Tuesday, July 6th, 2010

"Look, Internet — I've Set Myself On Fire": On Liz Phair's "Funstyle"

for whom is the funstyle fun? Over the weekend, Liz Phair had a surprise: 11 new tracks, collected under the title Funstyle, available for purchase at her official site. This release was surprising for reasons that went far beyond its semi-stealth timing! Seth Colter Walls and I decided to figure out "the deal."

Maura: OK, I am ready!

Seth: Well if you "are ready" to talk about this then you are ahead of 99% of the people who have listened to this record from Liz Phair, called Funstyle.

Maura: Hahahaha.

Seth: Maura — why did this happen?

Maura: I think I might be one of the few people who doesn't see Funstyle as a total disaster!

Maura: I actually think it is a pretty interesting "experiment."

Maura: And there are a few good songs on it!

Maura: But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Seth: I see it as a "welcome disaster." What do they call it in aggro capitalism? "Creative destruction?" But continue.

Maura: Let us talk about how this all came to be, first!

Seth: Yes.

Maura: So Liz Phair has had something of a long career, especially if you measure it out in Internet-supernova terms. Exile In Guyville, her first album, came out in 1993, after some demos that she made (under the name "Girlysound") spread their way around the pre-MP3-blog underground. The album was hailed by critics, who loved its vague Rolling Stones motif and Brad Wood's sinewy production and her salty confessional lyrics, and exploded among women who were (or who claimed to be) influenced by Sassy. It was a pretty giant debut. And it deserved to be!

Maura: She followed that up with a series of albums that had, shall we say, diminishing critical returns — often unfairly so. (I love whitechocolatespaceegg, her 1998 album that dealt a lot with motherhood and that got slammed by lots of critics for reasons that read to these eyes like "You had a kid? Ugh, way to be a bonerkiller.") But her biggest backlash moment came with 2003's self-titled album, where she worked with the Avril Lavigne collaborators who go by the name "The Matrix" and sang about playing Xbox while sounding like Hilary Duff. At the time, she said this to EW:

"…I want the other things that go with [stardom]. I want the financial security to stay in California. I'm responsible for my son. I want artistic leverage so if there's cool stuff I want to do, people will greenlight it. I want a ticket to ride so that I can be creative for a lot longer. Otherwise, honey, I'm back in Chicago living with my parents."

Maura: But the experiment sorta-failed. And a couple of years later, she put out Somebody's Miracle, which was mostly offensive because of its blandness. That was followed up by a reissue of Exile, a tour around said reissue, and her legacy exploding, particularly among young women with confessional outposts like blogs.

Maura: Which brings us to Saturday night, when I was sitting on my couch watching "Soapdish." I glanced at Twitter and saw a Tweet from one Tyler Coates: "Just got an email from the Liz Phair listserv that there's a new album available to download on LizPhair.com!"

Next: And oh, boy, was there a new album!

43 Comments / Post A Comment

saythatscool (#101)

Maura and Seth,
Do you guys think Marvin Hamlisch should wear jeans anymore?

Dan Kois (#646)

Wait, according to the poster, she is playing Matador — her name's really tiny at the bottom.

Christ I need new contacts.

Dan Kois (#646)

Oh wait! Now her name's been taken off the poster on Matablog. SO MAYBE IT DIDN'T WORK OUT.

NinetyNine (#98)

Not anymore.

KarenUhOh (#19)

Poor Liz. Hard to think of many artists so obsessively doting on not giving a shit about their legacies. Makes you wonder about that lack of giving one.

Reminds me, back in '03 Christgau sent me a message about Liz' eponymous, reviled release of that year:

The response to Liz Phair is shaping up to be the worst moment in the history of rock criticism–so far. Could get worse.

Liked to think, at the time, he was onto something. But it's been a good five years since I listened to the record, so no idea how the theory held up.

I would think that it's definitely gotten worse since then, too.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

LOVE that record. Well except for "My Favorite Underwear" and the other ew moments.

spanish bombs (#562)

Christgau likes Liz a little too much for his own good. Although I enjoy many songs off of later albums, the guy gave Self-Titled an A- and Somebody's Miracle three stars! (Hopefully just out of five.)

Matt (#26)

I would like Weezer's Green Album and Jay-Z's Kingdom Come discussed along these lines, too.


jolie (#16)

#ahem #tag-conceit-ripper-offer

Matt (#26)

I need a Dodgeball to keep track of who owns what on the internet.


NinetyNine (#98)


NinetyNine (#98)


Brad Nelson (#2,115)

#don't let go y'all #oooh-whoa-whoa

Matt (#26)

I am driving up to Baltimore right away to suggest the newest mixtape sensation to all the hippest underground DJs: HASHTAG RAP. We've already got the dance all worked out!


Andy Hutchins (#376)

This is possibly the longest discussion of Liz Phair's career I've ever read. And it was good!

petejayhawk (#1,249)

You know what makes me feel old? Exile in Guyville came out when you were still in diapers.

Wait, so are either of you defending that Bollywood song? Once I listened to it, words reading stop sense making.

(which is to say, I listened, then made above comment, and am now going to finish reading)

NinetyNine (#98)


Seth: Oh – I think she…
Seth: either figures it out or doesn't.

Dude, you gotta be wary of such dogmatic positions; they can come back and bite you on the ass.

Brad Nelson (#2,115)

"You had a kid? Ugh, way to be a bonerkiller."

This is definitely how I read the reaction to whitechocolatespaceegg. Which was later legitimized with the self-titled's ULTIMATE INDIE BETRAYAL.

But I side with the ILX contingent that enjoy the self-titled album and agree that mall-pop is pretty awesome. I also really like that one song off of Somebody's Miracle about alcoholism.

Brad Nelson (#2,115)

Also apparently this early in the morning I do not understand how plural forms work.

Tyler Coates (#451)

I'm as excited as the next guy about any new Liz Phair. I believed her when she said she collaborated with The Matrix because it was her job and she needed to support her kid (and I believed her later when she said that it was the pressure of the record label). I didn't mind about half of the songs on Somebody's Miracle because, while sometimes bland and at other times still fairly poignant (see: "Table for One" and "Leap of Innocence"), it sounded like Liz Phair. I always said that I'd rather hear Liz Phair singing a pop song on the radio than no Liz Phair at all (because I actually didn't mind "Why Can't I" – it's a nice pop song, even if it's no "Fuck and Run").

But I honestly couldn't get through this album, not because I felt "betrayed" as a Liz Phair fan (that was what people said when her 2003 album came out), but because I don't think it's good music. I just can't listen to it.

Liz Phair has always been an introspective song-writer. That's what critics loved about Guyville and what they hated about her later albums: the subject matter started to bore everyone. What can a forty-something artist write that will appeal to a youth-obsessed industry (I'm including "indie rock" critics in that group – eventually Feist, Bat for Lashes, and St. Vincent may very well write about things that they don't "get").

I think it's great that she's trying to experiment, but why sell this album? Is she going to make money off of this? Is she going to tour in support of it? Is she testing the waters or is she saying, "It's 2010 and I'm rapping now"?

People are comparing this to her Girlysound recordings, which are awesome as demos. If you look at them in the context of what ended up on Guyville, however, they show that she needs an editor, someone to take her ideas and mold them into something great.

One nice thing, I suppose, is that Liz is actually making something rather than posting tweets about how fucked up her career has been. So, hooray for that! You can't acknowledge that she's been pigeonholed and passed around from label to label without any idea of who she should be marketed to, so I hope she can figure out a way to do that successfully and make a proper album again the way she wants to.

Tyler Coates (#451)

You have to acknowledge she's been pigeonholed, etc. I wrote that quickly. I have so many thoughts!

jolie (#16)

"I Have So Many Thoughts!" would be a great name for a Liz fan blog.

NinetyNine (#98)

Also: expressing disappointment with Phair's career arc != Lockstep Pitchforkism.


MikeBarthel (#1,884)

It's kind of crazy that she's now made three albums that resolutely refuse to sound like what people want her to sound like. (Except for the EP that came out with the ST, which was pretty good.) It's especially impressive given that she did that reissue in the middle of the whole thing. I dunno, I was a giant defender of the ST at the time, but it's gotten very hard to listen to. Maybe she's become bloggy in the sense that she gives us intense bursts of things to talk about that aren't very interesting a few years later. It's this uncomfortable mix of admirable and unsatisfying.

elegantfaker (#1,646)

Dear Liz Phair: Cunning! Thought I would shell out $5.99 for your album out of loyalty to our shared history, instead of tracking it down on the torrents? WRONG. I saw Tyler's review on Tumblr; I'm not stupid. So you're still not getting any money out of me — and you probably never will.

Look, Liz. I get it. This is your career and stuff. But you know what? "Bollywood" makes me think you've decided to become some sort of latent, snarky Laurie Anderson wannabe. And you know what? That's really, really, really depressing.

luv, elegantfaker

KarenUhOh (#19)

I wonder if she's ever been happy with anything she's done.

Emily (#20)

like a vine that keeps climbing higher

KarenUhOh (#19)

Like relieving a headache.

skahammer (#587)

When desire was her chosen topic, she pwned the entire world of female rock-identified singer-songwriters. And most of the male ones too.

Ok, so it turned out that state was temporary. But that's still fine: I wouldn't wish a state of permanent unfulfilled desire on anyone. And lot of people never even conceive of writing an album as good as Guyville.

So Liz Phair's greatness was a historical artifact rather than an act of overwhelming creative will. But I suggest that isn't really too hard to accept. At the very least, it doesn't require twisting oneself in knots to find quality in anything she's done after whitechocolatespaceegg, anyway.

spanish bombs (#562)

The NYT is correct. Saying "tweet" makes you sound stupid, even on a blog.

zidaane (#373)

She was slightly annoying always bringing her Chihuahua into the Rainbow Club w/ Nash Kato and the two of them acting like they were too cool for the room.

I had no clue who they were but I always wondered if they had jobs cause they were there like every fucking night.

"Hey- the annoying chic with the dog is here again.
With that heroin looking dude."

Tyler Coates (#451)

According to the doc she made to go along with the re-release, she hung around hoping people would buy her beer because she couldn't afford it.

Tyler Coates (#451)

Also, everyone I've encountered who knew her in Chicago in the early '90s do not paint a very flattering picture of her. She's an idol I think I never want to meet.

zidaane (#373)

She anchored the end of the bar. Not a trait I attribute to interesting people.

ratgirl (#5,896)

maybe she expected the Spanish Inquisition?

I think Maura's point about peaking too early is a good one; especially in the case of so seemingly insecure an artist. Liz Phair is a "Teachable Moment" of what not to do with success. Which is obsess over it / yourself until you crush the life of what made your work good in the first place. That is, until she finally does pull her shit together again for real. Which could happen!

I'm loving just how much of a "Fuck You" to everyone this record is. Liz is back to being funny and bitchy and that gives me hope even if most of this record is failed experiments and goofiness. (You Should Know Me, And He Slayed Her, and Miss September are really good though!) I think this record is something she needed to make to clean out all the record industry/press bullshit from her system and her next "real" official record (She's on ATO now I think) will be back to the Whip-Smart/WCSE style with a dash of the last decade's pop stuff.

Small detail that made me laugh: The album's genre in iTunes: Indie.

joeks (#5,805)

The problem with things like "U Hate It" is that, in fact, I don't hate it. I don't care about this album at all and I doubt I will ever hear any part of it, ever. Telling me "fuck you" when I'm not even paying attention only goes so far.

Interesting discussion, though!

Traphix (#6,000)

Been listening to music now for many, many years, and the opinions of others don't move me much…if at all. Just use my own ears, and "compared to what" doesn't cut. The new Liz is just as cool as all the old Liz. This woman is one of the greatest songwriters working now. Bollywood and U Hate It and the other "novelty songs" are right out of the Zappa/Mothers school of FTRC (yeah, that's fuck the record company) songwriting, and only pups with no heritage in their heads could fail to understand that. Could any of the self-appointed critics here write a song half as cool as Bang! Bang! or And He Slayed Her? And to you Rainbow Club hangers out, what is wrong with you to NOT buy a beer for the artist formerly known as
the next big thing? Guaranteed — LP's worst mess is cooler than your coolest day. So there — smoke on that.

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