're 17 and your best friend doesn't love the same songs as you, it makes you defensive, you want to prove you're right. Now that I'm way older than 17 I know for certain that Liz Phair is a supreme poet, with her lyrics about playing jacks and gilded grass, Beatle boots and platform shoes, Alice falling down the rabbit hole, Rapunzel as a boy, lions and tigers and panthers and snakes. Liz Phair changed my head about what you're allowed to make poems about, and the answer is: anything that fascinates you. Also I like poems best when they're about the physical experience of being alive.
*I typed the name of a particular singer/songwriter here but can't bring myself to actually post it, since shit-talking other female singer/songwriters seems contrary to the spirit of Liz Phair. Liz is always sticking up for the ladies.
iii. SUPPORT SYSTEM. Whip-Smart came out right before I fell into my first-ever love situation, and I listened to "Supernova" all the time and tried to make it about him. I knew the guy I'd gotten wasn't even half as great as the "Supernova" guy, but the rhythm of the riff shook my head up and made it fizzy; it bent my feeling for him into something grand and cinematic. But then the CD moved on to "Support System," and I felt so much more at home in that emotional landscape: frustrated and eye-rolly but still kind of la-la-la about it, if only to propagate the myth of your own self-containment.
iv. X-RAY MAN. My fave is the way she sings the words "cheap unpleasant desires" in that low goofy voice. The dude in "X-Ray Man" is bad news but he was much less threatening to my 16-year-old self than any of the guys on Guyville, the ones who steal your car and your horse and your house, who tell you you're not worth talking to, who are forever one foot out the door. The disappointment in "X-Ray Man" is very low stakes, almost like testing the waters of being let down. Maybe the reason we love Liz Phair so much is she taught us how to deal with dude-related disappointment with imagination and poise - something that goes beyond just saving face, and moves toward self-transformation.
v. SHANE. When I was 17 I went through a phase of listening to all of Whip-Smart every single morning before school. It was late winter, and some of the listening happened under the covers, procrastinating getting up and waiting till the last possible second to leave my little blanket cave. Hearing Liz Phair sing "You gotta have fear in your heart" 25 times in a row every morning for however many months did something to my head, so now when I hear "Shane" it's like hypnosis - an automatic return to being 17 and totally lazy with almost zero consequence.
One of the things I miss most about being young is the freedom to let life grind to a halt in winter, and some of the songs I value most are the ones with a similar sort of longing. Like Kurt Cobain singing "I miss the comfort in being sad," or Lana Del Rey singing "Miss doin nothin most of all," or like a perfect melting-together of those two kinds of missing. That is where "Shane" exists for me.
vi. NASHVILLE. I used to write a novel about a girl who was in love with her best friend who was married to someone else. The point of view alternated between the girl and the guy, and in one part told from his POV he's lying in bed, listening to his wife getting ready for work very early in the morning (she's a schoolteacher, he's a bartender). He's mostly asleep but tuned into the sounds of her getting ready for the day, like lipstick tubes and compacts clacking against each other as she roots around her makeup bag, and the roar of the hair dryer and the spritz of her hairspray and daytime perfume. I was in love with the idea of a dude being low-key enchanted by those sounds, by all the things women do to make themselves pretty. I like to go around thinking men are so beguiled by things like a lipstick smudge on a styrofoam coffee cup, or the precision it takes to apply mascara in the visor mirror of a moving car.
Anyway: the lying-in-bed scene was a total ripoff of the pre-chorus to "Nashville," the line that goes "I can't imagine it in better terms than naked, half-awake, about to shave and go to work." Getting let in on all the little rituals people perform to get themselves ready to go out into the world is one of the sweetest presents. Even if you're a cad like the boy I wrote a book about, you could never take it for granted.
vii. GO WEST. Whenever I hear "Go West" nowadays it sweeps me into that scene from Walking and Talking by Nicole Holofcener, the part when Catherine Keener's stalking Kevin Corrigan down the street and "Go West" plays in the background. In a few of those old magazine articles I found, there's something about how Liz Phair wanted to make Whip-Smart into a movie - I'm guessing maybe a visual album, a proto-Lemonade. She directed the video for "Supernova" and it's a gas; her ouija-board acting is very on point. In some alternate universe the Whip-Smart movie exists and it's fantastic, and Liz Phair went on to make lots of other movies, possibly with a Nicole Holofcener-y vibe: Jennifer Aniston's character in Friends with Money seems very Phair-ian to me, like how she's always stoned and scamming luxury face cream from department-store makeup counters. And I'm constantly trying to find some other movie that feels a least a little bit like Desperately Seeking Susan, and I bet Liz Phair could really knock that out of the park. Something dreamlike and punk-adjacent and glam and slightly screwball, a fantasy for little girls to fall in love with and keep going back to their entire lives.
viii. CINCO DE MAYO. There's that line "I ain't no pleasure hound" but I dunno: I kind of deeply want Liz Phair to skew toward the pleasure-hound side of things. In my exhaustive Whip-Smart research I found some commentary from an indie-label owner who worked with her pre-Exile, and he says how she reminds him of that "famous Greil Marcus quote about Rod Stewart, something about how he wanted to be a rock star and all that entailed - sitting by the pool, having sex with groupies and snorting coke - and if he had to write great songs to do it, he was perfectly willing to write them."
I think that's supposed to be an insult, but now I just love Liz Phair more (and Rod Stewart too!). One fun detail about the making of Whip-Smart is how when Liz and the band were recording in the Bahamas they spent a lot of time lounging poolside and drinking rum & orange juice. If Whip-Smart were a state of existence it might be lying on a plastic chaise lounge by an in-ground pool when someone's parents are out of town, drinking something terrible like Boone's Farm Blue Hawaiian, happily tanning and totally free.
ix. DOGS OF L.A. The main thing this song means to me is some memory of walking through Harvard Square on a winter night with my best friend when I'm 16 or 17, and singing the chorus to "Dogs of L.A." together out of nowhere, like you do sometimes when you're a kid. My other major best-friend memory involving Liz Phair has to do with going to see Pearl Jam at the Boston Garden two days after everyone found out Kurt Cobain died, and coming home very late at night and watching 120 Minutes in my attic bedroom and Liz Phair was the guest, and she talked about starstruck teenage girls coming up to her donut shops and how she just wants to tell them I'm you! - which is the thing that made me start to love her. It was a cool and intense night and I saw the video for "Miss World" by Hole for the first time and felt like some things were beginning instead of just dying. We drank Diet Cokes at 1 a.m. and watched 120 Minutes till the end, and did not go to school the next day.
x. WHIP-SMART. In this Stranger piece where Liz gets interviewed by a bunch of 10-year-olds, she says how "Whip-Smart" is a feminist song because it's about raising her son to understand what it's like to be a girl. Speaking of feminism - oh my god there is soooooo much horrifying garbage in all those rock-magazine articles from 25 years ago. Some of the most terrible sentences I've read include:
-"It also helped that Phair was bridging a gap between the hairy-armpit sensuality of PJ Harvey and the college girl tetchiness of Juliana Hatfield"
-"She is neither a wiggy sexual penitent like Sinéad O'Connor, nor a kohl-eyed tough cookie like Chrissie Hynde, nor a fragile, trembling forest nymph à la Tori Amos, nor just one of the guys like Breeders' Kim and Kelley Deal - and certainly not a self-obsessed cartoon like Madonna."
-"Phair is unique among her women-who-rock colleagues, shunning the humorless, man-hating axis of riot-grrrldom as surely as she rejects that of ether-dwelling, confessional folkiehood."
The same dude who wrote that first sentence referred to Juliana Hatfield as "tetchy" in another article, and after I finished going OK WHAT THE FUCK DOES TETCHY MEAN (it's "irritably or peevishly sensitive"), I dug up some old Courtney Love quote I love. It's from a Spin article in 1994, and it's her telling Dennis Cooper: "Björk is seen as the Icelandic elf child-woman. But Björk wants to be seen as more erotic. And I'm like, 'Why?' Elf child-woman is a good job."
I don't know what point I'm working toward here except that while I'm violently allergic to the idea of categorizing women as cookies or cartoons or nymphs, I do like the idea of women assigning themselves some kind of job and milking that for all its worth. I like it when women take the money and run.
xi. JEALOUSY. The reason I ended up at that Geocities site is I was looking for this Details article, where Liz Phair breaks down the meaning of every single line in "Jealousy." She mentions stuff like Puck from The Real World San Francisco, "The Forbidden Drawer," women playing power games in restaurants, a big piece of cake lying in the middle of a road. I remember reading that when it was first published and I've read it dozens of times since then: it's something that I wish more songwriters would do, instead of throwing out that super-generic line about not wanting to reveal the meaning behind their songs, so as not to rob the listener of their own lyrical interpretations. So many artists I work for give me that line, and it seems so short-sighted. Like, I don't know - maybe allow for the possibility that people can hold a number of things in their mind at once? If anything, it just makes me love a song more to know what it means to the person who wrote it. And I agree hugely with what Amanda Petrusich said in her big piece on Courtney Barnett a few years back: "I am often wary of artists who can't understand what their own work means once it's out in the world, the ones who punt on the 'What's this song about?' question, as if answering it might somehow tarnish the listener's experience - as if they are not just a listener themselves now." BOOM.
xii. CRATER LAKE. Getting back to the Dennis Cooper profile on Hole, the last paragraph has a quote that means a lot to me:
All I ever wanted, ever, was to make rock music. Whether it was in the back of a Camaro smoking pot and listening to Journey with some guy who was trying to make out with me, or whether it was the first time I heard the Pretenders. Fuck, Chrissie Hynde really saved me, you know, because she manifested it. She was a pragmatist.
When I went back and read the profile I realized I'd gotten that quote messed up in my memory: my brain had scrambled it into something about Courtney Love smoking pot in the back of a Camaro with some guy who's trying to make out with her, and the Pretenders are on the radio and she's just off in her head, wishing she was Chrissie Hynde. Which is more romantic - if a little on-the-nose, in a ham-fisted rock biopic sort of way - but I like her point about pragmatism. Liz Phair's a pragmatist too, even if she pretties it up sometimes, with her nursery-rhymey melodies and her dreamy voice and shiny guitars. "Crater Lake" is my favorite on Whip-Smart cuz it hits this weird balance of pragmatic and self-lionizing, which seems like a very Chrissie Hynde dynamic to me. It's the perfect song to play when you know you're not going to get what you want, but you're still able to twist the narrative to feel at least briefly glorious.
xiii. ALICE SPRINGS. To me this is a song about being bored with your city. When I lived in Boston and knew I was going to leave, I figured I'd never be bored with a city again. But the truth is Los Angeles is boring too. Every city in the world is boring. "Alice Springs" sounds like lying on my friend Lisa's apartment floor on an obnoxiously beautiful Saturday afternoon when I'm hungover and 25, annoyed about not running into the guy I liked at the bar the night before. It sounds like iced-coffee icemelt & Parliaments ashed in Tecate can or a dead candle, watching movies and falling asleep and then waking up and getting ready to go out and do it all over again, because what else are you going to do? The point is she goes out of her way to find that lame-o pot of gold.
"A lot. I think she kicked a huge rough-hewn path through the jungle and we're all tiptoeing behind her saying, 'Look at the pretty flowers.' Madonna made it possible for me to be interpreted correctly. There's nothing I could do now that would be over-the-top. She's like the motorboat and we're all water-skiing like the Go-Go's on the back of it. Maybe PJ's whipping out of the wake and I'm sitting in the back going, [she smokes an imaginary cigarette] 'Yeah, cool.'"
Exile in Guyville came out when I was 15 so in some ways I take Liz Phair for granted - her music's been there for most of my life. And now there are all these younger songwriters who've never lived in a Liz Phair-less universe, and they don't have to tiptoe: they just make what they want with this epically wide sense of what's possible. It's really sweet to see and hear Liz Phair talk about how stoked she is about the presence of those songwriters, like this Pitchfork thing of her hanging out with Snail Mail, or the time she addressed Halsey as "you diamond girl" on Twitter. So instead of water-skiing behind Madonna on a motorboat it's more like the merry-go-round thing again, the menagerie kind of carousel where it's not just horses but also lions, giraffes, goats, rabbits, seahorses, zebras, tigers, cats - whatever on Earth you feel like riding that day.