"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!

Maura: So I went to her site and I checked out the song that was streaming for free, which is called “Bollywood.”

Maura: I sort of cringed when I read the title, and, well…

Seth: It is an odd way to advertise this album, that song.

Maura: It is!

Maura: But you know I also think it was a very Internet-savvy way to do so?

Seth: Hm.

Seth: As in, “Look, Internet — I’ve set myself on fire”?

Maura: Yeah.

Maura: I mean, it certainly got people talking! But the thing is it got people talking in a very, well, “Internet” sort of way.

Seth: So bad publicity = good publicity?

Maura: Well, “publicity.”

Seth: Which the album itself anticipates and mocks!

Maura: Yes!!

Seth: (The Internet method of flaming hatred in aesthetic commentary, that is.)

Maura: I am viewing it as a sort of metacommentary on music culture and how it’s mutated since the Girlysound days.

Maura: It has these really absurd moments.. The first time you hear Phair’s voice on the album, it’s distorted; she’s “playing” her voice of self-doubt.

Seth: But I will disagree with you on metacommentary.

Seth: I think it’s slightly something else. It’s about burning down a persona — or a way of being known for approaching your art.

Maura: Oh, yes!

Maura: Smash the retro state.

Seth: I think this is her (Prince) “Black Album,” though she actually had the balls to release it.

Seth: “Bollywood” is her “Dead On It.”

Seth: (Which is perhaps Prince’s most-mocked track, in that he tries to mock your mid-80’s generic rapper as musically illiterate and sounds absolutely ridiculous while doing so.)

Maura: I like this analogy — especially in light of Prince’s recent comments about the Internet being “completely over.”

Seth: But.

Seth: The thing that people miss about that song (and maybe about “Bollywood”) is that a musician in a state of personal aesthetic pain isn’t necessarily trying to “sound like” something when working in this mode.

Seth: To talk about another track, the poll up at ixlafdsa8r about whether Phair’s rap in “U Hate It” is worse on the groan-scale than Madonna’s much-derided line in “American Life” about “lattes” and “double shottays” misses the point a little bit.

Seth: Because, stupid and cop-outty as it may sound, the line is “meant” to sound like torture to us. I bet it sounds like torture to Phair, too.

Seth: And that self-torture is sorta the point, weirdly.

Seth: Which doesn’t necessarily recommend it as a listening experience. Though it is bracing and sort of hard not to respect.

Maura: “U Hate It” is her basically anticipating every Internet comment by people who only listened to “Bollywood” after seeing a Tweet that she had new material out. It even employs the “you” = “u” Internet shorthand that I, to borrow a verb, hate — except when Prince does it.

Seth: It’s sort of not my favorite thing she does on the whole record, though.

Seth: It’s easy to get out in front of internet rage, because it attends nearly everything. Being smart enough to anticipate it doesn’t take a lot of smarts, at this point.

Maura: Sure. And to be fair, I feel like she’s been anticipating her critics since the Whip-Smart days.

Seth: Which, good god, get out of your own head Liz Phair.

Seth: When you’re performing live, when you’re recording to tape. All the time!

Maura: This could also all be seen as a Teachable Moment for the blog darlings of the current day.

Maura: “This is what happens when you peak early.”

Seth: Also true. But also, just to maybe half take back what I said above, one of the things that people have always responded to most reliably about Phair is her confessional quality.

Seth: In Girlysound through Whip-Smart, and even about young-motherhood and marriagehood on whitechocolatespacething.

Seth: To the extent that people were upset by Eponymous w/Gap Ad Cover and Somebody’s Something or Other, I think it had less to do with The Matrix producing this cut or that one.

Seth: It had to do with people feeling like the Sharon Olds of the indie scene had left the building, and left someone else in her place.

Seth: Me? I kind of thought Gap Ad Cover was a confessional response to feeling insecure in a marriage, having left it, and trying to reassert a sense of self, no matter how contrived. Also, “HWC”!

Maura: I think there has been a Liz Phair Myth that has been pumped up, and it’s gained a lot of steam in recent years.

Maura: That she’s this sort of all-seeing oracle for a certain generation about relationships, etc. Which is sort of the paradox about writing about super-personal stuff!

Maura: Because it’s your story and then you have all these people… glomming on?

Maura: Of course writing personal is better than writing clichés.

Seth: But now she’s confessin’ on a different score.

Next: The score!

Seth: Funstyle is the confession of a musician who’s thoroughly unsure of how to proceed.

Maura: Right.

Seth: This is aesthetic baptism by fire — the weird NIN-like tones of “Bang Bang,” or “Bollywood,” etc.

Seth: And, as you noted on a textual-message posted to the Internet Space Called Twitter (okay NYT?), there is a part of Phair which is very attracted to shiny mall pop, despite the total tonnage of dross-strewn flack she has taken for this proclivity over the last decade or so.

Maura: “My My” is a total, er, homage to Kelly Clarkson’s “Miss Independent.” Which, I should say, is a song I really like!

Seth: Yeah, I think it’s better than the Clarkson song (which I don’t much like, though, so maybe I’m stupid about this).

Maura: There are also a couple of tracks that hearken back to Classic Liz Phair — you could turn this into an EP that doesn’t have the (for lack of a better word) “novelty tracks,” and you’d totally have… an EP that would probably have just landed on the Internet without the “omgwtfbbq” firestorm that was attached to it.

Seth: Give me that tracklist, and I will try to take apart your argument, because I feel that this record is a total closed system. And that no more than one or two of the tracks work outside of their associations with every other song on Funstyle.

Maura: “You Should Know Me,” “Miss September,” “And He Slayed Her,” “Satisfied.”

Seth: “Satisfied” would have been dissed as 2003-sounding.

Maura: Well, I think that’s more of a fault of 2010 production techniques than anything.

Seth: “And He Slayed Her” is an interesting case. It’s mostly comparable to the comeandgetit EP that only the stans have heard. “Miss September” sounds like a Somebody’s Miracle outtake, which would not be a recommendation to many folks.

Seth: “You Should Know Me” is maybe the best no-fuckery track on Funstyle, I would agree. The way the guitar mutates in the last minute is very exciting, as a textural matter.

Maura: I even like “Bang Bang.”

Maura: She played with those super-distorted electro sounds on “Flower,” which is her most famous (infamous?) song, probably.

Seth: Oh, I like it too. But it doesn’t “work” as well if you haven’t already been prepped by “Smoke” and “Bollywood.” etc.

Seth: There weren’t beats, though, on “Flower.” They were gaseous blurps of distortion, but not “beats” per se, right? The “beat” was in the vocal line — or at least that’s where I feel it.

Seth: “1… 2… 3… I… See… Your … Face.”

Maura: I still think there’s a line to be drawn between the two tracks.

Seth: That had not occurred to me at all.

Maura: Someone with more audio-manipulating skills than me needs to do a mashup!

Seth: Or just Choire.

Next: Is she trying to tell us something?

Maura: The cover of the album sort of screams “work in progress,” too.

Seth: Oh, I love that about the album art. It’s just like — fuck you fuckers I’m fucking around so fuck off if you think this is fucking finished or well-hewn in general, for fuck’s sake.

Maura: It’s really hard to not look at this record in the context of how she first came up, and how that rise would be somewhat impossible now!

Seth: Even the compound noun-ness. Girly = fun; sound = style.


Maura: Which is why it kind of sucks / is not surprising that people are seizing on the “omg lol” bits.

Maura: But, as one of the non-Phair characters on the album says, “The trick to happiness is to ignore anything negative you might feel about yourself.”

Seth: Heh.

Seth: I’m cool with all these characters on the record.

Seth: The record executives, the managers, the critics, the self-help gurus.

Maura: Yeah!

Seth: Again, it’s very Prince during his WB-fallout period.

Maura: So do you think she’s going to show up at Matador 21 in Las Vegas with “SLAVE” written on her cheek?

Seth: LOL

Seth: (Is she playing Matador?)

Maura: (As of now, no. But she could RUSH THE STAGE.)

Seth: Day-um.

Maura: Hahaha.

[Extended break about plans for October ensues.]

Maura: So where do you think she goes from here?

Seth: Oh — I think she…

Seth: either figures it out or doesn’t.

Seth: But she’s in a better position to do so based on confronting all these demons forthrightly, which seems to be a source of strength for her.

Seth: Or maybe that’s just what I’m hoping.

Seth: I’d love a 10-song album as venturesome and non-fucked-with as the comeandgetit EP.

Seth: And it feels like maybe this is what she needed to do after Somebody’s Miracle to get in the right head space to do that.

Maura: I think there is always hope when it comes to her!

Seth: Also like Prince!

Seth: So… see you on Friday after the newspaper-distributed Prince CD leaks?

Maura: Yep, I’ll be right here!

Seth Colter Walls has a day job. Maura Johnston thinks about the Internet and music too much.